Talking of autobiographies by transgender rights activists that have come before her, Akkai Padmashali says that people usually read those books from a position of sympathy. She wants to break the totalizing narrative of victimhood that chains transgender people to only one kind of story. In her preface, she states: “I do not want those ayyo, paapas. I do not want that sympathy. I want to claim human rights. I want to speak my dignity. I want to say that you and I are alike.” For Vrinda Grover, who has provided a Foreword, Akkai’s writing is a political act that leaves you unsettled. In her words: “Her truth-telling sears through her writing and compels you to confront your own prejudices, fears and lurking phobias towards sexual minorities, specifically from the working-class.”
In the Acknowledgements, Akkai confesses that though she has been wanting to write a book for a long time, she has always preferred speaking over writing. As a result, she took the help of her friend, Gowri Vijayakumar, who is a professor at Brandeis University, to help her. Gowri enlisted her students to collect media articles and materials about the activist’s life as well as recording a series of life-history narratives. She says, “I organized my narration into themes, and Gowri asked questions to help guide my reflections, fill in the gaps, or make sure events were told in order.” In such a fashion—through a laborious process of transcribing, compiling, and editing—the memoir finally took shape, the result of a back and forth process between the two of them.
A Small Step in a Long Journey exudes a lot of warmth and Akkai displays brazen optimism in the face of constant challenges and daily struggles. It is a recounting of her life from a small child to a transgender rights activist. One can easily discern parallels between her and A. Revathi. The latter’s memoir, The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story, also follows a similar trajectory. They both worked for Sangama, a queer rights NGO based in Bangalore, so their paths have crossed, naturally. They share a lot in terms of familial experiences too. As transgender women, they both were initially rejected by their families. It took time and effort to bring them around. The commonalities show the limited options of trans people coming from weaker socio-economic backgrounds, which are often historically oppressed due to caste in India.
She lucidly explores how transgender individuals are discriminated at every turn and at every level. They are usually not readily accepted by their families, and the State as well as its institutions refuse to grant them legitimacy and treat them as equal to their cisgender counterparts. More often than not, without familial and institutional support, there is a lack of financial stability which forces them to do sex work and beg for survival. While these two forms of earning a livelihood have been linked to the hijra community in South Asia, they are taken up because all other doors are closed and no other opportunities are available. The State, by criminalizing these activities and throwing obstacles in the process of self-identification, is adding to the discrimination they already face and increasing their precarity.
It is here that the importance of community is felt. Akkai describes at length the inner working of the hijra community, its structures and divisions, its rules and strictures, and the ways in which it can be an emancipatory shelter that is defined by solidarity. She writes: “Hijra culture is a culture of great plurality. You can be a Brahmin and can be a chela to a Dalit. You can be a Muslim and you can be a chela to a Christian… Hijra culture is not about the class or caste you come from. It’s built on your femininity.” Still, the avowed ideals often fail to be fully realized. She herself admits that discrimination still exists within hijra culture, condoned as it takes the form of old customs.
Although she is a member of the hijra community and enmeshed within the tradition of gharanas and jamats, the guru-chela relationships, Akkai does not refrain from pointing out how patriarchy has taken root within those circles too, especially with respect to strict adherence to outdated, restrictive gender norms. In the memoir, she writes: “If you have long hair, you’re a full hijra. If you pierce your nose, you are properly feminine.” She fights against these norms even if it leads to fines and censure for there’s no one way of being a woman. She says, “To attain complete womanhood—from sex change, to breast implants, to removing facial hair—you undergo many processes. Why is that so necessary?” As a result, she is always advocating for social change to allay these demands.
Repeatedly, throughout the book, Akkai admits: “It took me such a long time to understand it. I myself used to question it.” This uncomplicated and simple acceptance of her own past shortcomings, ideological or otherwise, show a person who is always learning new things and changing her viewpoint after fresh experiences. She neither claims to be a perfect activist nor does she situate herself as the authority on queer issues. She is subject to prejudices and failings as much as the next person, but what sets her apart is her thirst for knowledge, her desire for understanding others, and her initiative to better society in as many ways as is possible for her. She is not a staid intellectual individual and she takes pains to emphasize how continuous evolution in thought is necessary.
Akkai wants this memoir to be “a comma, not a full stop”. In her view, “When I tell a story about my experience, those who hear that story are going on the same journey along with me.” In a short Afterword, she writes: “This book is not a solution. It’s a question. What is next? And what is next should come from society… My story may be like this. Tomorrow, someone else’s may be different.” It is a self-conscious disavowal of the spotlight where she relinquishes the stage and leaves the centre empty so that someone else may take up the baton and step into the limelight to take this fight forward, to realize Akkai’s vision of a future where “we are all born and die simply as human beings.”