Misunderstood, maligned, marginalised and perennially stranded in a no-man’s land, the third gender has never had it easy. In recent times, however, it is heartening to see this section of the society step out of the closet and add a rainbow touch to their lives. Leading this brigade with panache is Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, actor, activist and dancer, whose familiar florid face epitomises the rise and rise of the transgender. While her debut book Me Hijra, Me Laxmi may have caused a mini tsunami in the past, Laxmi’s confessions in Red Lipstick: The Men in My Life (non-fiction) are no less sensational.
In keeping with the book title and with minimum fuss, Laxmi describes her growing-up years as a sickly boy suffering from constant confusion about sexual identity, revelling in feminine attire and being turned on by brawny arms and underwear advertisements. We learn about the twenty-year-old Laxmi’s very first brush a hijra—Lawrence Francis aka Shabina—and how this meeting would go on to influence Laxmi into making the momentous decision of joining the hijra community. The meeting with minded individuals and the establishing of Astitva, a non-profit organisation for sexual minorities, comes as a major milestone in Laxmi’s career and from a confused adolescent to a public figure giving speeches at queer pride parades, delivering TED talks and attending international conferences, the peek into the world of a celebrity transgender is fascinating.
Moving on, the book traces a string of relationships, sexual and platonic, with people many of whom were pivotal in moulding and defining. Of these, fellow activist Atharv Nair, home maker Chhaya Patil, who spurred Laxmi into starting her own dance classes, Vijay Nair or Goda bai who anointed Laxmi ‘Miss Thane’ and Andrew Hunter, president of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, who unleashed the activist within Laxmi, stand out by their contribution.
Launching into matters of lovers and love affairs (which include one-night stands with men and longer liaisons), Laxmi relives every one of her amorous escapades. We learn about Rahul Kale, Rohan Joshi, the infatuated Kris and the present love of Laxmi’s life, Viki Thomas. The book touches on Laxmi’s emotional ties with various people and these include mother figures, brother figures, ‘didi’ figures, childhood friend Praveen Balaya and Laxmi’s adopted son, Deepak Salvi. There is a lot of talk about ‘soul’ connect etc., which seems at variance with the hard-as-nails nature of the protagonist. Just as the reader is tiring of an overdose of the protagonist’s carnal couplings and beginning to worry whether boastful descriptions of multiple amorous dalliances might defeat the purpose of getting transgenders accepted as upright citizens, the book does a volte-face. Laxmi gives a searing account of childhood abuse by a close relative, an experience that made her the vengeful creature that she is and one can’t help but sympathise with her desire to wreak havoc on males. Laxmi comes across as foul-mouthed, brazen and vulgar, spewing hatred, revenge and venom, and yet, for all her terrifying Kali-like persona, one can only feel admiration. In the end of the book, there is an unexpected touch of weariness along with bravado.
The legal milestones achieved by Laxmi and her team/s listed in the book are highly important and have been pivotal in tilting the scales towards the hijras’ fight for dignified lives. On the personal front, the family’s unshakeable love for Laxmi is heart warming, her father stands out as an exemplary parent with his fierce protectiveness towards Laxmi in the face of possible ostracism. The people who flit through her life are etched with minimalistic but vivid strokes. Laxmi’s mentor-turned-enemy, LGBT rights activist Ashok Row Kavi, makes for an interesting character study with his layered complexities. The chapter by Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla, Gujarat, the first member of Indian royalty to come out as openly gay, is enlightening and offers the opportunity to see Laxmi from the point of view of a kindred soul.
With not too much fodder to fuel a book, Red Lipstick cleverly seizes the opportunity to cash in on a celebrity who is very visible. Pooja Pande writes Laxmi’s story with a wonderful mix of empathy and impartial honesty, refraining from prettying the sordid bits or justifying the protagonist’s caprices. An unputdownable book, Red Lipstick drives home the chastening fact that just the tiniest blip in the genetic coding and any of us could have been another Laxmi.