Published: 17th June 2020
How this Dalit transwoman pharmacist and Karagattam dancer has risen above stigma and slurs to live her life positively
Swetha is also HIV positive but is fighting the big fight with all her heart and soul and there's nothing that can stop her from achieving her dreams
Ever since she was young, Swetha would always eagerly await the Karagattam dance troupe’s performance in her village. Every time they came through her hometown, she would watch in wide-eyed awe as they danced. Then she would return home with some colourful water pots that were discarded by marriage parties, wear her younger sister’s clothes and then dance until she dropped out of fatigue and after reaching the pinnacle of absolute happiness. Then she would take off her sister’s clothes and go back to living her regular life. In a body that felt foreign to her. Swetha was born a boy, after all, though her mind believed otherwise.
Swetha remembers first being made conscious of her body and her mannerisms when she was as young as 11 or 12. She didn’t like the unwarranted stares — in her school, the boys would tease, ridicule and mock her. It upset her, but every evening she returned to a loving home. Her father would wipe away her tears and her mother would threaten to ‘beat up the boys’ and then they would all laugh it off. Swetha came from a Dalit family and was the ‘chella pulla’ (most loved child) of her family. She had an older brother and a young sister and they all lived together in the ‘kadaisi gramam’(last village) near Kovilpatti, situated on the border of Virudhunagar and Ramanathapuram. “Both my parents loved me the most. I always studied well and they were very proud of me,” she recounts. But the following year, Swetha convinced her parents to send her to boarding school, as she didn’t think she could cope with the taunts and mocking that had expanded outside the walls of her school.
But boarding school wasn’t a good idea, “I was stuck in the boys’ hostel and they very soon began to make my life miserable. The ragging was endless, they would harass me and threaten me. My dad would keep asking me to come back because he was worried. But I stayed till the end of the year and passed the exams.” In a couple of years though, Swetha had to return to a boarding school after her father lost his job. Now though, she was 16 and had fully come to realise that she was a transgender. So going to a boy’s hostel was not at all something that Swetha wanted, “I would wait till everyone else had finished, to go into the bathroom for a bath. I would sometimes hold on to my bowels for hours because I didn’t want to enter the toilet when anyone else was there. They would constantly try to provoke me and say offensive things but I silently coped with it.” She was forced to cope with the situation but she managed to pass her exams with really good marks. That is when a family member advised her to pursue a Pharmacy course (BPharm) and told her that it was a well-paying profession, “I had good marks but we weren’t aware of what colleges were good or bad, so we just went along with whatever people we knew said.”
College was not a very safe space for Swetha and she was frequently taunted here as well. But it was in college that she got access to vital information — and began to ponder over the possibility of getting a sex reassignment surgery. “Some transwomen approached me while I was travelling in a bus and told me I can go to them if I needed anything. But it scared me, I thought they’d make me stop my studies. But they reassured me and said that all they want to do is to let me know that if I need anything, then I could always go to them for support. So I slowly started to learn things about them and myself,” she narrates.
One of the things that she learnt, or rather re-found was her love for Karagattam. With the help of her best friend, Priya, Swetha would escape whenever she could to catch the Karagattam performances in nearby villages, during these trips she would find a transwoman who was a dancer. “I would watch them put the make-up on their face and it left me amazed. I begged and pleaded with her to teach me, said I would do absolutely anything to learn,” Swetha said. And that’s how she went on to learn the artform. “When I wore the dress and the make-up and looked at myself I was completely overwhelmed. I looked beautiful! And everybody kept saying how I looked exactly like a woman and I was overjoyed to hear that,” she said.
She fulfilled her life-long dream and danced away into the night of her first performance, and many many nights after. The happiness was addictive for Swetha, so she grabbed every opportunity with both hands. She managed to both dance and study but there was still something that was bothering her — something that she had to tell her parents, both of whom loved her unconditionally. “I told them that I wanted to get the surgery and they weren’t happy. They said they thought I was just having a phase and that the whole town would laugh at us. I was the only one from my community who had studied so much, the only one in my village, even. So my parents couldn’t understand why I would throw away all those opportunities. But they are from a rural area and they don’t know how things work. So I could understand their worries but I also couldn’t continue living my life that way, so I left,” she tells us.
But Swetha didn’t have the money to get the surgery done. After she graduated, she started work at a popular pharmacy chain. Again her employers insisted that she live in the room that they provided, so she was forced to live with 13 men in the same room. “They wouldn’t treat me well at the workplace either but I needed to save money, so I just bit my lips and tolerated it,” she added. Things, however, were not going to get any better for Swetha, “One day, I went for a check up with my friend and I happened to get a blood test done. Completely incidentally. Suddenly, the doctor told me that I had tested positive for HIV. I couldn’t believe how it had happened but it had. And I just wanted to die, I saw no future,” the pharmacist said. Swetha fell into deep depression but her community of transgender friends kept her going. They were all supportive — one of them put in all their savings, to get Swetha the surgery as well. So amidst, all the hell that she was going through, she was finally able to be in a body that she had wanted to have ever since she could remember.
Slowly, Swetha began to regain confidence in herself and she also found a special friend who helped her cope. “I turned away anybody who seemed to like me. But this one person kept coming back and he didn’t mind that I had HIV even though I felt that’s what would make everyone run away from me. But he stayed and ensured I ate because my immunity was always low, especially because I continued dancing. He also encouraged me to write the police exam because he kept telling me I’m very intelligent. So I did it for him and even passed. But he told me not to go for the physical exam and we got into big fights over it. I found out later that they would test me for HIV and he just didn’t want to tell me that and make me feel bad about it,” she said with a smile. Pressure from his family forced them to part ways. Yet again, life was taking away something important from Swetha. But she kept going.
“I started reading about others who were living with HIV and I figured instead of being scared, I could be an example to the others and live my life to the fullest,” she says, determinedly. She applied for a vacancy at the Tamil Nadu AIDS Control Society, but feels she didn't get the job because she was transgender. “I wasn’t willing to give up. They couldn’t just deny me a job because I was a transgender. I had the marks, the merit, experience and yet they denied me the job,” Swetha said. Society has steadily tried to bring her down, but this was not a battle she was going to lose. So now she’s the first Dalit transwoman pharmacist who is also a Karagattam dancer and who is HIV positive and kicking ass. And she’s happy, “Well, there’s still struggle. The people in the office pile up work on me, even work that is not meant for a pharmacist and if I argue about it, they say ‘You only wanted this job’, right?’ and so I can’t say anything.”
So, is this it? Has she reached her pinnacle of happiness? No way, the 28-year-old says. “That sort of happiness I only find with dance. But I’ve also realised I don’t really like working in a pharmacy. I just did it because someone asked me too, I was too unaware to make my own decisions. But now I know what I like. I found out that I like Botany, I’ve always loved it but just didn’t know. So now I want to study it and then teach it. That’s my plan,” she said. She still dances till she drops though the fatigue sets it earlier now, but the happiness she felt as a child - that pinnacle stays intact.
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