The dimly lit corridors of the Arcot Hotel are rank with the smell of sweat, cigarettes and stale beer. The hallways ring with loud chatter, raucous laughter and the occasional scream. The summer heat is sweltering. Half-open doors reveal grungy rooms crowded with large women in various stages of undress. Pink petticoats, padded bras, hair extensions, sequined saris, miniskirts – some on, some off. Out in the passageways, a few men hang about, hungrily eyeing the women who stride out of the rooms. One grabs at Kalki as she walks past, dressed in a modest salwaar-kameez, her glossy hair pulled back in a ponytail. She turns and speaks to him softly before she gently extricates herself and moves on. The man suddenly seems reduced, almost bashful. The hunter looks hunted. But this isn’t surprising. For Kalki Subramaniam isn’t quite who she seems. Out here, all definitions, all identities, are fluid. The only certainty is that in this packed hotel I’m the only naturally born woman. The rest are aravanis, kothis and panthis (transgenders, feminine homosexuals and their seemingly straight male clients).
This is Maureen Nandini Mitra‘s introduction to her fascinating story on the lives of south India’s transexual Aravani community, recently published alongside my photographs in Caravan magazine.
Defined by their sexual-orientation, Aravanis are rarely accepted by India’s largely conservative society. As a consequence, many are tormented by the disapproving gaze of others and suffer a lonely existence from which they seldom find solace. The transgender gathering I photographed in the Tamil town of Koovagam is one occasion when Aravanis are able to emerge and take centre-stage – if only for a few short days a year.
Unlike the wider Indian gay community I’ve written about here, I found the Aravanis I met in Koovagam and Chennai to be a rather self-absorbed lot. This may be the result of their being shunned by society and enduring the lonely stigma of rejection. I’m sure it doesn’t help that – like much of Indian society – many Aravanis lack the education or resources to properly articulate their concerns beyond an understandable desire to express individual anguish.
An Aravani sex-worker shares a cigarette with some boys while looking for clients in central Chennai. Denied the opportunity to undertake regular jobs, many Aravani’s are forced into selling sex to earn a living. Chennai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009
So, while India’s wider gay community who have begun to confront discrimination with a collective campaign for rights and recognition, Aravanis continue to define their struggle in very personal terms. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is chat-show host Rose Venkatesan who describes herself as an transgender celebrity.
When Maureen and I approached Rose for an interview, she was being trailed by an American TV crew who were profiling her for a documentary series. Rose was brought up in an upper middle-class Tamil household and, having studied for a degree in the US, we had hoped that she might have offered us an informed and articulate perspective on the transgender experience in India.
Instead Rose insisted that her presence in our article would reap us financial reward for which she must be compensated. She demanded several hundred dollars. Suffice to say, we didn’t pay and ultimately neither her wit nor wisdom – nor her portrait – graced Caravan’s pages.