The moment I enter the ‘Aneka’ office (an NGO working for the rights of minorities), I find Akkai Padmashali dashing forward to welcome me. Clad in a kurti and a matching dupatta, she flashes a warm smile as she whisks me through the office and leads me to the library.
‘When I was very small, I used to envy girls wearing anklets and drying their long tresses after a bath,’ says Akkai with a faraway look in her eyes, crossing her legs and resting her chin on her hands.
For most of her childhood, she grew up thinking something was terribly wrong with her. Her mother would take her to hospitals and when the doctors proclaimed her absolutely healthy, she would then be taken to temples and mantravadis. "It was torture," exclaims Akkai as she recalls all the exorcisms and medical check-ups she had to endure. "My own mother believed I was possessed because I behaved like a girl. And there were times when I thought my mother was right."
When she was 16, Akkai took up electronics training after she finished her schooling. “I was verbally and sexually harassed in college,” she says, “And the worst part was - when I went to my principal with this issue, he actually blamed me saying all these things happened to me because of how I am.”
After a brief six months of college, she left and started working at Ram Ceramics on St Mark’s road. “Even here, I faced sexual abuse." After a month and half, she left again.
“One day, I was sitting in the bus-stop near Corporation Circle when I saw four transgenders. I was overcome with an urge to talk to them and when I did approach them, they spoke to me with such warmth that I decided right then that I had to be with them - I felt like I finally found where I belonged. However, they told me not to take the path they had. They told me to study and to take care of my family. But how could I, when I was not wanted in my own home? And when I insisted that I wanted to join them, they gave me two options: sex work or begging. And at that tender age of 16, I resorted to sex work. If people only wanted to see me in that light, why not earn a living out of it, I thought.”
For the next four years, she found herself in Cubbon Park every day, scraping a meagre income to take back to her family who was under the impression that she still worked at Ram Ceramics. “Although our profession brought us no self-esteem or dignity, we were like a family,” she recalls fondly, “This was where I met my closest and dearest friend Sana - a transgender like me. We are still best friends to this day.” However, there was always a fear of what the next moment would bring, with rogue cops and local gundas continuously prowling around. “They would demand money and free sex, as and when they wished. And most of the days, we would go back home with about `30 from the `200 or so that we earned,” she says.
In 2004, she heard about an organisation called Sangama which dedicated its cause for the upliftment of sexual minorities and sex workers.
“I was shocked. I had never even imagined that there would be people actually working to help us. The first time I visited the Sangama office, I was met with hundreds of transgenders like me. I was overwhelmed with emotions - I had finally found a home,” says Akkai.
On June 2, 2004, she officially became part of Sangama. After six months of working as a part-time employee, Akkai was promoted to a ‘Community Mobilizer’ - she would campaign to educate sexual minorities about their social and legal rights. “Had I not met the people in Sangama, I would have died 13 years back,” says Akkai, “Three times I had tried to commit suicide. But every time, I would ask myself - ‘If I die, would the problem get resolved? No. So why should I die?’”
On 29 September, 2012, Akkai was invited by the President of India to the swearing-in of the Chief Justice Sri Altamas Kabir at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. “I really think that place is heaven,” Akkai sighs dreamily, “I met many political leaders like Sonia Gandhi and they were all so simple and kind, telling me that people like me should represent the community more often on such occasions.
However, I was taken aback when many of them looked twice at me while passing me in the corridors. I realised that acceptance on the streets was still a long way to go.” And on October 5, 2012, Akkai went through a Sex Reassignment Surgery - the first person to go through this procedure in Karnataka.
On May 4, 2013, she applied for a passport that stated she was a woman. “Previously, as Jagdish (my birth-name) I had received my passport after 38 days of application, as is the usual procedure. But this time, I had to go through eight painful interviews - I was shocked by people’s lack of awareness about sexual orientations and individual choice.” Finally, on 10 September, she received her passport. And even then, not without complications: “The delivery-man refused to believe that the passport belonged to me,” Akkai laughs, “He didn’t want to give it to me until my father produced my identification documents. It was ridiculous.”
And recently, Akkai is one of the singers who have contributed to an upcoming album produced by Anubhav Gupta, head of an NGO called Jeevan Trust. This album - with all the contributing artistes belonging to the transgender community - speaks of the issues faced by this community. “I’ve always loved singing. My grandmother was a Carnatic singer who even won awards and performed in many places. She used to take classes for kids in the neighbourhood but she would never let me learn from her. A few years back, I joined a Sangeetha class. The teacher was a wonderful woman who saw my talent and accepted me as her student. However, all the other students in the class refused to continue learning from her as long as I was there. I completely understood her situation and so, I left.” When I asked her if she ever found a guru after that, she replied, “No. I am still looking for one. Until then, I shall continue to watch singing programmes on TV and learn whatever I can.”
Before I wrap up the interview, Akkai gets a call and excuses herself, giggling. “My fiancé,” she says, her face lighting up. After a few seconds, she gets back to me, apologising for the interruption.
When I ask her about her fiancé, she gushes excitedly, “Yes, his name is Midhun and we’ve been together for more than year. He’s a female to male transgender. The saddest part is - even people within the transgender community still judge us for this. Firstly, they have a problem with me not growing my hair, not wearing a saree and not having multiple piercings. And secondly, this. People just don’t see that gender is all about the mind and a relationship is just a simple yet beautiful connection - one human being to another. Nothing complicated.”