Of courage and conviction

Of courage and conviction

Seema Kumar

Akkai Padmashali’s book A Small Step in a Long Journey hit me in my face. When I picked it up to write about it for our Pride Special edition I thought I will sail through it and quickly write a review of the same. 

The book is a year old, I know, but our magazine is still new and this is our first Pride Special. Hence, the review. The book may be a year old but it still holds the capacity to knock you sideways. Which is what the book did to me. I went through a myriad emotions while reading the book – shocked, appalled, sad, grief, depressed… There were times I wanted to put it down and not finish it but something kept me going because I wanted to know how Akkai handled situations and overcame them.

And the one thing that stood out for me in the entire book was that whatever the circumstances, sympathy (ayyo, paapa) she did not want. Give acceptance and equality, not ayyo, paapa. And that is what kept me going till I finished the book. But it still took me another couple of days to sit down to write about the book. Vrinda Grover has written in the Foreword, “It (the book) leaves you unsettled. I think Akkai means to disturb and disrupt us….” I agree. 

In her Preface Akkai says honestly, “I don’t want to hide anything. I want to show people that this is how society is – the good things, the bad things, and the things that need to change.”

The birth

Akkai was born (Jagadeesh) in a lower middle-class family and brought up in Bangalore. While growing up she was expected to behave like a boy and she did as they said. “I tried to behave like a boy,” even though “I wanted to be a girl, and I expressed that. I would wear makeup and bracelets, or try on my mother’s saris. I would twist my hair into a towel to pretend it was long hair.” By the age of eight, she realised that she was not a boy but a girl. 

Her family could not accept it, more so her father who was “worried about his dignity, his prestige”. She was taken to a hospital, to traditional doctors, to ‘cure her of her ailment’. All this was pure torture for her. Her teachers did not accept her, she was not allowed to learn what she wanted to, like music. “People teased me, harassing me because of my voice or body language, or because of the way I dressed the makeup I wore. My friends were always curious to see what sex I was born with.”

Her father threw her out of the house when she was around 11. And for 10 days she lived on the streets and realised that “if you are in public, you face harassment. There is no social respect. People only see you in the context of sex.” 

She went back home, compromised with her family but continued to be the target of subtle bullying, humiliation, etc., and was raped by five of her friends in the training centre’s toilet.

“What Nirbhaya went through in the 2012 gang rape was exactly what happened to me … Even today, when I hear about a rape, I automatically connect it to what happened to me.” 

Her life circumstances triggered her into attempting suicide twice – when she was 11 and later when she was 12. The second time was when she pulled herself up and thought, “This is what my identity is. This is what I want to be, a woman … No one accepts me. But why should I die? I am perfect.” And she decided to live for the society, to change people’s mindset and their attitudes.

The acceptance

At 16, Akkai joined a group of hijras who took her into their fold and from there began her fight for the rights of transgender community. And what better place than home to start from. She brought about changes in the rigid hijra community. “Hijra culture is very strong. It’s difficult even to speak out of turn … We reproduce patriarchy in our own communities. We assume that we shouldn’t talk to the nayaks, because they are big people … if you are a chela, you do not stretch your legs out in front of your guru. You cannot sit next to her. You cannot sit opposite her, equally, on a chair … You cannot leave your hair loose … you cannot cut your hair….” 

Akkai debated all this and did what she thought was right. And slowly began the change. “Twenty years ago, hijra culture told me that what I said had no value, that I shouldn’t be respected. Today, people talk highly of me, because I work for the larger cause of the community. They have put the faith of the community behind me.”

There has been no stopping Akkai. She became the most important voice against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code; she describes the long fight before the Supreme Court, which decriminalised homosexuality in 2018 after much highs and lows since 2009; she continues to be a vociferous critic of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. She began questioning much before she became an activist with LGBT rights group Sangama in Bengaluru in the 1990s, and since then she has been breaking stereotypes. 

The leap

Over the years, she has fought for land for the funeral rites of transgender persons; separate wards for them in hospitals; to get jobs for transgender persons; founded the Karnataka Sexual Minorities Forum; pushed for banks to support her community, and much more. Akkai became the first transgender person in India to get a driving licence with her gender orientation described as female, and the first transgender person in Karnataka to register for marriage to a trans man.

Her accomplishments are many: trans rights activist, writer, singer, performer, motivational speaker, champion for queer and trans rights, recipient of Rajyotsava Prashasti, Karnataka Government’s second highest civilian honour, recipient of an honorary doctorate from the Indian Virtual University for Peace and Education, founder of Ondede, a human rights organisation. The list is endless.

In 2017, when former US President Barack Obama visited India, Akkai was invited to a Town Hall programme with him. 

It was an open discussion and the person sitting next to her in the last row was raising her hand to ask a question. But Obama called on Akkai to ask a question. Akkai asked, how she should deal with the fact that she was still a criminal under Section 377 and that the government was refusing to hear their voices on the Transgender Bill. She writes in the book, “I liked Obama’s answer. ‘It begins with what you just did,’ he said, ‘which is to find your voice, and to be able to articulate your views and your experiences, and tell your story…’ Sharing our stories, he said was an important way to change tomorrow’s world. I am proud to have interacted with Obama … I love the way he stands with minority communities. The video has been viewed lakhs of times. It brought new attention to what we wanted as a community.”

Akkai was passionately motivated to explain that transgender persons are not unnatural people, they are not child snatchers or thieves and “begging and sex work, their means of livelihood, is not easy and the sari is a struggle for a trans woman.” 

Akkai’s book is a powerful bare-all book that demands no sympathy or pity (no ayyo, paapa’s) but acceptance, recognition and respect. It is an honest and awe-inspiring account of all that transpired in her life, bad, terrible and good, to make her what she is today. The book is a hard punch in your gut that sends you reeling as it did me till much after I finished reading it!


In Akkai’s words

What did you go through when you relived your life for the book? How did you feel when you recounted all that you have achieved and are continuing to achieve after such struggle?

Reliving the past struggles, almost 25-28 years of struggle, from your childhood to your family’s non-acceptance, to your ongoing struggle and the hurdles of self-questioning the process of your gender and your sexual orientation as well as the conflict between your sex and psychology and the many incidents I have mentioned in the book, was not easy. Recollecting incidents and the issues I have gone through, whether with positive outcomes or not was not so easy.

It was so difficult for me to remember and narrate all that to Gowri, especially the incident of sexual assault. I was so emotional, literally crying. Then the happy moments, when I was with Venu, childhood femininity, etc.

I think all these incidents have their own importance and recollecting and sharing them with Gowri and bringing them all into the book was important. I myself read the book 3-4 times. But it was not so easy. I feel emotional many times but am not able to express but yes I am able to manage my struggle.

As for my achievements after so much struggle, I think I have achieved very little. I had to be bold and take up this issue because my identity and sexuality is important. Also and it was important to speak to the society that is so unaware, so immature and so majoritarian. that I often wondered how do you break those concepts of bifurcation and talk about inclusivity. I think this is something that has built me as a person.

Whatever Akkai is today, strong, aggressive, passionate, lovely, ever smiling, whatever people label me, I think everything goes to the movement of sexual minorities. I think as Akkai I have not achieved anything but it is about the movement. My community gave me that strength, my community gave me that learning as a person.

Today, the journey of Section 377 to today’s marriage equality petition, I think this is where we are as a community. I think there is no full stop to our achievement, it’s a comma. It’s an ongoing struggle.

I remember Ambedkar now. He struggled a lot, fought for himself as a dalit man and we have not fully been able to combat discrimination on the grounds of caste. It takes years, centuries, and definitely in the issue of sexuality and gender issues as well. It’s an ongoing struggle but the only thing I strongly believe is that like Akkai, and like many other leaders, my entire community needs to take up this issue to fight for the larger rights of the whole globe.