Published: 23rd April 2021
How one trans woman has resisted the lure of the city and set up a small town catering business that's serving up a storm
How starting and sustaining a business in a small town is a whole different experience for a transgender woman is a story by itself. For Shyamala, it's the story of her life
Spluttering spices, sizzling onions and garlic in hot oil, a splash of turmeric, chili and coriander powder, some tangy tomatoes, a pinch of salt and finally, finely chopped pieces of succulent mutton — this is all that goes into Tamil Nadu’s famous mutton chukka. It is one of Shyamala P’s most ordered dishes.
Shyamala is one of the very few, if not the only, trans caterer in Tamil Nadu's Tiruchendur district. She has been so successful that she gets orders from the big cities too. But even though she has tasted big city life, there is a reason why she has chosen not to live there long term.
‘Uyara uyara paranthaalum oor kuruvi parunthu aagathu' (Even though the bird can fly very high, a village sparrow cannot be a hawk), this is what I used to get told in the cities,’ Shyamala says.
When she decided to transition, Shyamala moved to Bengaluru because, at that point, she felt she had no choice. When young trans people from small towns reach adolescence, many run away to big cities. Since the trans community is more visible there, the young find emotional support and better access to healthcare.
Grace Banu, an activist who shuttles between Chennai and Thoothukudi, says, “Transphobia is everywhere. But there is a lot more awareness in the cities today about schemes and benefits and one has the support they need when they want to access them. In smaller towns, there is a lack of awareness.”
Very few trans people return from metropolitan cities, often opting to cut off ties with their families and hometowns entirely. But Shyamala did not want that to happen to her. “You can make a lot of money in the cities, but I wanted to set up my home on the land that I come from and find a way to make a living,” Shyamala says.
However, when she came back to her hometown, her family and friends initially refused to accept her there. That's why she moved to the nearby town of Tiruchendur, on the invitation of a ‘daughter’. Trans women often live in groups and there is usually an elder who is called the mother. She is typically the one to guide and support young people who want to transition, or have recently done so, and thus calls them daughters.
Shyamala cooking at a temple function
Shyamala had taken to cooking when she was very young and developed a deep interest in the culinary arts. In 2012, she borrowed 10,000 rupees and set up an idli (rice cake) cart outside the town’s railway station. “Initially they looked at me with suspicion and I was worried that people would not buy from me because I’m a trans person,” she says. But when it began to succeed, Shyamala even took responsibility for her mother who had, at the time, suffered a stroke.
However, two years on, Shyamala says that due to pressure from other restaurant owners nearby, some local panchayat members forced her to leave, “All the freshly prepared food in the cart was overturned and I was forced to vacate." It was a rude shock. But like with most other things, she kept herself going. Following this, Shyamala had to take to begging for a period in order to make a living.
Shortly after, she rallied around and started cooking for her ‘daughters’ and slowly, she began to cook food for small family functions. Soon, the crowds grew. “Today, I supply food for events with 2000-3000 guests. Every muhurtham [auspicious] day, I have clients. People recognise me now,” she explains.
Bala Murugan, a member of the Rotary Club in Thoothukudi which has been giving her business, says that Shyamala has been catering for their events over the last few years, “The taste is authentic and excellent, on par with all the top caterers in this district.”
Shyamala receiving a 'Vocational Excellence' award from Thoothukudi Rotary Club
Her catering business is not the only thing to keep her busy. For the last three years, she has been applying to the Tamil Nadu Cooperative Milk Producers’ Federation Limited to get an Aavin Milk Parlour franchise. The Cooperative provides dealerships to people who are interested in setting up shops and Shyamala feels that this would greatly benefit members of the trans community in Tiruchendur by providing a regular income and a business they can run themselves without fear of prejudice, drawing confidence from the success of similar projects elsewhere in Tamil Nadu.
Today, Shyamala also trains 10 other trans women and is helping them get on their feet so they too can lay claim to their rights. Despite the challenges that come with a small town life, Shyamala has no regrets, “When you need to set up a business, a small loan will suffice. If it was the city, we’d incur huge loan burdens. Here, just a little money is enough.”
Ultimately, she says, “I’d rather be happy with a small profit in a place that makes me happy, than make a lot of money in a place that frustrates me and doesn’t respect me. Which is why, whichever big city I go to, I come back here. To my home.”
This story was produced by Edex Live. It was written as part of a media skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation supported by the Swedish Postcode Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.