She remembers the day they first met. From the moment he walked in through the door around midnight, till the time he left to take the first train back to his place, the walls of her house seemed to have shrunk. He was tall and broad-shouldered, almost towering over her. But equally shy, choosing only to steal glances at her, his brazen persistence to meet now gone. He seemed too close, and, somehow, that didn’t seem to bother her. What was meant to be a 10-minute meeting lasted four hours as they sat talking through the night.
Today, 15 months since, sitting next to Jay Rajnath Sharma in the same house, a one-room tenement in a Kurla chawl in Mumbai, Madhuri Sarode is glad she gave in to her instincts that day. In Sharma, she has found an ideal partner — loving, caring and a stable family man. But to Sarode, his greatest quality has been his unfaltering acceptance of her sexuality: Sarode is a transgender. In what can be termed as a defining moment in the fight for rights for the transgender community, the couple openly tied the knot on December 28 in a temple ceremony.
“He saw me on Facebook and tracked down my number. I asked him if he was aware that he isn’t talking to a woman, and he said he knew of my sexuality from my FB page. Still, for the first one month, I kept deferring. I didn’t know him and he could be anybody, a stalker perhaps. But he kept calling, insisting that we meet once, just once. Finally, I relented. And look at where we are today,” says 30-something Sarode with a laugh, refusing to share her age. “We are both the same age. Just know that we married at the right age, not in our 20s, when we would have been naive fools with rose-tinted ideas of love and companionship.”
In the room, dimly lit by a bulb, the couple look radiant. Sarode looks every bit a new bride, in a red-and-white sari, two mangalsutras around her neck, bright orange sindoor glowing like fire on her forehead. “I don’t like make-up, just kajal and lipstick are enough. But he is a north Indian, and I have to live up to their customs for at least a few weeks,” she says. In a blue T-shirt and denims, Sharma picks her up on that, teasing her about making excuses to dress up and forcing him to do the same around her. Soon, they both burst out laughing.
Theirs is an unusual love story, but it followed a quintessential Bollywood script. The wedding ceremony fanned out into elaborate mehendi, haldi and sangeet ceremonies, garlands were exchanged, pheras were documented by photographers, there was a reception for family and friends. But for Sarode, this was a dream come true. “Marriages do take place in the TG (transgender) community, but never openly. It’s usually a small affair with a handful of friends, a mere exchange of rings or garlands. But I didn’t want that. I wanted to have a proper invitation card, an album of pictures, a wedding outfit, the works, like everyone else. If the Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that transgenders be recognised as the third sex and given equal rights, then why can I not have all these things?” says Sarode, referring to the landmark National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) judgment.
While the NALSA judgment recognised an individual’s right to identify with the gender of their choice and asked the government to design affirmative action policies for the transgender community, there has been little on the implementation front. After a promising 2015 draft bill, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016, in fact, undid a lot of what the NALSA judgment attempted to do.
According to the critique issued by the trans-led NGO Sampoorna, along with a number of other trans and intersex communities from across India, the 2015 version of the draft bill honoured the right of transgender people to self-determine their gender identity and iterated that transgender identity is not dependent on any medical/surgical intervention. “Not only is this lost in the 2016 version, but a totally pathologising and scientifically incorrect definition has replaced the earlier one”. In addition, a committee of gatekeepers have been entrusted with the right to determine who can or cannot be transgender, with the inclusion of a medical officer. The current bill also includes persons with intersex variations under the transgender umbrella.
It is in defiance of this that Sarode decided to marry openly. “I want to set a precedent for the rest of the community. I will soon apply for a marriage certificate as a TG and, if the authorities refuse me one, which I am sure they will, I will take the fight to the court. How long can we wait to be treated as equals, as humans?” she asks.
Sarode acknowledges she is glad for the support from Sharma as well as from their families. But it wasn’t always like this. “When I was growing up, I was often thrashed by my parents and sisters for being effeminate,” she recounts. Born Prakash, a male, Sarode was the youngest of three siblings in a middle-class family. As a child, he loved to wear his sisters’ dresses and dance. He was learning kathak from the age of three and would bag all the top prizes in the dance competitions, be it in the neighbourhood or at school. While the parents were happy about his talent, they detested the fact that their son won prizes while dancing as a girl.
At school, however, Prakash was lucky. “Unlike most other young effeminate boys who get ragged and bullied, I have great memories of my childhood. I had friends among girls as well as boys. Because I got along with the opposite sex, the boys would ask me to introduce them to their crushes.” But college was a different story. Prakash had already started to dress up as a “lady boy”, in male clothes but with long hair. “I would be teased for my ways and I feared being sexually abused. With no support at home, it was difficult to get by.” After completing the first year of junior college, he decided to enroll for distance education and completed his 12th from home.
Despite his family’s discomfort, Prakash chose never to leave them. He underwent his transition at home even though his parents were against the move. “I had seen from an early age the lives of the TGs who ran away. They would end up on the streets, begging, or forced into sex work. I didn’t want that for myself,” says Sarode.
The “TG life”, as Sarode calls it, can be a challenge even after they enter the community. Either abandoned by their family or runaways at an early age, most of them grow up without any access to education or other basic rights. The community needs them to enter the jamaat or “guru-chela” order where pledging allegiance to a “guru” provides them with shelter and a livelihood, usually begging and/or sex work. Part of the earnings go to the guru. “Trains, check nakas, signals, neighbourhoods are all divided between these gurus. But joining this system means living on the edge. If the gurus provide you with shelter, they also don’t hesitate before killing you if they are unhappy. I have seen with my own eyes a TG being pushed off a train because she didn’t pay up her guru for six months,” says Sarode. Then there’s also the usual cycle of extortion and violence at the hands of police officials and the insecurity they battle all the time — most crimes against the community go unreported.
Living at home wasn’t an easier choice but Sarode plays down the difficult times, focussing instead on the positives. “My mother didn’t speak to me for three years. My sisters and father would persuade me to abandon this life. But I knew I could not live as a male.” At this point, Prakash sought out others from his community. He was introduced to the world of TGs by activist Ashok Row Kavi. He joined the NGO Humsafar Trust as a volunteer. On the side, he was performing with local lavani troupes. It was there that he realised his birth name would not do anymore, that, to be accepted as part of the community, he would have to sign up with a “guru” and change his name. “I found a guru who wasn’t in it for money and would guide me in my transition. I was a huge fan of Madhuri Dixit. People used to call me ‘Madhuri Dixit of the TG community’. No performance of mine even today is complete without her song.” That’s how Prakash came to be called Madhuri.
It was around this time that Sarode, who was around 19 then, had her first serious relationship. It was intense and lasted for three years, that is, until Sarode formally began her transition to a transgender. “He loved me till I dressed like a male. But didn’t support me when the time came for me to fulfill my dream. We parted ways and he married a woman,” recounts Sarode.
At home, meanwhile, the situation was tense. Sarode lost her father in 2005. Her job as a performer brought in money, which made her mother relent a bit. “For instance, I was allowed to grow my nails and hair but mom forbade me from piercing my nose and walking in or out of the house dressed as a woman. We all lived in the same house but communication had come to a standstill. I would be quiet and nervous around the house, but a different person when I stepped out,” she says.
After Humsafar, Sarode joined Population Services International (PSI India) and was involved in educating people regarding HIV, AIDS and the use of condoms. “I didn’t want to work for the TG community alone. I knew I possessed skills to do better and this job honed my communication skills. It allowed me a wider spectrum of experience,” explains Sarode who works as a freelancer now, associating herself with a number of NGOs and performance groups. She is also the founding member of Dancing Queens, a transgender performance troupe.
Her real transition, however, began only after her mother’s passing in 2010. “I kept my promise to my mother. But the 13th day after her death was my last day as a male. I attended the prayer service with a pierced nose and announced to my family that I will begin living as a TG, dressed in a sari, from the following day on. I told them that if they don’t wish to support me in this endeavour, they are free to stop visiting me or inviting me for family celebrations.” From that day until now, Sarode has not heard from any of her relatives. But she has found support in her sisters and their families. “It took them a while to understand that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but they came around. As did my neighbours, who attended my wedding and were happy for me,” Sarode says.
While Sharma’s sister has been supportive, his mother is yet to know of the wedding. Sharma says he is holding on for some more time before he comes clean to her. “Our village is quite traditional. So the step I have taken equals rebellion,” confesses Sharma. A resident of Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, he moved first to Nagpur in 2005 in search of employment, and, finally to Mumbai nine years ago. Sarode is not his first relationship — he is familiar with heartbreak, but he doesn’t want to share the story. There’s a tattoo on his arm though that serves as a constant reminder. “I want to have this removed,” he says, embarrassed.
Sharma is aware that persuading his mother, who still lives in the village, will be tricky, but Sarode is confident of winning her over. “She hasn’t seen me so far. Once she does, she will not miss the ‘woman’ in me,” she says. Sharma nods in agreement. “I had many misgivings about transgenders too. They cleared out once Madhuri introduced me to her world.”
Sarode believes part of the blame for the bias against TG lies with the community who don’t make an attempt to mix with society. “The neighbours here don’t know a TG is living among them. But when they do find out, I want them to think, ‘She’s been living peacefully all this while. Why should we have a problem now?’” she says. Although she has had a sex change surgery in 2011, Sarode continues to identify as a transgender in the hope of battling for the community’s rights. “I can get a marriage certificate as a woman. It won’t be difficult. But why should I have to do that?” she asks.
They are yet to settle into the humdrum of daily life. New to the neighbourhood of Boisar, on the outskirts of Mumbai, Sarode is in no hurry to set up her new home. Instead, she takes pleasure in the mundane, discovering the provision stores, selecting and purchasing new tea mugs for the house, planning their trip to Mount Abu next month. She hasn’t given up working, but wants to take a break before she goes back to being a full-time social worker and part-time performer. “Jay insists that I continue my dance performances although it’s a pain to travel 120 km from Boisar to the various venues in Mumbai each time I have a show,” she says, looking accusingly at her husband.
Sharma, a machine operator in a steel goods manufacturing unit, is also aware of the tough time that lies ahead. He is preparing for it by educating himself on the subject. “Once we get the marriage certificate, we will apply for adoption. That will be the next big battle,” he says, confessing that he wasn’t, at first, ready for “all this”. “I told her, ‘Don’t you believe that I will marry you and we will live together? Then why bother about the certificate?’ But she is different from the rest. She doesn’t just live for herself. It’s what made me fall for her in the first place,” he says with a grin.