TEXT AND PHOTOS BY NIRMAL HARINDRAN/MUMBAI
Two young women from Mumbai await their next big test, the finals of India’s first beauty pageant for trans-women, to be held in New Delhi this August. Born as male children to families in small-town India, the soul-sisters have had gender reassignment surgery and have found careers to pursue in Mumbai. And their hope now is to earn recognition for their work and talent, not just for their misidentified gender.
NAVYA SINGH SODHI, born Parvinder Singh Sodhi
Age 26. Actor, model, Kathak dancer
Originally from Katihar (Bihar) and currently lives in Mumbai
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Last year, Navya became the first trans-woman to walk the ramp for the annual Lakme India Fashion Show. Only, when she sashayed down the ramp for designer Kanika Vora, nobody noticed anything unusual about her. Navya was exactly like any of the other female models.
Born Parvinder Singh Sodhi, she was the first baby and her mother raised her like a girl briefly, having always wanted a girl child. But by the time she turned 5, the little boy found himself to be different from the other boys around and her family, including her mother, began to confront her about her choices in mannerisms and clothes.
In her teens, much to her family’s embarrassment in the close-knit Punjabi circles of small-town Katihar, Navya had begun to embrace her identity as a women. A little later, having learnt about gender reassignment surgeries and treatment through a friend, she knew she had to make the journey to Mumbai.
When she came to Mumbai in 2011, the first thing Parvinder did was adopt the name ‘Navya’, the name her schoolmates had used to ridicule her for her girlish ways.
In Mumbai, living with an aunt proved to be a new turning point. “I had to go through abuse and torture during those days. As soon as I arrived, she sent her domestic help away and made me do household chores from cooking for her sons, washing clothes to cleaning the house. She would constantly try to fix my gender issues, telling me one day that I should become a prostitute because that’s the only career for a transgender in Mumbai.”
Navy left her aunt’s home that very day. Supported by trans activist Abheena Ahir, she slowly took up dance as a career. “Abheena madam always asked me to make peace with my family because if your family does not accept you, how can you hope for society to? And if your family accepts your gender, it’s a huge boost of confidence for your inner self,” she says. Emboldened, Navya decided to talk to her mother Paramjeet Kaur.
The results were better than anticipated. Her mother not only accepted her but also came to Mumbai to support Navya through her surgeries and the therapy that followed for over a year. With the help of Hamsafar Trust and other activists, Navya began to get work, starting with small projects including catalogue shoots. Moving up the ladder inch by inch, Navya then bagged a few dance sequences in Bollywood and south Indian movies and TV serials.
In 2016, walking for the Lakme Fashion Week, she realised there were no boundaries apart form the ones she set for herself. Now preparing for India’s first beauty pageant for trans-women only, Navya has no regrets.
SAIBA ANSARI, born Saddam Ansari
Age 23. Model, bar-dancer
Originally from Sahibganj (Jharkhand) and currently lives in Mumbai
Concerned at their little Saddam’s feminine mannerisms and the attention this elicited in the madrassa he attended, the Ansaris packed off their baby boy to Mumbai, hoping that being surrounded by cousin brothers and sisters, and with better educational prospects, Saddam’s gender orientation would simply sort itself out.
But Saiba’s memories of her childhood days growing up in the Ghatkopar suburb of Mumbai are anything but hopeful. “My brothers used to hit me with a cycle chain and belts, ordering me to behave like a boy and not hang around with the girls’ groups in school. I felt angry and helpless. And as they tortured me, I’d wish I had been born a girl.”
At age 12, having just been beaten up and tied up inside the house for a day, Saiba ran away from home. Found sobbing in front of the Haji Ali shrine by a hijra (eunuch) who worked in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red-light district, Saiba would over the next few months find shelter in the locality and was subsequently driven into sex work for a living.
In 2011, she met Navya. The latter was undergoing her gender reassignment therapy and, curious to learn about transgender and intersex peoples’ lives, Navya visited Kamathipura where she happened to meet Saiba. A bond was forged, and as their friendship grew stronger, Navya managed to help Saiba leave sex work and find a job in a dance bar.
Navya looks at Saiba as her own little sister, and is now backing Saiba to excel at the country’s first trans-women beauty pageant.
Pooling her earnings through sex work and with support from friends in Kamathipura, Saiba underwent a gender reassignment surgery too. Navya and Saiba have now found dance as a means to communicate with their soul and aspire to find recognition beyond their misidentified gender, for their hard work and talent.
Navy has done several catalogue shoots, magazine cover shoots and small roles in Hindi serials as well as item songs in movies. Now honing her skills as a Kathak dancer, Navya wants to contribute to the art form without hanging on to the title of being transgender. “When people call me for small roles in movies, they usually call for a transgender character, or it’s an item song. But in modelling I perform as a female model and nothing less than a woman. Recently, I acted in an episode of television serial ‘Savdhan India’, essaying the lead character who is a woman, not a transgender,” Navya says. This gave her confidence that more people in Bollywood will now consider her for female characters.
She adds quickly that she is entirely at ease with her identity of being a trans-woman. “But being a trans-woman is nothing less than being a woman when you look into my soul,” she smiles.
A day before the auditions for their trans-woman beauty pageant, Saiba stumbled upon an opportunity that was many things at once — an agent called to do what they call a ‘dance show’, a somewhat stylised version of the customary wedding dance by a group of transgenders. Some communities continue to invite hijras to dance at weddings, believing this brings good fortune. But doubly exciting for Saiba was the fact that the wedding is in Ghatkopar, not far from the slum she lived in as a child when she first came to Mumbai. Locals and other guests at the wedding cheered and cracked leery jokes as Saiba and her friends danced. Some threw currency notes at her, and she gathered them carefully, just like she would do in a dance bar. She danced as she always does, with pride. She even met some old acquaintances in Ghatkopar, though her former male friends seemed visibly shy to approach her.
“Tomorrow I will be facing a lot of successful people who will be judges at my audition. I’m a bit nervous, because they’re not just any folk walking into a dance bar. But today I’m dancing my heart out here, in the same locality where I was tortured for being girlish as a child,” Saiba says.
On May 19, at the auditions in Versova, Navya and Saiba were both selected for the final round of the trans-woman beauty pageant scheduled to take place in Delhi this August.