When I read A. Revathi’s The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story for my paper on Women’s Literature in South Asia, I learned about a trans person’s life through their own words and not through the ethnographic gaze of a researcher. As a Gender Studies student, I have come across multiple texts by cis authors that misgender trans people with a degrading understanding of their lives and identities. The text by Revathi provides ground for incorporating queer and trans literature in our classrooms. In 2019, Revathi’s name appeared on a banner at Columbia University next to Maya Angelou’s. Revathi was thrilled because Ambedkar went to Columbia. It is a testament to the power of writers like Revathi and their words that facilitate social change.
Revathi’s autobiography is a sincere, heart-warming, and, at times, heart-breaking exploration of what it means to be a hijra, highlighting how one becomes a woman, taking on a non-normative identity in a normative world. Literature itself is a medium to express human feelings and emotions; Revathi’s work emphasises first-hand accounts of lived experience. She says that writing is a form of activism. Her experience is also situated within broader movements for social justice that have inspired her, like Narmada Bacho Andolan, anti-caste movement, ST land rights struggles, and Gauri Lankesh (who helped her translate the book in Kannada).
Revathi traces how a new self is constructed and the older self is demolished, and how accepting society is of such changes. It deftly explores the difficulties of moving away from home and finding a community. It also illustrates how agency and choice do not have to be about resistance every time; Revathi found herself confined by the shackles of patriarchy and transphobia time and again, but manoeuvred through them at her own pace. Our ideas of trans persons are based on biological essentialism, with an obsession over their body, ignoring their social experiences. Revathi explores this invisibilisation of trans women’s pain and the sexual violence acted against them – the violence meted through the hands of family, society and ultimately the law.
Revathi’s story is about making a decent living. Throughout her childhood, she felt trapped in a man’s body, and all her expressions of joy that were feminine were punished. Caste was also a discrimination factor as she belonged to the gounder caste (an underprivileged caste). Her first sense of community came from engaging with some pottais near a hill, after lying at home. She also wanted to lead a life like a “normal” woman by being married and having kids. Through the pottais, Revathi learned more about their culture of Jamaat and became a chela to her guru Amma. It is there that, due to her feminine looks, she got the name Revathi. Since then, long hair and a woman’s identity became synonymous with her.
Revathi discusses how violence becomes social destiny for trans persons in her quest to live a life with dignity. She says that she went into sex work not to earn, but to explore her desire, a narrative that is rarely explored. The police were especially violent, sexually assaulting them, demanding money, and keeping them in jails for no reason. The discussion around sex work emphasises the conflict between ‘lawful’ protection by the police and it being a source of violent confrontation, also tackling the margins of respectability.
The doctors were uncaring during her operation, and the post-operation experience was excruciatingly painful. When she returned home after her operation, there was so much emotional pain, expressed through a mother who lost her son and Revathi’s pain of her mother’s inability to understand her. Children started to call her ‘aunt’ within the family, which the adults could not.
The family then became a site for a property dispute; people asked her all sorts of invasive questions. When she was buying a vehicle, the ration card mentioned her dead name, and it was difficult to change as there was no legal recognition. She was also not allowed to take property because she did not have children or a family to take care of. Even after her marriage, her family was scared that Revathi’s husband would cheat and take away their property.
After starting working in Sangama in 1999, Revathi became associated with activism, where she used her own experience to talk to people about trans persons’ lives. She became more assertive after joining the organisation. She also briefly married a man with whom she worked in Sangama, but the relationship turned sour. The man spoke on behalf of aravanis but did not treat Revathi with respect and love. She ends the novel by coming back to violence being a social destiny for trans persons. Her guru was brutally murdered, and her chela died by suicide.
Disha Pink Shaikhhas said, “Transpersons are not allowed to die, and at the same time, they are also starved.” They are allowed to live with consistent attacks on their liveability – the question of life matters how much? Revathi’s account exposes how life’s social and economic organisation is terrible. Her work discusses how trans people suffer social exclusion as they are dehumanised, considered a rejection of humanity – the intrinsic condition of human existence. A trans woman’s body is viewed as contagious, leading to their stigmatisation and marginalisation from the public domain. It is visible when Revathi is denied entry into the temple, religious processions, and through her exclusion from society. Revathi’s exploration of her identity reflects how identity determines inclusion or exclusion in the social structure.
The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story foregrounds Revathi’s experience as it breaks into stories of resilience, anger, grief, hope, and autonomy. Moreover, it is also an avenue to engage more with texts focused on non-normative kinship and caring structures as alternate ways of being even though they are shunned by society, law, and family alike.