When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.
- Ernest Hemingway
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“The train arriving on platform number 1 is a slow local for Andheri via the harbor line...” I began to march towards the nearest ladies compartment, my fast-paced stride transforming into a run as I heard the train's whistle. Luckily, I managed to step onto the footboard just as the train jolted and began to depart. The compartment was empty except for a handful of ladies scattered here and there-some reading the Navbharat Times, some giving their faces the last bits of touch-up with some mascara here and some gloss there while some staring idly into the infinite surroundings out of the train's barricaded windows. I found a window seat under a fan in a deserted corner of the compartment and began to go through my emails. After unsubscribing from some useless newsletters and reporting a bunch of spam emails, I logged-in to a scholarship portal and began to browse through the plethora of opportunities.
After a few stations, somebody stepped into the compartment. A hushed silence befell. I looked up from my phone's screen. Blood rushed through my veins and I felt goose bumps rise on the back of my neck and arms. There I was, sitting in a deserted corner of the compartment all by myself, transfixed, frozen to the core but sweating all over in fright! I gaped at the newcomer who then began advancing towards me, ready to attack! She came and halted a few inches from where I was sitting. Her hand slowly rose up in the empty air and then began descending in my direction! I shut my eyes tight and prepared myself for the impact…, which never came. On the contrary, I found myself tapped affectionately on the head by someone I was scared of the most in my life. A tear or two each made its way through the end-creases of my eyes, which now opened feebly, and I found myself staring teary-eyed at the face of my ‘attacker’. She, however, smiled at me most lovingly and asked, “I hope you remember me?”
I nodded in agreement. She was a known stranger- the sort of people whom you know by their faces, whom I had once mistaken for my grandmother. Upon realization, I had rushed away most frightfully. “If you don't mind, can I sit here? I would be the most unwelcomed anywhere else in the compartment,” she continued. I gave a curt nod and she smiled again and sat opposite me. Everyone stared at me with gore expressions. I immediately turned to my phone and glued my attention to the scholarship portal. “What is your name, child?” she asked. I pretended to have not heard a word. After a brief pause, she said, “I understand how you feel right now. Not everyone wants to speak to a person like me. People think that my sorts are abnormal and dangerous... That we are dirty...” I felt a bad for her on hearing this. I mustered some courage and looked up. She was wiping away tears with her sari's hem.
“Please don't cry. I am sorry. I didn't intend to hurt you.” I could not believe that I was actually speaking to her! I continued, “It is just that... Umm, it was only because...” However, I was lost for words. I did not know how to tell her that I was scared of her, without hurting her. Thankfully, she completed my sentence, “You were scared. Maybe because you thought that I would beg for money and would hurt you or abuse you if you did not give me what I wanted?” Reluctantly, I nodded. She smiled and continued, “It is not your fault, child. You are conditioned to be frightened of us. You have seen people despise us. ‘Your’ people do not consider us worthy to share the spaces with you. We are outcasts, alienated by ‘your’ society. Some of us, I agree, resort to violence and abuse. That is generally to get attention. Most of us are normally quite friendly.” “It is not like that. I wouldn't mind to have you as my neighbor...” I lied. Deep inside, I was still scared of her.
This was the first time that I was speaking to a transgender. My mother would be mad at me if I ever told her about this. Oh, how will my neighbors ridicule me if they come to know that I spoke to a transgender! My friends would run away from me. I would be the target of all the jokes at school. Everyone would greet me with, “Oh, so ‘you’ are the girl who spoke to a transgender!” “You are saying this to make me feel better, eh?” she retorted and laughed. I came back to the present. She continued, “We have no place in ‘your’ society. This was a fact 50 years from now and will continue to be the fact even afterward. We have to live in ‘our’ community, no matter how atrocious it may be at times. We have to comply with all the terms of our community under all circumstances …because they are ‘our’ people. It is only they, who accept people like me and support us in all situations. If a transgender dies, nobody will dare to touch the body, forget about giving the person a proper cremation. At that time, only ‘our’ people will step forward for the job. We're dependent on each other for life and death.”
“But transgender people beg to earn a living. Worst still, some even practice prostitution! This way, nobody will respect them. Why don't they take up a job instead and earn through hard-work?” I asked. “Most of us barely manage to get a secondary education. Do most colleges accept transgender students even today? Even if just in case some manage to get a college degree, do companies recruit us? Small hotels or even dhabas shoo us away if we go to ask for even a menial job! Why? Because they generalize that, all of us beg and practice prostitution for a living. Therefore, we are dirty. ‘Normal’ people will not even touch us! Forget about getting served food by us.” She was teary-eyed as she completed the last line. Something inside me broke. She composed herself and continued, “And so, most of us spend our lives either begging or serving as prostitutes. What other choices do we have?” There was a long pause before she went on, “Then there is this eerie fear of what will happen of us on growing old? Who will look after us? Who will manage our medical expenses? Will we die all alone by simply collapsing on a busy road or in a closed room where nobody will know except many days after our death only when our body starts to decay? ”
I got goose bumps just by hearing the words. I could not imagine anybody dying in such conditions… She continued, “It is due to this that most of us decide to adopt children. Even we want someone to call us family… I have a daughter who looks after me. I tried my best to provide her with a decent education. She works with an NGO now and teaches children in our locality. However, not everyone is lucky enough to be able to adopt a child. There are many who live and die alone… Nevertheless, for those of us who are successful, the children transform our way of life. For one moment, we were all alone, unwanted, as if it did not even matter if we ever existed. The next moment, there is this wonderful child holding on to your little finger ever so tightly! It feels as though we hold a place in this world, as if our life has a purpose. It feels like magic… ” Her voice was heavy with emotion as she said all this. A tear rolled down my right eye. I wiped it with my index finger.
I was very upset with myself to have had such deeply prejudiced opinions for transgender people. Of course, every ‘normal’ person around me fed me all that junk but I should have made an effort to justify my prejudices and fear of this marginalized group. “That was sick of you!” I heard mini-me explode at me. Moreover, I felt sick, indeed. I felt sick to have judged and stereotyped transgender people. All my education was a big waste! I thought myself to be an empathetic human being. Alas! My empathy was limited to street children and stray animals alone. My parents always said that they were proud to have a child like me. I was now ashamed of a human being I turned out to be... Oh, what a frog-of-the-well I had become!
“Child, where did you say you wanted to get down?” Once again, I returned to reality. “Sorry, I get carried away into my world of thoughts quite often. Which is the next station, by the way?” I asked. “Bandra”, she replied. “Oh, I didn't realize we were talking for this long! Time flew by so quickly!” I exclaimed. I held her hand and continued, “I am very sorry Amma. I judged you most thoughtlessly. I should have realized that you are as human as I am. I have been a nasty, prejudiced brat! I am ashamed of my behavior. Please forgive me.” She smiled and replied, “Don’t be sorry, child. It is human nature to hold prejudices. What is important is to overcome them and look at the world with an open mind. You managed to overcome your prejudices about transgender people only after you spoke to one. I hope that you would no longer be scared of us and share this experience with people you know to help them overcome their prejudices, too.” I smiled back and nodded.
“What is your name?”, I asked. “Madhubala. Madhu, if you want it short,” she replied. I grinned and commented, “Your name is very bold… and er, influential.” She laughed and retorted, “I replaced the previous one with this for the very same reason! It makes me feel as though I have an identity…” We both smiled. “I like your bindi, Madhu Amma. Fancy telling me where did you buy it?” I asked pointing to the long, drop-shaped structure studded with mirrors, set meticulously in between her eyebrows. She laughed and answered, “I bought it from a local vendor.” She then began rummaging through the contents of her bag. After a while, she took out a five by three inches packet of some twenty beautiful, mirrory pieces. Handing it out to me, she said, “Here, you can have the entire packet! After all, you are the only young girl who has spoken to me. You have been very brave, indeed. You deserve a bonus!” I could not believe it! Here I was, a complete stranger who had not even shared her name and Madhu Amma was giving me an entire packet of sheer shiny brightness! “Go on, take it”, she urged. I took it with the most silly, toothy smile- the kind that kids give when they are expecting a regular gelato but get a double scoop instead!
“Next station, Bandra...” the announcer went and the train slowed down. I got up from my seat and began to make my way towards the nearest door to my left. “The other one... The one to your right...” she called out. I turned and mouthed a ‘thank you’. She smiled. I waved a goodbye and smiled back. The train jolted and came to a brief halt. I stepped down, turned to my left, and began to walk towards the exit gate. The train whistled and chugged out of sight towards Andheri. I spoke to myself, “Hey, wasn’t she just wonderful? Right from her name to her bindi to her smile and her story of struggle, everything about her was bold and influential personified! She helped me eradicate my fear of transgender people. I managed to jump out of the well!” Mini-me replied, “Well done, girl! You have broken your stereotypes. Today, you are a better human being than yesterday. I’m proud to be mini-you!” “Thanks for the accolades, mini-me. I would appreciate if you could acknowledge my good deeds often instead of charging at me with your words-based weaponry when I’m at my low”, I replied with as much sarcasm as I could afford. “Oh, stop bragging now, will you? Stay put to the ground and clip off those dreamy winglets that are emerging from the back of your shoulders”, mini-me retaliated and then asked in a low, steady voice, “Think and tell me now: will you share her story with the world?” I glanced at the shimmery bindis clutched in my left hand and smiled. Mini-me grinned and asked, “Did I tell you that you’re awesome?”