Published: 04th October 2019
Transgender writer A Revathi's name next to Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison on Columbia University wall
Several male writers' names are etched on the wall, two days ago, a banner featuring eight women writers' names went up, A Revathi was one of them
In 1994, Laura Hotchkiss Brown and her friends who were all graduating from Columbia University launched a protest and hung a banner with the names of prolific female writers from the ramparts of a building. The banner was hung above the names of male writers like Aristotle, Homer, Sophocles and others. The students were protesting the fact that only male writers' names were etched on the wall of the Butler Library. The banner was pulled down.
Around that time, a young transwoman, A Revathi, from Tamil Nadu was living with the hijra community in Delhi and though she was beginning to feel like she was in her own skin. She was not happy. The community was excluded, she was forced to turn to begging, dancing at weddings and sex work to earn her daily bread.
Due Representation: Revathi hails from Salem, then moved to Delhi only to return to Tamil Nadu again but she was not accepted back. So she set up base in Bengaluru
In august company
On October 1, 2019, 30 years after the women students' protest, a new banner has gone up on the wall of Butler's Library. And it is placed above the male writer's names. There are eight names on the banner — Maya Angelou, Gloria E Anzaldúa, Diana Chang, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Leslie Mormon Silko and.......A Revathi.
Two days ago, a friend of Revathi's who is pursuing their PhD at the prestigious University rung her up and asked her if she knew that her name was on a huge banner amongst names like Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.
"I was completely shocked but absolutely thrilled. The student was also surprised that I had had no idea but I'm especially overwhelmed because it is the college that Ambedkar went to," Revathi said. Revathi is a writer and activist hailing from Salem and is currently based in Bengaluru. In 2004, she brought out a Tamil book called Unarvum Uruvamum (Feelings of the Entire Body) and in 2010 she brought out The Truth about Me: A Hijra Life Story which was an English translation of her writing. These books have found their way into various curriculums across the world. "I know that the book is taught in many colleges here and also abroad. It is taught at Zurich University and some other Universities. I've also been invited to these places because of the book. So I was not surprised that people at Columbia have read it but I was not at all expecting this, I thank the students who have made this happen, for putting me amongst such great people," Revathi said.
In Action: Revathi is a theatre artist as well and used her art to spread message and awareness on various issues, she is an active member of women's groups too
See what they've done?
Revathi is eager to actually see the banner with her own eyes, "For a transgender and one who cannot speak English, it was almost impossible for me to get a passport but now I want to travel to America and I hope to see it with my own eyes," a beaming Revathi said.
Speaking about how they came to choose these eight names, the Columbia University students say on their website, "We believe that these female-identifying writers and thinkers that best meet the values that Columbia students should be looking for in works to read and writers to aspire to. They come from every walk of life and write about topics ranging from queer theory to black motherhood. Women, especially those from marginalised identities, are often left out of the Western canon, along with the complex and important themes they write about."
Strong words those.
Bold and Beautiful: Revathi's acquaintance at Columbia sent her picture of her name on the banner, she had no clue about it prior to their call
The writings of a lifetime
Revathi says her own books are simply stories from her life and her struggles. "I just wrote about what happened in my life. I'm not a big writer or anything, I just wrote the book as if I was telling the story to someone. I didn't write to win the Sahitya Akademi Prize, I only wrote it because I thought it might change someone's life and so it was pretty simple," the activist said. Like she'd imagined, she managed to save and change lives, as the books helped many parents accept their transgender children, some were able to accept themselves. And she also managed to find a space between the world's greatest.
Revathi says she took her inspiration from those who fought under the Narmada Bachao Andolan, from those who fought for the land rights of SC, ST and people like Gauri Lankesh, who helped translate her book into Kannada, "This is a tribute to all those who fought for transgender rights all these years, including my friend who was like a daughter, Pramila, an activist who committed suicide and the many others who were forced to do the same," she said.
Happy Inspiration: Revathi has helped several transmen as well and continues to be a beacon of light for the transgender community
She's not done, just yet
Not only is Revathi a writer but she is also a theatre actor and through her plays she has connected with women's groups too and works with them, "They have accepted me as a woman and now they also help transgender women find housing more easily these days. "
And the change has been tangible. "Today, quite a few transgenders are in respectable jobs, we have people who are teachers, in the police force, sports, arts. People no matter throw things at us when we walk the roads. However, there are still those who are trapped in prostitution but change is coming. But a lot of credit has to go to the community and I thank them for all the support they have given me through the years and for keeping up the fight for so long, this is their achievement too," a smiling Revathi said.