Published: 12th May 2017
First transgender to write TN board exams was adopted by TN's first transgender engineering graduate, Grace Banu
Tarika Banu, the first transgender student to write and clear TN board exams opens up about the criticism and struggles she had to overcome, her family and her future aspirations
Anyone who has had a chance to interact with Grace Banu would know that her phone just doesn't stop ringing, ever. She says it has been this way ever since she became an activist in 2011. One of these calls that she received over the years was from a young boy in Thoothukudi, Banu's own hometown. That young boy went on to become Tarika Banu, Tamil Nadu's first officially registered transgender to appear for the State Board exams and also pass them.
When Tarika Banu ( a name she adopted as a way of thanks to Grace Banu), was in class VIII, she started to realise that she felt different from the others in her class, "I wanted to hang out only with the girls in my class, eat lunch with them, go out shopping with them, sit in class with them. I wanted to be just like them, that's when I realised that maybe I was transgender but then I would try to hide the fact," she said. Eventually, she did confide in a friend she had in her village in Ulakudi but when her family came to know, as expected, they warned her against interacting with any transgenders, "I told my mum that I didn't think it was wrong to speak to transgenders but she told me that they would change me and make me like them. I was even counselled by people in the village who said I was going the wrong way," Tarika said. But Tarika didn't give up, she tried to reach out for help.
I wanted to hang out only with the girls in my class, eat lunch with them, go out shopping with them, sit in class with them. I wanted to be just like them, that's when I realised that maybe I was transgender but then I would try to hide the fact
Tarika Banu, transgender student
In yet another Facebook success story, the 16-year old from Thoothukudi came across Grace Banu's profile and requested help and Bani immediately asked Tarika to come to Chennai. Subsequently, Tarika started to make plans but her parents are farmers and her three brothers had no clue, "One of my brothers' had had a baby so the whole family was busy, I took the opportunity and packed my bags and left to the bus stop, but a relative spotted me. My brothers' rushed to stop me but I convinced them that I was only going to a friend's house and left." Tarika then came and met Banu, stayed a couple of days and went back to her family to tell them she would move to Chennai permanently. "My brother met mummy (Grace Banu) and she convinced him that I would get a good education and not get into any wrong professions, so he let me be." And thus began Tarika's journey, but Tarika is not the first girl that Grace Banu has adopted.
Life changer: Tarika met Grace when she was 16
Twenty nine-year-old Grace Banu has three other daughters, she's changed all their lives and though she is only a couple of years older than them, for these transgender women, Grace Banu is no less than a mother, which is why they all call her 'mummy'. All the daughters reached out to Banu for help and she did everything in her means to ensure they have bright futures. "I was the first engineering student, so I feel like that has paved a way for other transgender students who aspire to be engineers. When Tarika came to me, she had only finished class XI, so I decided that she had to be the first officially registered transgender student and when she also told me she wanted to study, I decided to make it my mission to get her admitted, but first we had to get her surgery," she explained.
After a year's break to do surgeries and trips to the gazette office to get her name changed, it was time for admissions, "It was my wish that a transgender attend a government school and also I wanted it to specifically be a girls school. I wanted to her to wear the girl's uniform and go to class like any other child. So, we found the closest school government girls school but they flat out said no. So we went to the Collector's office and they just told us to get back to the school but nothing happened. So Tarika and I went and did dharna. After continuous protests and running around she was finally admitted."
Unlike the usual stories of harassment faced by transgenders, Tarika said that she was quite welcomed by her classmates and teachers as well, "I was worried about whether they would accept me but they themselves came and sat next to me and made friends with me," she says with a smile. Her best friend, Bhuvaneshwari's mother warned her daughter not to speak to Tarika, "She came and told me that her mother had warned her about me but she said she didn't care and would continue being my friend, it made me feel so proud and humbled," she added. But besides, Grace Banu the one other person who Tarka attributes her success is to her tuition teacher, who on several occasions stood up for her if she was ever teased or harassed by her peers." He always said if you take these things to heart how will you be able to study properly. I never thought I'd see a day where someone would stand up for me like he did," Tarika said.
Promising future: Tarika hopes to become the first transgender doctor someday
Tarika says she wants to study medicine, a dream she has cherished from a young age and Grace Banu says she won't stop at anything to ensure it happens. "I studied engineering, so I want her to study medicine. I want her to become the first transgender doctor. Because I believe that if the first person has the guts to do it then it will inspire more transgender women to apply," Banu said. Banu's dream is that transgenders enter all kinds of professions, "As long someone successfully opens a door for the others to enter as well. Our community will grow and achieve all the dreams we have."
As long someone successfully opens a door for the others to enter as well. Our community will grow and achieve all the dreams we have
So what if Tarika does happen to get a medical seat and moves away in pursuit of her dream, leaving behind Banu? "Let her go, let all the others go too. I don't care. I strongly believe what Mao said- Fulfill your responsibilities don't expect anything in return."
As we took leave of Banu's home which is stacked with all kinds of awards and prizes, the family's pet parrot walked in and Grace Banu immediately sent in one of her daughters to get the parrot some food as she went off to attend another one of her many many calls. In a one hour conversation, Banu did not fail to answer one single call, she wasn't going to miss an opportunity to help even one person, change even one person's life like she changed Tarika's.