Incredible story of the transgender mother and her daughter behind Vicks ad

I hope it changes how we see the world.

 |  The Castaways  |   Long-form |   04-04-2017
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The tops of towers disappeared into the sky, poking holes in its cover. I saw a building with many windows. Broken and bruised walls with many cracks. A blue tarpaulin sheet, tattered in parts, rustled in the wind. This was no protection from the sun or the rain.

It started to rain as we entered Gulli No 1. This is how I made my way into these streets of Kamathipura. Inside, the women must be wrapped around strangers’ bodies this rainy evening, I thought.

The daughter who didn't become a doctor

Gauri Sawant, a transgender activist, looked out of the taxi window. This was in June 2012 when I was chasing a story on eunuchs who had adopted children. That evening, I had met her in Malvani in Bombay where she has told me about her adopted daughter Gayatri.

I had pitched a story on adoptions by hijras and Manu Joseph, the former editor of Open magazine, had let a team travel to Bombay. We had no leads. We only had faith that we’d return with a story and maybe one day people would notice.

Sawant offered to take us to meet Zeenath Pasha in Kamathipura. Zeenath, another eunuch, who had adopted a son and a daughter, had agreed to meet us.

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Photo: Chinki Sinha

In these streets, there was a strange combustion of nostalgia and discovery. I waited for a few seconds at the entrance and then decided to meet Zeenath, who would later tell me many stories in the course of the two years that I kept going to Ramabai Chawl, Kamathipura.

Most remain in the notebooks as part of memoirs of a writer who always hopes of writing an account of worlds visited and revisited.

Such adoptions are illegal. Five years later, “Touch of Care”, the brand new advertisement from Vicks, based on the story that took us to Malvani to meet Gauri, has gone viral.

The ad follows Gayatri, as she makes her way to a boarding school on a bus. Gayatri talks about her adoptive mother Gauri and says she wants to become a lawyer so she can fight for her mother’s rights as a transwoman.

“My mother wants me to become a doctor when I grow up,” Gayatri tells viewers in the advertisement.

It is shot beautifully and, perhaps, stories like this don’t need too many props. They are complete in themselves. The story called "The Eunuch Mothers" was first published in Open magazine in 2012.

Those who write are often reluctant speakers. We hide behind our words mostly. We don’t usually lay claim to our stories. We don’t expect other journalists to find us. I know there are deadlines. But then, a story like this needs to be talked about in more detail than just the hashtags and the interviews with the famous director.

Some stories become part of an important experience. For me, it was about becoming an expert at losing, of encounters with gender and sexuality, and a journey to understand the otherness of people, and situations, of spaces and emotions.

It was a story of human endeavour, and of courage, and of battling all odds.

At first, Publicis Singapore, the agency that worked on the advertisement for P&G, wanted a different story. They had read a story by Marianne Bray on CNN, published in 2005 about a hijra named Asha Khan and had wanted me to find her.

In 2005, Asha Khan, who was previously called Yusuf Khan, was 55. After weeks of trying to trace her in Bombay via the various transwomen I had met in the course of my research, we were able to locate her in Vashi. Asha Khan’s daughter, who she had wanted see as a doctor, had been married off and was now living in Vashi, a suburb in New Bombay. Asha Khan wasn’t keeping well.

That story wouldn’t have worked. The daughter hadn’t become a doctor. The brief was to find a positive story, which is when I offered to introduce them to Sawant.

We had written about her and we had kept in touch. Sawant agreed to be part of the commercial. I saw the story on social media recently. It made me smile.

The Singapore-based agency had not even considered it important to inform me about the advertisement. But not everyone shares the passion of the storyteller. Stories don’t belong to anyone. I only believe in remembering them.

This is how I met Sawant.

'The other mother'

(Excerpts from the notebook, June 2012)

Sawant alternates between a mother and the role of a grandmother, who tells her adopted daughter that she shouldn't clap like the hijras, and the one who shows Mandwa, a young transgender, how to sing, and dance, and clap. The young man is on the threshold. On the one hand, there is the world she has always craved for, and on the other, a universe of misplaced sexual identities, of suffering, and of letting go.

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Mother by accident. Photo: Chinki Sinha  

With Gayatri, she is gentle. She scoops her hair, ties them in a ponytail, feeds her, each morsel carefully wrapped and slowly pushed into the girl's mouth.

Mandwa, who wears her hair short, is a young transgender who has chosen Sawant to lead her through her new life — her transformation from male to female.

Sawant, a 35-year-old transgender, and the director of Sakhi Char Chowghi Trust in Malvani in Mumbai, adopted Gayatri four years ago. She was a six-year-old. Her mother, a sex worker, who had green eyes and a fair complexion as per their accounts, died of AIDS.

Gauri had been friends with her. In the network of sex workers, most know each other.

“I became a mother by accident,” Sawant says, as she inches closer to Gayatri.

She had brought the child home, cut her nails, and fed her. Gayatri attended school in the neighbourhood, and spent most afternoons after school in the little room in Malvani with her mother and a group of hijras, who played with her and pampered her.

It hasn't been easy bringing her up in this environment. At the shelter, which offers refuge to those who are fighting abuse, or are trying to mostly survive in a world where their gender identity is still an unacceptable, uncomfortable and unfinished kind of truth, Gayatri is an innocent 10-year-old who is trying hard to differentiate between “uncles” and “aunties”.

Those who have grown their hair, and wear salwars and sarees, Gayatri refers to as "aunty". But Mandwa, who has short hair and the voice of a man, is an uncle. They don't mind. In the child's conformist world, the spectrum of gender has not been confronted yet. At least, not when we first met the mother and the daughter five years ago.

Of course, Gayatri’s world had made its way into her interactions. The child picks up some of the ways of the world she inhabits.

Once, Gayatri got into a fight with other girls from school. Within minutes, she had started clapping, and abusing like the hijras.

“That's when I knew I had to get her to a boarding school,” Sawant says.

Now, Gayatri is studying in Pune. She comes home for holidays, wraps herself around her new mother in the nights, and sleeps soundly. When she had first come to live with Sawant, she was a withdrawn child, still dealing with the loss of her mother. Now, she calls Sawant her mother.

Sawant was born in Pune. Her father was in the police, and she had an elder sister. Her mother died when she was around nine years old. They lived with their grandmother, and one day she was found sleeping wearing a bra underneath her shirt. Punishments had followed.

She was made to urinate with the door open so her uncles could ensure she wasn't squatting like a woman and relieving herself. Those experiences carried much torture, she says. 

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'The child picks up some of the ways of the world she inhabits.' Photo: Chinki Sinha

Her father, an assistant police commissioner, carefully chose her clothes – pants, and shirts. He forced her to keep a moustache, and she hated it.

She lived a closet existence. She fell for a boy in school. Tall and dusky, and she would stand outside his class waiting for him to emerge from behind the classroom doors. She would write him letters and draw little hearts on paper. She cut her hands and with the ink of blood, wrote to Sachin, who she imagined to be her lover then.

One day, she was having dinner with her father, and her tears fell into the dal. She wept. She was inconsolable. Sachin hadn't come to school and she was shaken. She had seen him at the bus stop with another girl and she was jealous.

She moved on to others, including a boy, who slid his hands under her trousers, asked her to undress, and they discovered, and explored each other. She knew she wasn't attracted to women.

One night, her father held the door open for her, and asked her to leave. She had nowhere to go. Finally, she came to Ashok Row Kavi, the gay rights activist, who gave her shelter. She worked with him, and went through sex reassignment surgeries to transition from male to female.

“Cutting off your genitals is not easy. It is a part of you that you are letting go of. The truth is, we will always be incomplete women. Not here, not there,” she says.

She left her family, and moved in with the hijra community. Once, outside the Borivali station, she saw her father. He looked worn, and weary.

She wanted to call out his name. But she didn't.

Kya paaya, kya khoya,” she says, and looks away.

Now, she has a partner, and they live near Malvani.

***

'The daughter'

“I didn't want to be a mother. But I wanted to do something for her. She is so innocent. The community has been very helpful,” Sawant says.

Bringing up a girl child is like holding a glass doll, she says. Gayatri is a thin, wiry girl.

“Mummy tells me many stories. About queens and kings and princes and palaces,” she says.

Ever since Gayatri came into her life, Sawant’s life has changed. She wears traditional clothes because that's what Gayatri likes, and cooks for her. Together, they go to the beaches or to movies.

Some of the childhood that she missed out on, Sawant is now reclaiming through her. They play with dolls, and pretend to cook food in miniature vessels.

Here, there is a role reversal. Sawant plays the daughter, and Gayatri plays the mother, who cooks food for her daughter and sends her to college. Simple plots, and uncomplicated narratives in a child's play. They laugh easily, the mother and the daughter. To Gayatri, Sawant is the doting mother who buys her white fairy-like frocks and throws parties for her.

For Mandwa, she is the hijra nani, the one who will ensure the 19-year-old transitions smoothly and adopts the hijra ways.

So Mandwa accompanies her to Kamathipura. And Gayatri stays home.

***

The streets are full of women, and men haggling over prices. Men stumble out of dark staircases and seldom look back. In the tiny rooms, the women must have smoothened their saris, fixed their makeup, and, perhaps, are already waiting for the next customer. Business has gone down ever since the deaths because of HIV AIDS. There's a fear. But there's also the need. So, they continue.

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There's a fear. But there's also the need. Photo: Chinki Sinha

Sawant tells Mandwa, who is a trained Lavni dancer, all of this as we drive through the narrow lanes of Kamathipura.

“This isn't your future,” she says. “Mandwa isn't castrated yet. She is on her apprenticeship.”

The other life, the other daughter.

The streets of Kamathipura are bustling at night time. And in that diffused light, this world has a certain charm, a certain temptation. Eunuchs and women are on display. They look beautiful. But if you look closely, their eyes have a haunted look.

Sawant plays a song on her mobile in Zeenath’s room where we are sitting. Pakistani singer Noor Jehan’s famous song from the 1962 film Mehboob.

"Nigahen mila kar badal jane wale, mujhe tujhse koi shikayat nahin hai. Yeh duniya bari sangdil hai, yahan par kisi ko kisi se mohabbat nahin hai… Main ashkon mein sare jahan ko baha doon, magar mujhko rone ki aadat nahin hai." (This world is stone-hearted, nobody loves anyone; I could drain the whole world with my tears, but I am not used to crying.)

It is a song about betrayal, acceptance, forgiveness and moving on, and they both sing along together.

***

In Delhi, another transgender talks about her daughter, whose mother is a sex worker from Kamathipura. She doesn't visit her daughter because she is afraid of forming attachments. Some have sad endings. For instance, the famous eunuch Tikku Hijra who lived at the Mahim Dargah, and was shunned by the girl she brought up, or another, an elderly woman, whose adopted daughter abandoned her. But she provides for her still.

Shahnaz Nani, a hijra Guru, married off one of the adopted daughters recently. The neighbourhood in Malvani is full of stories about the lavish wedding feast Shahnaz threw. The daughter lives across the street and is married to a man who drives an auto-rickshaw.

***

'The writer’s search for a story'

Long after the story had been published, I took the train to Ajmer for the Urs. Zeenath had asked me to come so I could understand why she had wanted to be a mother. At the gate of a ramshackled guest house, sat a beautiful young man with eyes lined with kohl. At some point, he motioned me to go inside, and that's where I would find her and other pilgrims.

Up the stairs, and past the rooms with their doors ajar offering views of lives of those I didn't know – the eunuchs, the prostitutes, the young men who sat playing cards – the room in the corner was hers.

Bare of any furnishings, but filled with bags, pillows, and sheets.

On the mountain, Zeenath had prayed at the shrine of the hijra who had cut open his womb in the tenth month. The twin shrines – the hijra, and the child – are next to each other. She told me the story of Maji, a name they are forbidden to utter. Once among the pilgrims, there was a woman struggling to lead her children on top of the hill. A eunuch offered to carry her children. The woman, in a fit of rage, told the hijra to stay away. The hijra, sad and hurting, prayed at the Baba ki Mazaar to be blessed with a child. For 10 months, she carried the child in her womb. Because she had only asked to be able to carry a child, and not deliver it, she was torn between aspiration, and reality. With a bloated stomach, the pain was intense. Prayers for redemption from this tyranny of desire weren't granted. Baba couldn't reverse his own blessings. In the end, the stomach burst, and a male child's face was revealed before both died. A shrine was erected in their memory.

In every such story, whether the bearings are rooted in fact or fiction, the need for reassurance is evident. There is the ambivalence of it, too. The wish, and the impossibility of it are both manifest in the same story.

The impossibility of reproduction is what stands between the hijras and the attainment of womanhood.

Sawant had said she could never be the complete woman even after 100 surgeries. You could reconstruct the body, recreate the facial features, but the womb is the privilege of the women. To bless them is our fate, she had said.

“We pray for the women. We want that when we bless them with children, our prayers are heard,” Zeenath said. “The hijra was blessed with a child. That was his faith. He got what he asked for.”

That afternoon, as she prepared for a pilgrimage to Sarwar Shareef, the shrine of Moinuddin Chishti's eldest son, she whispered she didn't want to live the life of an in-between person. Being a hijra has brought no respite from the time when she was impersonating as a man. Her soul, she believed, was of a woman, or at least it revolted against the male organ that was assigned to her by birth.

For 10 days, she had camped in Ajmer for the Urs celebrations, which mark the death anniversary of the Sufi saint Khawja Moinuddin Chisti.

“But every wish can't be fulfilled,” she says.

In the social imagination of the gender roles, and their appearances, the hijras are misfits. Surgeries only help to strengthen the conformist views of masculinity and femininity as it exists in the society. While many hijras have only castrated themselves, a few have gone ahead with surgeries. Many still haven't parted with their male organs. It is difficult to understand the third sex, and there are many theories, and terms that seek to define their gender or lack of it, Zeenath said.

This is where faith helps and heals.

“I am tired of living this life. If I were a woman, or if I were comfortable in my male body, I could lead a normal life. All my life I have tried to imitate this other identity,” Zeenath says. “But I'm tired. All I pray for is a better life the next time around.”

Zeenath had been coming to Ajmer. In Moti Katla, the neighbourhood full of guest houses where the members of the hijra community stay for the duration of the Urs, there are celebrations every night. The earnings of the hijras are spent on offering chadars at the dargah, in preparing feasts and praying for others.

Through the nights, the qawalis could be heard from these temporary rest homes. They would dress in their fineries, and dance and sing, and celebrate the immense hope they found in faith.

In Ajmer, were they could enter the inner sanctum, they felt the saint understood their pain.

“Where else will you find a shrine for a eunuch? At least there is an acknowledgment,” she says. “But I know that the hijra who was blessed with a son was living in different times. We are living in a corrupt world. We must suffer.”

We remember so much. Sawant looks nice in the advertisement. I am grateful that they chose a story that I thought had been lost in the cacophony of sensational stories.

Only once in a while, you find a story like this.

I hope the story changes how we see the world. I hope the advertisement does good to the world.

The reason I rummaged through my notes was to write the full story (as much as I had witnessed and remembered) if anyone cared to read through it.

Writer

Chinki Sinha Chinki Sinha @chinkis

Rover in the driftless area of the outcastes. Writing is a way of deleting.

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