Why you should care
“I didn’t even say goodbye to him that night. I just left. And never spoke with him again.”
I was born in Berhampur in Ganjam district in Odisha, a small, dusty town about 100 miles from Bhubaneswar, the capital city. In childhood, I was bullied by everyone in my neighborhood because of the way I walked and talked. The neighborhood boys made fun of me. I hated growing up there. I knew I was different. And my family, who were poor and conservative, were ashamed of me.
I was born with both male and female genitalia. In India, the Supreme Court has recognized people like me as a third gender, known as kinnars: We are neither male nor female. I was taunted and humiliated for being myself. I was about 14 when I decided to leave home and find my own community.
In India, third-gender people often live together in clusters, away from the main cities. We live together as a sort of family. A teacher called a guru takes us under her wing, and we live as her children. Renting houses can be difficult for us, and we have to fight for our rights. It is hard fitting into a society that shuns everyone who is different.
I found my kinnar family in Bhubaneswar and moved in with them. I couldn’t continue education because I had no support, so I had to start working. Even though kinnars live together in harmony, we have to pay fees to the guru as a token of respect. Since no one would hire me, I had to beg on the streets for years.
When I was about 20, I moved to Mumbai, where I found a job as a bar dancer. I knew I had the looks, and I passed as a woman. And I’ve loved Bollywood music since I was a child; dancing comes naturally to me. I loved that job a lot. Wearing shimmery clothes every night and being able to dance — it was a dream come true. But I had to hide who I was from my employer. I didn’t tell him I was a kinnar because I would have lost my job. I didn’t have any other option. I had to lie to my boss, to the other girls working in the bar, to customers who visited the bar.
I made it on my own in that city, and I often felt alone. Friendless. Loveless. After work, I had nowhere else to go. But I gave my job everything. Dancing at the bar helped me forget my loneliness. The dresses we wore, the makeup, everything was a distraction.
There was one man who used to visit the bar almost every day. He looked like someone with a kind heart. And he used to spend thousands of rupees on me and pay me a lot of attention. But he didn’t know I was kinnar. He thought I was a woman. Every night he spent money on me, and his eyes were always following me. It was such a thrill.
I had been propositioned before for sex by the bar customers, but I could never do it. If my employer even got a whiff that I was kinnar, he would have kicked me out of the bar. I had to hide my real identity from everyone. But one day the kind man started talking to me in the bar, and I didn’t resist. I was falling in love with him. Soon, we started seeing each other. After work, I would meet him for a while before we went home to our separate houses. But I resisted telling him who I was. I was really scared of losing him, and revealing myself would have meant never seeing him again and never talking to him again. It really hurt. We went out for several months, and the more time passed, the harder it got.
What if I had told him that I am a kinnar? What would have happened? He would have left me. But he left me anyway because I didn’t have sex with him. One night when we met at our usual spot, he asked me if I would go to his place. I knew that was the last time I would see him. There was so much stigma to being identified as a kinnar that I decided to never tell him. I didn’t even say goodbye to him that night. I just left and never spoke to him again. Telling him would have meant losing both him and my job.
It’s been years since we dated. Sometimes I remember him and think about how cruel life can be. He was the only man who ever showed any kindness to me. Everyone else was just interested in sex. I carry this sorrow in my heart. I lost the only love of my life. But life has to move on. I moved on too.
Sahu, now 35 years old, lives in Berhampur in Odisha and is a guru to some 300 kinnars in the city.
As told to Maroosha Muzaffar