The Truth about Me: A Hijra Life Story
What is it about the form of the life story—the autobiography—that makes it so seductive and so deeply discomfiting at the same time? I think it’s how the boundaries between private and public, someone else’s life and your own, blur in your reading. The relationship you forge is rich and colorful and insightful, but it’s also dark and violent and difficult to come to terms with.
The Truth about Me: A Hijra Life Story is the autobiography of Revathi. Revathi’s ‘truth’ is the first of such to be published in English: at once an illuminating, and a scarring read, that leaves you changed. Hijras are a community of people who are born men, but feel they are women, and so live as such. What differentiates them from eunuchs, or other trangendered/transsexual people is their culture: to be a hijra is to live in a community with other hijras, where you have a mother figure (a guru), sisters and daughters, and a tight set of rules within which you relate with them, what work you can do, how you look and behave.
The book is rich in detail and pulls you determinedly into the whirlpool of Revathi’s experiences—sometimes exciting and joyous, but more often sad and violent, physically, and emotionally abusive—a life of alienation and extreme frustration.
In The Truth about Me, Revathi leads us through her discovery of a community, experiences castration (nirvaanam—this makes her a ‘woman’—‘I felt like a flower that had just blossomed’), learns to dance and sing, becomes a beggar, performs sex work, works as an activist for a nonprofit, is stripped naked and tortured in police custody, falls in love, and more.
What is fascinating about Revathi’s way of telling, and almost painfully illuminating for the reader, is how she sets her own life – her familial relationships, her acceptance of her identity, the journey of becoming a hijra – parallel to the structures that she lives within. We see the demands and injustices that patriarchy inflicts, and its discomfort with her transgression; but on the other hand we also see the norms of the hijra community, which must be followed to be accepted into its fold. The sense one gets is of the (marginalised) self constantly struggling with something—both the mainstream and the alternatives available. She says, ‘A man sometimes has to struggle to live; but for people like me, to live was to struggle and fight…The world looks askance at me.’
While the book validates the necessity and power of a distinct hijra culture and community for a people pushed to the margins, as a slightly distanced onlooker, I felt that it falls silent on how unrelenting and inflexible this culture often seems. When Revathi interacts in the world with her hijra identity, but outside of the confines of the community, the fissures between her numerous worlds are too deep to see, the loneliness almost too cruel to read about: ‘Everyday my feelings died only to be reborn and to die again.’