The cover of Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s Me Hijra, Me Laxmi, the English translation of her bestselling autobiography in Marathi, comes with an axiom: “When you read this, you’ll still remain you. Laxmi’s not just in this book; she’s much more than what’s there between two covers…” Even before the first page is turned, Tripathi, a popular transgender rights activist, actor-dancer and television celebrity, wants to ensure that every part of the book is an extension of her personality: tantalising, colourful and direct. At the launch of the English translation of her autobiography at the recently-concluded New Delhi World Book Fair, Tripathi, 35, towers over everybody in her silk saree, her lips filled in with a shade in deep red, her eyes taking in the crowd of mostly eager, curious men gathered at the Oxford University Press stall to watch her.
“How did you find my autobiography?” Tripathi asks me brusquely. “The first few chapters are difficult to read,” I say and she nods. “Well, that’s life, isn’t it? When we look back on our childhood, we want to remember the good bits. I can’t do that. I was sexually abused when I was seven, because I was so feminine,” she says. “But my life isn’t a tragedy. I was born into an upper-caste Brahmin home, I was treated like a son, I went to college, I’ve had many jobs. I’m not going to sit and cry about what happened, like some Meena Kumari. I’m like Cleopatra — crown yourself honey, don’t wait for the world to do it for you,” Tripathi says, breaking into peals of laughter.
Me Hijra, Me Laxmi is a riotous account of Tripathi’s life. It charts her journey from a young boy confused about his sexuality to his decision to become a hijra and the activism that has formed the basis of her work and socio-political identity. After an abusive childhood and adolescence, a mercurial Tripathi decided to put her foot down against any kind of injustice — whether it is harassment by the police, lecherous men or older hijras who preached against safe sex. She is brutally honest in chronicling the days spent chasing men, fame and money, and the price she had to pay. She becomes a jetsetting advocate for hijras abroad, speaking at conferences that get her “thunderous claps”, working tirelessly and bypassing all temptations. All through to the very end of her memoir, Tripathi is undaunted by fate, unapologetic about her choices, and simply fabulous by nature.
The idea of an autobiography came in 2009 when a Mumbai journalist, Vaishali Rode, met Tripathi for an interview and later proposed to help her write the book. “She lived with me for nearly two-and-a-half years, we talked every day, she got to know the ‘real’ Laxmi,” says Tripathi. The Marathi version was published in 2012 and has now gone into its fifth reprint.
Translated from the Marathi original by academicians R Raj Rao and PG Joshi, the book comes on the heels of another autobiography by a hijra: The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story, V Geetha’s English translation of A Revathi’s memoir in Tamil, published in 2013. The parallels between Revathi and Laxmi’s lives are many: both were born male and experienced gender dysphoria early on, there was rarely an escape from sexual abuse in their formative years, and both underwent a long journey to come into their own. But that is where the similarities end. Tripathi doesn’t care to embrace a singular identity; instead she waxes eloquent about a “hijra soul”. “I’ve been a boy, a homosexual, a drag queen and now a hijra. Put me in any container and I will take its shape,” she says, dramatically.
Tripathi’s life is evidence of that: she began her career as a dancer-instructor and model-coordinator before a stint in Mumbai’s infamous dance bars. In 1998, Tripathi became a hijra. She set up Astitva, an organisation for the support and development of sexual minorities, with her friends Kiran and Atharva Nair in 2006. Two years later, Salman Rushdie would write a piece about her, calling her a “force of nature” in The Half-Woman God, published in the anthology AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India.
For the last decade, Tripathi has been campaigning against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. “It’s nobody’s business what I do in the bedroom, unless you’re there with me, of course. People like Baba Ramdev should stop poking their nose in this business. Baby, when you’re a brahmachari, should you be knowing anything about sexuality?” Tripathi asks her chelas bemusedly. A few men in the crowd titter but shut up when she continues: “The Aam Aadmi Party doesn’t have a single woman in their cabinet! As for all those CCTV cameras, how long do you think it’ll take for somebody to stick bubblegum on them and go ahead and rape somebody?”
With the success of her autobiography in Marathi, Gujarati and now in English, Tripathi feels that there could be a sequel — about the men in her life. “If there is one thing that her autobiography lacks, it is the details about her romantic and sexual life,” writes Rode in the Marathi preface. “It will be about the men I fell in love with, the ones who exploited me and the ones who were exploited by me in turn,” says Tripathi. “If a man wants to fall in love with me, he will. Hain na?” she looks coyly at a young man, who suddenly loses his voice.