Why we need to know more about Ajay Mafatlal

He was one of our first trans icons, who lived courageously even as he battled the same social attitudes that hobble the LGBT movement to this day.

 |  Miscellany  |  4-minute read |   24-08-2015
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With the death of Ajay Mafatlal on Saturday, a chapter in the saga of one of India's pre-eminent old-money business families has drawn to a close. Scion of the Mafatlal empire whom most Indians know for their fabric business, Ajay was born Aparna and was perhaps the first transgender in India's post-Independence history whose case generated wide public interest.

When Aparna decided to transition in 2003, her case hogged headlines because it was assumed that she had undertaken the procedure so that she may be an equal claimant to the family assets as her brother, Atulya. This was widely believed to be true in spite of Ajay's denial. Back then trans people were hardly visible in the public space, and the idea of someone wanting to transition out of free will was new. As regards battles over inheritance, Indians have always held a keen interest in the goings on of the rich and famous.

In an interview to the Times of India after his transition (the interview has been reproduced by Mumbai Mirror), Ajay spoke of his trans status and his realisation of it since early childhood. "I hated being only with girls, hated the uniform of skirt and sash. My great wish was to go to a school where the uniform was shorts and shirt. Twice, when we had a fancy dress competition in the school, I chose to dress up as a jawan and then as a prince. I was the only one to dress up as a boy," he said.

It was later, when he hit puberty as a girl that the reality of his situation hit him. "When I turned 14, I began my periods. That was the worst day of my life. Everything in me militated against it. For it was something that only happened to women and in a way this told me that I couldn't escape my fate," he said in the interview.

At around this time, Ajay learnt about the possibility of transitioning and from then on, harboured a deep desire to take the plunge. His feelings for women made him certain that he was born into the wrong body. He revealed in the interview that wearing a sari for family occasions was a chore and in all his years as a woman, he would have worn it no more than 15 times.

Ajay's story is the broader story of what the transgender, even when they are born to affluent parents, have to undergo. For the longest time, his parents were against the idea of his transitioning since they had accepted him for who he was, so "why rock the boat"? Fear of social ridicule can be a strong deterrent forcing many trans people to transition late in their lives by when they have done the socially accepted thing and can finally be themselves.

Ajay describes his joy at the transitioning, which took place at Breach Candy in November 2003, thus:

"Immediately after the operation I applied for a change of name and in one month I got the certificate with my new name, Ajay. I'd always liked the name and after my long battle it seemed particularly significant. I had after all, won. It gave me a great kick to see my new name on paper. In fact, I was so kicked that instead of sending over an assistant I myself made three trips to the passport office to get the passport with my new name and picture."

It's a tragedy that so little was known of this man. If his transition had happened today, he would have benefitted from the greater media coverage of LGBT issues and would have had the chance to present his case. Instead, when he transitioned, the story was about his estrangement with his brother Atulya, in which Atulya's wife Sheetal had, according to reports, played a part. In the TOI interview, Ajay acknowledged the distance in the relationships, but dispelled any doubts as to the "reasons" for the transition being anything other than his inherent desire to live as a man.

In the span of just over a decade since Ajay's transition, we have come to live in a vastly different era with regard to trans visibility. Videos featuring them in a positive light reinforce the perception that they are no different from "us", whatever this "us" may mean. A positive Supreme Court judgement from last year has shone a renewed focus on their rights by directing the government to reserve positions for them in educational institutions and jobs.

Even so, great battles lie ahead. Transgenders continue to face discrimination on a daily basis and have few avenues to better their lot. Society is yet to find sturdy ways to incorporate them without judgement or pity. In this background, it is appropriate to pay homage to Ajay Mafatlal, one of our first trans icons, who lived truly and courageously even as he battled those same social attitudes that hobble the movement to this day.


Vikram Johri Vikram Johri @vikramjohri

I write for a living. Sometimes the words comfort the heart too.

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