A debt to oral history

Writers A Revathi and Thanuja Singam discuss the importance of transwomen’s oral history at a time when quality of life for the community is found to be lacking

Published: 21st September 2021 06:54 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st September 2021 11:27 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

CHENNAI: In a country dissected by too many lines of inequalities and planes of segregation, we are never lacking in markers of discrimination. But, would you have considered the presence of a rich and resonant oral history tradition — co-existing with the pace of the digital information era — as one? For a community that is just about finding its spotlight in the fringes of the mainstream, oral history continues to play a huge part in how transwomen’s lived experiences make their way to the outside world. For ages, it’s been a means for women in the community to share knowledge, remember those lost, guide young ones, keep each other safe and find strength even across borders. It’s this repository that Thanuja Singam and A Revathi dug into for Queer Chennai Chronicles’ latest iteration of Chennai Queer LitFest.

Thanuja, an Eelam Tamil trans rights activist, who is now a dental hygienist in Germany, pointed out that there’s much of the community’s way of life that have still not made it to print. “It’s only now that we’re getting a platform to tell our stories. It’ll take much more time for the ‘forbidden’ stories and those without a voice to make it to the fore; for people to be willing to listen to it,” she suggests. For such oral history comes with much pain and struggles of survival. Right from the journey every transwoman undertakes — often crossing state lines and even travelling to other countries — to get the identity-affirming surgery.  

And so the Twitter Spaces uraiyadal began with Revathi, theatre artiste, author and trans activist, narrating her journey from a village in Salem to Delhi, equipped with just Rs 350 and a bare bones address — all this when she was just a teenager. How did she even know that she would find her answers in Delhi? A chance friendship with lungi-clad transwomen in her village that led her to Dindugal’s Seiveer Amma and the Delhi transwomen who come to her during the temple festival season. “All of them looked like real women; I was so awed. It was there that I was able to live as a woman — I put on my sister’s paavadai-sattai and wore a wig. It felt like a world that was made for me,” she recounts. A few months later, she — who had barely seen a train till that point — found herself boarding one to Delhi. 

Taking off from Revathi’s journey, Thanuja pointed out that the society keeps transwomen in constant motion — in search of even the most basic of their requirements. While the sex affirmation surgery had Indian transwomen reaching out to Delhi and Mumbai, women in Malaysia and Singapore were moving to other countries for it. That’s how the late Asha Amma —  M Asha Devi, a prominent figure in Malaysia’s trans rights movement — made her way to India. In the years to come, after Malaysia bans the surgery and Singapore makes it prohibitively expensive, other women would go to Thailand.

Even if it meant cutting short the recovery period to just two days and returning home in an eight-hour bus ride, urine bag in tow, narrated Thanuja. The situation, while different in other countries, comes with its own set of problems. While Sri Lanka aids and assists in every legal way, going as far as changing the details in one’s birth certificate, there is very little social acceptance there, she said. While the Western countries have far more facilities and awareness, its people have very little tolerance for the trans community. 

While both Thanuja and Revathi had written about their lives and strife, their work emanated from a place of oral history. For Revathi (The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story), it was compiling the 5-10 minute speech capsules she had been used to preparing for the events and lectures she had been invited to over the years. For Thanuja (Thanuja: Eezha Thirunangaiyin Payanamum Porattamum), it was documenting the state of affairs of migrating transwomen and the countries they encounter. At the end of the night, this Twitter Spaces event itself became a slice of oral history that is set to be documented for posterity. 


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