March 31 is observed as the International Transgender Day of Visibility. It honours the life experiences, joys, and contributions of trans people all over the world.
We bring you five recommendations for Indian books that you must read to learn about trans people in all their diversity – trans women, trans men, hijras, non-binary people, and genderfluid individuals.
1. Friends under the Summer Sun (2019)
Written by Ashutosh Pathak and illustrated by Kanak Shashi, this work of fiction is about the friendship between a child named Nimmi and her neighbour Shri who is a professional baker. Shri likes to be addressed as ‘Akka’, meaning ‘elder sister’, so Shri’s home-based culinary venture is called Akka’s Cakes and Bakes.
When Nimmi is bored of babysitting her little brother Momo, her mother sends her off to Shri’s house with a dozen shiny white eggs. Nimmi is fascinated by Akka, who is “about as old as her mom” and has a friendly face framed by rich black hair falling down to the shoulders. Nimmi enjoys the aroma of cakes in the air. She wants to make one but is clueless about the process. That’s when Akka says, “Oh it’s easy. You take something you love, and give it a shape.” They make a heart-shaped cake and decorate it with lilies, petunias and golden-brown leaves.
Published by Pratham Books, this story challenges the transphobic idea that trans adults are unsafe for children to be around. It also affirms the child’s curiosity. When Nimmi asks, “Shri, who is Akka, the name on your door?” Shri says, “Me!” Nimmi has a follow-up question. “So are you a girl or a boy?” Akka says, “Does it matter?” This gives Nimmi ample food for thought. The character of Shri/Akka is based on actor-director Pradipta Ray.
2. No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy (2015)
This book has the rigour of an academic volume, and the intimacy of community-led research. It was written by Chayanika Shah, Raj Merchant, Shals Mahajan and Smriti Nevatia, who were once associated with the Mumbai-based queer feminist collective LABIA. It is based on a study about the experiences of 50 people assigned gender female at birth (PAGFB) from Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai, Pune, Kolkata, Thrissur and Vadodara.
Published by Zubaan Books, this non-fiction work treats gender as a galaxy of experiences and identities rather than a binary system wherein one is either a man or a woman. Through anecdotes, it seeks to make sense of the creative relationships that people forge with gender.
The authors are interested in modes of survival, reinvention and escape that trans people devise to feel safe, to thrive, and to experience fun and pleasure. This kind of writing counters the pitiful and patronizing gaze that trans people are unnecessarily subjected to.
3. Guthli Has Wings (2019)
Written and illustrated by Kanak Shashi, this book is a work of fiction. It is woven around the experiences of a child named Guthli who does not identify with the gender assigned at birth. Guthli’s mother says, “Son, you are a boy. You should wear your own clothes, not your sister’s.” Guthli says, “But I want to be a fairy! And why do you keep saying I’m a boy when I’m a girl?” Guthli’s mother replies, “Because you are like your brother, not like your sister.”
The book does not use the term ‘gender dysphoria’ but Guthli’s distress is intimately connected to the incongruence between self-perception of gender, and expected gender performance. It would be incorrect to label the mother as transphobic. She loves her child but does not understand what it means to be trans; this is not hatred or fear, it is ignorance.
Published by Tulika Books, it is an affirming story of how love can pierce through social conditioning. The mother feels sorry to see Guthli in so much pain because of the frequent misgendering, so she brings her child a frock and says, “Wear it and be what you want.”
4. We Are Not the Others: Reflections of a Transgender Artivist (2021)
This book has been written by Kalki Subramaniam, a trans woman who hails from Pollachi in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu. She identifies as an “artivist” – an activist who uses art as a medium of storytelling and advocacy, as a tool to effect change through her creativity. Published by Notion Press, it offers a collection of poetry and prose along with illustrations.
The author educates readers about the daily struggles of a trans woman, which are hidden from those who assume that all is well after the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act came into effect. It shows how trans people are forced to confront the worst forms of stigma, discrimination, prejudice, and violence. How their entire being is reduced to their genitals. The author lashes out at people who engage in such dastardly acts. She finds strength within herself, in community spaces, and in art-making. She invites readers to clean up the cobwebs in their minds, and accept that “some fathers menstruate and some mothers can’t breast feed.”
5. The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story (2010)
A. Revathi is a writer, activist and actor. She was born in a small village in Namakkal taluk in the Salem district of Tamil Nadu. A constant sense of unease about “being in the wrong body” tormented her since childhood, along with the threat of physical violence and sexual abuse. She ran away to Delhi and joined a house of hijras. This book is her autobiography, translated from Tamil into English by V. Geetha and published by Penguin Books.
Instead of feeling defeated, Revathy has fought to live with dignity, and supported sexual minorities, sex workers and people living with HIV through her work with the Bangalore-based human rights organization Sangama. In this powerful book, she writes about being a hijra, doing sex work, getting pushed to the margins of society, and following her dreams.