A penance for posterity 

Activist Kalki Subramaniam talks about her book We Are Not The Others, the journey of publishing it and its poems making it to college curriculum across the country
Activist Kalki Subramaniam
Activist Kalki Subramaniam

CHENNAI: As writer Sukirtharani remarked, it didn’t come as much of a surprise when Delhi University removed the works of two Tamil writers — Sukirtharani herself and author Bama, both of whom have written much about Dalit women and their world — from its curriculum. This wasn’t the first time and it’s certainly not going to be the last. Amid such dismal conditions, transgender activist, artist, poet and actor Kalki Subramaniam announced that her book, We Are Not The Others, has made it to the curriculum of four colleges. Perhaps it was a way by which the literary world could balance the scales. Whatever the reason may be, there’s much to rejoice. 

Kalki Subramaniam
Kalki Subramaniam

Ask Kalki and she points out that the queer literature movement has not even had a proper start yet. “It took so many years for Dalit literature to be placed in our education curriculum. With queer literature, we are still struggling with stereotypes, misrepresentation and prejudice. This is for the entire LGBTQIA+ community, including transgender people,” she begins. While this already places many a hurdle in their path, there are several others on the creative front to contend with as well. For one, writers who are voices within the community are very few. “In Tamil, there are few people who have written books from the transgender community. It’s is still in the single digit. There have to be more people — more powerful voices — coming out and documenting their lives through art and literature,” she suggests.

Perhaps, her book now finding its way to even more young people would help inspire them, she hopes. 
When no one around He spoke to the ravens’  “I feel this way I tell this to you’ I don’t want  To be a man, What can I do?” The book itself was put together to reach young transgender kids, she notes. “This (poems from the book) making it to the curriculum in colleges is an important step towards enlightening our young people. I want my poetry to be read by more younger audience for they bring greater change for the future; not only for themselves but for the entire LGBTQIA+ community,” she says. 

This sentiment reflects in the essays that find space amid Kalki’s heartrending poems, old and new. A Letter to a Transgender Kid comes from a place of battles endured and experiences lived. In words brimming with pain and caution and a spoonful of hope, it offers advice to the young kid riddled with conflict inside and out. “Through these words, I give you courage and love, I give you the strength to take wise decisions in your life, I wish you all good luck and success,” she signs it and it’s not done lightly. The Future is Non-Binary offers hope in the form of a dream for a utopian future, where gender isn’t limited to our ignorance and intolerance. 

What’s more, the intent to reach out to transgender kids doesn’t just stop with sunshine and future smiles; Kalki goes on to show the reality of every stage of life as a transgender woman. And so you have deliberations on secret love and relationships people seek with trans persons in Will an Indian Man Ever Bring a Trans Woman Home and Say ‘Ma, I Love Her’? It talks of being excluded from mainstream matrimonial sites, receiving thousands of proposals that poured in for the 20 profiles on the site she created for the community, how they all came with a caveat, and finding love within the community.

And then, there’s the vagina monologue — in My Perfectly Imperfect Vagina — that outlines the evolution of sex reassignment surgeries and the generations of transwomen who served as guinea pigs for the callous system; complete with pictorials of surgically-created vaginas metaphored through flowers. “I wanted to record the kind of suffering transwomen go through for the physical transformation when we do not have money. I know a transwoman for whom doctors tried to form breasts from the skin and flesh of her abdomen. It was a disastrous surgery; they never did a corrective surgery or compensate her in any way. For many of us, it was a big jolt that our bodies were abused by the medical fraternity who we trusted. Today, it is better I hear,” she narrates. 

She throws in excerpts from real-life conversations as well, offering yet another dose of reality in the hopes of preparing others for it.  “My conversations with a little girl (A Little Girl and Me that chronicles a young girl’s curiosity about a beautiful woman with a “boy’s voice”) and another with a Communist comrade (If You Don’t Mind that details a man’s pervasive, voyeuristic curiosity about a transwoman’s genitals) are some of the things that really happened and had a great impact on me, positive and negative both. This (juxtaposing the two conversations) is not about one person but presenting the purity of a child — her understanding and acceptance — against the perverted insensitivity and disrespect of a man who is supposed to be revolutionary and open-minded.

This will give an understanding to the reader about where we are standing as a society now,” she narrates. If there’s ever a life firm footed Search for its roots (Enrum veezhatha  Vaazhvenru undenil Adhan vergalai thedu) In the rest of the book, You get to revisit some of Kalki’s unforgettable masterpieces — Ezhunthiradi, En Thangame (Arise, My Precious), Ongi Kaithattu (Clap Aloud), Kuri Aruthen (Phallus, I Cut) and Eezham Enroru Sithantha Yoni (A Mutilated Vagina Called Eezham). You’ll also find equally spirited new ones in Don’t Tell That to Me — an exhausted transwoman’s declaration of her own boundaries, and The Story of Two — tragic documentation of a transman-transwoman couple’s tragic fate.  All presented together with a single idea in mind: If I don’t tell these stories of transwomen, who will? 

Despite the solemn representation of strife and struggle, the book is not without a sense of hope for the transwomen and transmen to come. “This book could not have been written without the feeling of hope. I, as an activist, have achieved some milestones for my community. Of course, I need to celebrate it. But I also have to acknowledge the losses our community and I have gone through. Until we acknowledge that pain and trauma, we will not be able to value our progress,” she concludes.

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The New Indian Express