By the time Raima Ghosh, 30, learned about cyclone Amphan ravaging her neighbourhood in Barasat (near Kolkata) she had all but given up hope. Stuck in Amnour village in Bihar for months, Raima, a transwoman, knew it would be pointless trying to contact her 60-year-old ailing mother, who is living alone at home. “She hardly uses the phone anyway and I knew she had hardly any balance left to make or receive calls,” says Raima. In the first week of January, when Raima left home for Chapra in Bihar, she was brimming with positivity. A season of Lagan or Launda naach for Raima means about “Rs 50,000-60,000” in cash. “It helps me spend the rest of the year comfortably,” says Raima, who has been a launda dancer for about seven years now.
Lagan or Launda naach, is a popular practice in the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where trans women dance during weddings and religious festivals. According to an article by gender and sexuality webzine, Varta Trust, Lagan season happens twice a year and supports the livelihood for hundreds of transwomen from West Bengal (as also from other parts of India and neighbouring Nepal). And about hundred or more trans women from West Bengal are stuck in different districts of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh because of the lockdown.
According to Joyita Mondal, transgender rights activist from North Dinajpur (West Bengal), these trans women are extremely vulerable. “As it is the practice of launda dancing exposes them to a lot of sexual violence. Over the years, there have been countless cases of repeated violence against launda dancers at these functions,” says Mondal.
Bappa or Bipul Chakraborty, a transgender activist from Kolkata who has attended many launda dancing events in Bihar and UP over the year, claims launda dancers are treated with contempt by local authorities too. “We don’t lodge police complaints because they don’t consider launda dancers as human beings in these small villages. We are seen as a source of entertainment. We are completely dehumanised,” says Bappa.
But now with the lockdown killing all events, they are completely at the mercy of their “maaliks”, agents who get them to their respective villages for dance performances, says Mondal. “These maaliks are the ones who arrange their travel and stay. They also take bookings for performances,” says Mondal.
Sahil Raj, 27, is one such maalik or agent, who runs Ajmeri Musical Group in Amnour village of Bihar. In a good lagan season, he organises 60-70 launda dancing events. This year too was fruitful until the lockdown happened right at the end of the lagan season. “Before we could send the dancers back home, the lockdown happened. There are scores of agents like me in this village itself. I have about five dancers stuck with me. Others have as many too. So there must at least be a hundred such dancers stuck in Amnour. We are trying our best to feed them and keep them safe, but even we have limited means. It’s not easy to feed five extra mouths every day,” says Sahil.
Puja, 24, who has been visiting Bihar for the past seven years for launda dancing events, has started digging into her savings to make ends meet now. “I have spent whatever I had earned here. Now I am living off my meagre savings. Five of us are living in a small room provided by our maalik. We feel ashamed to ask him for things every day. Even we have some self respect,” says Puja, who hails from Gangarampur in North Dinajpur district of West Bengal.
Have they tried boarding any of the shramik trains? “We need to get permission to travel within districts to avail that. The nearest station where such a train can be availed is Patna. That’s a good two-hour ride away. How do we reach there. We are in a containment zone,”says Puja.
Raj, who hails from North Dinajpur district of West Bengal, has tried to board trucks carrying essentials but has been stopped by her maalik. “I am desperate because my mother, who is suffering from cancer, has already missed a chemotherapy date. I need to get back home to tend to her,” says Raj. But maaliks and agents claim they can’t just leave launda dancers on the highways. “How do we know they will reach home safely?” asks Sahil.
Have they approached the local administration? “If we step out we are abused by policemen. They don’t want to listen to us. Even local leaders claim they cannot do anything,”
Repeated calls to the Amnour police station went unanswered.
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