The book The Truth About me: A hijra life story by A Revathi is among the very few autobiographies by hijras in India. Another that comes to mind immediately is I Am Saravanan/Vidya (Kizhakku, 2007). Both these texts were written originally in Tamil and then translated. The translation of the former has been done by V Geetha, translator and feminist historian. The latter was also translated into Malayalam. Revathi’s book is yet to be published in Tamil.
There has been a rapid increase in publications around issues of gender and sexuality in English and in other regional languages. But within the English publications however, Revathi’s autobiography still remains a fresh voice since much of it has been theory, with some fiction and a sprinkling of personal stories. A full length autobiography might not be shocking to the English audience but the book remains a first.
I had a quick chat with both Revathi and V Geetha about the writing, the translation and all things in and around it.
This is not Revathi’s first text. Her earlier one, published only in Tamil so far is called Unarvum Uruvamum which is a collection of stories of various hijras that she spoke to over a period of time to highlight the range of issues that plague the community. This process, she says, is a large part of the reason to write her own autobiography. “Many hijras did not fully open up about their lives” she says “and even if they did, I felt it unethical to write it all in my book because it is not my life, it’s theirs”. The logical conclusion then “to talk about the complexity of our lives was to tell it through my own story and thus this book,” she says.
Assisted by many brief presentations she had made about her life and struggles and the regular diary that she kept, Revathi embarked on the task of putting it together in one narrative and today we have The Truth About Me.
Geetha speaks fondly about the tone of Revathi’s writing. She speaks of the challenge of translating the “muted and matter of fact-ness” of Revathi’s narrative in Tamil into an “equivalent but non-prosaic” tone in English. Revathi, she says, “tries to avoid a dramatic tone in Tamil and remains restrained”.
It is this that she sought to maintain in English and I would say she has managed to do so. This contributes, to a large extent, to the strength of the book by enhancing the way in which Revathi captures complex realities and experiences. Through these she makes a poignant point about a range of issues including (but not restricted to) gender, sexuality, caste, class, body, and desire and so on without directly addressing any of them. What we mull over for years on end to understand from Judith Butler, she explains rather effortlessly in a few sentences!
While this is the strength of the autobiographical form, Revathi’s language and Geetha’s translation both contribute immensely to this.
Beginning with Bama
When asked about her literary inspirations Revathi is quick to admit that when she began work on her first book, she had no idea as to how to go about it. She also says that given her limited education and lack of time in the midst of all her work, she has not been able to read in a focused manner. But she remembers someone handing her a copy of Bama’s Karukku a Tamil novel by one of Tamil Nadu’s most significant Dalit women authors, which she realises, in hindsight, has been an influence. This, of course, is hardly surprising given the similarities in the struggles that both these women have undertaken from which the content and style of their writing emerges.
The book deals with a few main aspects in Revathi’s life including her natal family, the hijra jamaat, sex work, activist work and intertwined in all of this her intimate life. Through various anecdotes and descriptions — from the violence within the home and outside; the difficulties of life as a sex worker; or an activist; the difficulties but also support of the hijra kinship system; the joy and
occasional discomfort of long hair, bangles, earrings and nose rings; to the inexplicable pains of desire and romantic love; she gives us a glimpse of a life that is mediated by many factors.
This is a substantial account for everyone, irrespective of their gender and sexuality to understand the realities of hijras in particular but get a glimpse into how gender and sexuality play out in society.
In the context of the queer movement, the text remains significant for many reasons. While the case to read down Section 377 remains challenged in the Supreme Court, the queer movement in light of broader democratic struggles in India needs to strive to resist the pull towards ‘status quo’ that comes with a legal victory. This includes accepting the complexity of oppression and power relationships within the LGBTHKQI communities while being conscious of the limitations of the politics of identity and community. It is only through this process that we can remain a relevant social movement of not only sexually and/or gender deviant persons but also ones who challenge various oppressions in our everyday lives and work. For such a politics to survive all we need to do is look at the reality around each one of us and Revathi does precisely that and presents an honest description.
Sexuality and words
The text is very significant in the process of self-reflection within queer spaces. All this of course is easier said than done. Geetha speaks of the difficulty of translating Tamil words that “denote sexually ‘deviant’ bodies”. She says at the end of the day it’s a choice between “retaining the Tamil words at the risk of exoticising or translating them into English which might not capture the essence”. She has followed a combination of the two. As we know, the relevant terms for gender and sexually ‘deviant’ bodies are not available in many regional languages. Those that are available often have an offensive connotation. The English words on the other hand, do not capture the local flavour. This book is part of that larger process of finding a language to speak of gender and sexuality here and both Revathi and Geetha need to be congratulated for taking on this mammoth task.
Revathi hopes to write much more in the future and is struggling with finding a way to make time for it in her busy schedule. Geetha’s work as a feminist translator will continue as “the feminism in translation begins with the works one decides to translate” as she puts it.
Finally The Truth About Me is descriptive, historical and can be self-reflexive for every one of us. Just for the ease of its language and its position as a pioneering text, it is a must read.
— Ponni is a queer feminist.