Friday, November 01, 2013

Journey of a braveheart

People, Nov '13
By Amitava Sarkar

“Amita, tumhara ek photo dena, main ghar mein rakhungi” (Amita, please give me a photograph of yours, I will keep it at home). This was Mangu’s only wish, and she asked me for this every time she met me. But I would meet her mostly during work trips to Bhadrak, her hometown located in Odisha state of eastern India. Thanks to a packed schedule and work commitments, somehow I could never fulfill her wish.

Mangu (left) with her Guru and Santi Seva peer
Sk. Jalaluddin (Jaina) during a visit to SAATHII,
Kolkata Office. Photo credit: SAATHII
Today, as I write about Mangu, I can see the faces of many people who struggle like her because of their transgender identity. It is tougher for those who reside in villages or small towns as people around them may have little idea about or acceptance for their gender orientation.

I met Mangu (Sk. Mangu to be precise) for the first time in mid 2006 in Bhadrak, when I was part of a long meeting with six male-to-female transgender and Hijra individuals to identify their core health and development needs. The process that started that day with the formation of an informal support group eventually resulted in Santi Seva, probably the first formalised transgender and Hijra community based organisation in Odisha. Today, it has more than 70 members and runs two projects that address organizational development, health care and other core needs.

Mangu used to be a regular in all the group activities. She was part of the non-formal education classes and the cultural troupe of Santi Seva. From zero literacy, she slowly learnt to read and write Odia and English words. Though a Hijra, she lived with her family – mother, sister, sister-in-law and nephew. In Odisha, the Hijra culture is somewhat different from that in northern and other eastern Indian states. Hijras here can choose to live with their biological family if they want to, and don’t necessarily have to live in a clan.

Mangu practices writing her own name at the Santi Seva
drop-in-centre in Bhadrak. Photo credit: SAATHII

Over time, Mangu came to believe that asking for alms in public places or on trains (a practice called chhalla by the Hijras) was not very dignified. She took responsibility for her family. She was always worried about being able to provide for them. When Santi Seva started an income generation programme, she obtained a small loan from the group to start a poultry unit and sell rice. This helped her bring in some extra money into the household every month.

Mangu had one weakness – she would sometimes react to problems emotionally rather than think logically. In 2008, she had an altercation at home and went away to stay at the shrine of a pir baba (saint) on the outskirts of Bhadrak. At this point of time, she knew that she was HIV positive, but she stopped taking care of personal health and nutritional needs. She believed that pir baba’s spirit would appear in a dream and grant her what she wished for. Till then she refused to eat or drink properly.

Mangu's rice selling trade, which she operated from her
own home. Photo credit: SAATHII
I met her along with colleagues from SAATHII and other Santi Seva members. It took us quite some time to convince her to seek proper treatment for opportunistic infections that may have resulted from HIV. The priest at the shrine was informed that she was seriously ill and he also joined us in convincing her. After her treatment started, she gradually became her old cheerful self.

Santi Seva members helped Mangu with her treatment and also encouraged her to eat nutritious food. When the group registered as a non-profit trust, she became part of the governing body. She worked hard to improve the group’s outreach. Many transgender and Hijra individuals (based in and around Bhadrak) became members of the group through her reference.  She also got involved in important events at the state and national levels, where she spoke about the socio-economic needs of transgender and Hijra communities. She represented Odisha in such a meeting called by the United Nations Development Programme in Delhi in 2009. She was so thrilled when she flew for the first time, on a trip to Mumbai with me. I can’t forget the happiness reflected on her face.

Unfortunately, last year her health started deteriorating. She started anti-retroviral treatment (ART) for HIV, but she also developed kidney related complications. Santi Seva continued to support her emotionally, financially and medically through these difficult times. But she always prioritized her family’s needs over her own. This took its toll and after a bout of prolonged illness, her kidneys failed her. She left us forever on August 9, 2013.

I spent so many wonderful moments with Mangu and other members of Santi Seva. They are now an indispensable part of my life. Their good-hearted nature can win over anyone. I find myself with them even when I am not there physically with them. How can I forget the time when I met Mangu at Bhadrak railway station on my way back to Kolkata, and Mangu promptly brought me a cold drink and snacks to eat?

Our society does not accept its Mangus, but they are no less than anyone. When I see them organize health camps with enthusiasm or participate in relief work during natural calamities, I marvel at their energy. Even with a little bit of support, they can transform their lives. There are many Mangus in India unknown to us. It is our responsibility – mine and yours and the government’s – to help them live better lives.

I often recall the moments I spent with Mangu. It is almost as if I will see her again at the railway station on my next trip to Bhadrak.

Mangu, I love you, and can never forget you or your contribution towards the betterment of the transgender and Hijra communities – in spite of your own never ending struggles. Alas, I could never give you my photograph, but I wish you peace wherever you are.


Amitava Sarkar is an advocate, trainer and filmmaker on health and development concerns of trans women in India, and music is one of her passions.

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