In 12 Photographs, My Journey To Koovagam.

Since my childhood, I’ve had many doubts and confusions about transgender people. It first started when I got acquainted with Subbu. Subbu, a transgender, usually with a big circular bindi (A forehead decoration worn by South Indian women), long hair knotted in a bun, wearing a half-sleeve shirt and lungi, with an unconditional love for people around her, was my neighbour. People living in my streets used to send her to fetch water, to take care of their kids while they have gone for work, to buy things from the market, to wash their clothes. The same people also used to tease Subbu and call her ‘Ponduga Pulla’ (a Eunuch) for her out of the ordinary physiological growth and psychological changes. For all their pesterings, Subbu still cared to show the same unconditional love to everyone.

For quite a long time, I had the same general attitude of all others that transgender people are those who extort money and have raunchy behaviour. During my frequent travels from Chennai to Mumbai in trains, I encountered their rattling presence by listening to their unique clapping sounds of their hands in the next coach, the passengers who didn’t want to confront with them, some who would try to climb to upper berth, or hide themselves under the blankets as if they were sleeping. Many times, I did the same. Occasionally, I gave them money. Still, I carried my childhood question. Who are they? Why am I getting afraid of them or trying to stay away from them? I was craving and curious to know their physical characteristics of a man and mental attitude of a woman. This thought baffled me in my younger days. If only I was able to become friends with them and know their feelings.

Seeking answers to these, I started my journey to Koovagam. I took my camera with me during the first trip itself, but I wasn’t feeling like taking photos, though the festival was full of strange rituals and vibrant colors all over. Restless thoughts were lingering on in my mind and I wanted to approach and talk to them. Because of the common attitude towards transgender people, I was shying away from them. Doubled with this was the paranoia that my camera might be snatched or money might be extorted by them.

For four years, I could not get close to them. During the fifth year, in front of an old lodge located in Villupuram main road, I was standing on the sides of the road and looking around the streets. There were transgender people who were walking in and out of the lodge, attracting their customers for the day. The time was 12 noon. A beautiful and charming looking transgender, around the age between 25 to 30, called me in when I had an eye contact with her. Suddenly, feeling daring, I followed her to a narrow alley between a liquor shop and the lodge, reaching a slightly old room. In the corridor, in small groups, many more transgenders were having animated conversations with each other. She was taking me in, making me sit comfortably in the bed, closing the door, locking the latch and turned towards me to start undressing her. Shocked, I said ‘I just came to talk with you and take photographs’. She got angry and yelled at me ‘Get away from this room and don’t spoil my business’. Embarrassed, I left the room and stumbled upon another transgender who called me and said ‘Came out soon? Come over here then!’. I disregarded her call and while I climbed back downstairs, she shouted- ‘Am I not that beautiful like her? Is that why you are running away from me?’. I shuddered and felt as if I was slapped by someone. I turned back and looked her, without saying anything went inside the room and sat silently at the edge of the bed. There were five more of them. Then, I explained my plight. They started probing questions regarding my journey and when I answered them, I slowly felt at ease and entered into a good casual conversation with them. In the midst of conversations, all other transgenders left the room leaving the one who called me in. I asked permission to take their photos with their clothes off and she allowed me to do. I took portraits of her changing clothes, lying down in bed in half-nude poses and many more.

That was the moment when inside me, I felt a profound change. The filthy images of lust for their bodies weaned away from me. Until evening, I spent my time with them by having lunch and tea and more conversations about their lives. The images that the society built on them, a world of segregation and discrimination was getting diminished from my mind. I started to have more concern and love for them and felt more humane than before. To enjoy the nature of their bodies that God gave them, to feel so true to their feelings and accepting them as they are, with the same love for every other human in this world, they are yearning for all these things from the so-called normal people like us. It was an unforgettable day with them. I made friends with them, and unaware that I should take photographs, enjoyed my moments with them, and finally came back with memories that made me more human than I was ever before.

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Jai Singh Nageshwaran is a Freelance Photograoher from Chennai.

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