Inside a little room in Kakkanad in the heart of Kochi City, a 25-year-old is getting ready for work. Dressed in a pair of jeans and a top, she rushes out to the Toyota Innova waiting outside, filled with her colleagues.
Sulfi gets down at the Muttom yard, the headquarters of the Kochi Metro where she works as an office assistant. She is one of the 23 trans people employed by the Kochi Metro Rail Limited (KMRL) as their staff. She is a person with an arresting appearance — full lips, big doe eyes, and a head of wavy hair. “Hope you are not getting carried away by my looks as most people are. I am not a woman,’’ she teases. A man who chooses to identify as a woman, Sulfi is a transgender person from Alappuzha, some 100 km away.
From a very young age, Sulfi wanted to be a girl even though she had the physical attributes of a boy. “It was a terrible dilemma. I never wanted to play with boys since I saw myself as a girl. But the girls never accepted me too,’’ she says. While school had its share of unpleasant experiences, her parents were supportive. They also suggested a sex reassignment surgery. But she declined. “There may be people who prefer surgery. But I am happy about the way I am. Does that mean I can’t be a woman if I want to be?’’ she asks.
According to the 2014 judgement of the Supreme Court, she can. The landmark NALSA ruling holds up the rights of the third gender, as well as of an individual to choose the gender she identifies with. Last month, a parliamentary committee report on the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016, criticised the government for ignoring issues of marriage and adoption of trans people — the first government document to recognise civil union in the community.
After her parents had died a few years ago, Sulfi moved in with her sister and her family, who also lived in Alappuzha. It was an uneventful life till a quarrel broke out between her and a girl in the neighbourhood. The latter approached the local police station with a case of molestation, and the cops were at their doorstep. “I had to disclose to everyone in the neighbourhood that I am a transgender; that I am not sexually attracted to women. This let me off the case but made me homeless,’’ she says. Even though her sister was aware of her identity, she turned Sulfi, then a Class X student, out of her home. “It shattered me but I have no regrets. If they had not thrown me out, I would not have applied for a job at the Metro. It opened a new world for me,’’ she says.
She left home in December 2015 — a time she refuses to recollect. “I have been through hell. I had to do a lot of dirty things to stay alive, including sex work. But when you are thrown out of your house, this is perhaps the easiest way to get on with life,’’ she says.
At the Muttom office, she has made friends, after a few initial hiccups. “I had gone into the ladies’ washroom, which some people did not like. But then the supervisor gave strict instructions that such discrimination will not be allowed. It will take time and we can understand that. Nothing changes overnight,’’ Sulfi says.
While the KMRL was hailed for employing trans persons, the end to discrimination is a long way off. Nine out of the 23 people have already quit the job as no one was willing to rent a house to them. KMRL has now arranged a hostel at Kakkanad, run by the local church, where Sulfi and a few others are staying. A few families in Kochi have also come forward to provide space to the community.
Of those who got the jobs, those educated till the secondary level have been employed in ticketing and customer care, while the rest cater to housekeeping and general cleaning. None was given a job to drive a train.
Raga Rangini, 32, works at the ticket counter at the Edapally station and is Sulfi’s friend. “When the Metro job was announced, we were over the moon. This was our first shot at a respectable job. We have only done hard labour and menial jobs before,’’ says Rangini, who is from Thrissur and now lives with her partner in Kochi.
Rangini loves every bit of the new role which she has taken, even if the reactions from the commuters have been mixed. “There was this guy who was so surprised to see me that he went to the next counter. There, too, my friend was sitting. You should have seen his face. We both had a hearty laugh,” she says.
It is the end of the workday and Rangini and Sulfi are about to head home. Since Rangini stays with her partner, she has to get home and cook. Sulfi is waiting for her boyfriend and they plan to watch a movie in the evening.
She might not take a bus to the cinema—a form of public transport, where she has often faced a lot of discrimination. “Usually, we are looked down upon and even thrown out of buses because we are labelled as pickpockets The other day I had taken a bus to work. As usual, no one was ready to share a seat with me. But one woman came forward and sat next to me. She spoke to me. It felt so nice. Such things happen so rarely you know,’’ she says.
Naveen Nair is a freelance writer in Kochi.