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She wondered why schools didn’t teach lessons that covered sexism, casteism, racism, homophobia and transphobia. Aren’t these important too?
“Nanna!! I am starting at 9 PM in Tamilnadu express!” Sita replied to her loving dad. He had been calling her one hour to check how she was doing the moment Sita made plans to visit home over the weekend.
From the other side, her dad gave her all the instructions. He told his 23-year-old daughter to cover herself with a blanket when she slept and not to talk to strangers. And even told her not to share any personal details with anyone, as one tends to do during long train journeys. Even those who don’t generally open up tend to get into the mood of talking if someone shows even the slightest interest. And that right there is the magic of train journeys!
After the call, Sita waited for her train and sat on a bench on the platform. At 8:55, for the first time ever, her train seemed to arrive on time. Sita happily hopped inside the train and looked for her seat. On finding that it was a side berth, she thought, ‘Wow! The train arrived on time and I got a side berth. I am definitely sleeping happily tonight!’ She messaged her dad that she was on the train and decided to call him once she reached her destination.
Sita spread out her blanket, put in her earphones and stretched her legs as she listened to some jazz. As the train picked up the pace on the dark steel rails, she drifted off to sleep. Suddenly, Sita jerked awake, frightened when she felt something touch her feet. With drowsy eyes, she saw someone sitting at the very edge of the seat, head leaning against the partition wall of the berth.
The person, dressed in a bright red saree had covered her head with her pallu to prevent cold air from entering her ears. But Sita found something odd about the figure sitting there. And to her dismay and horror, she realised that the person wasn’t a woman but a ‘hijra.’
‘Oh no! Why the hell is he sitting on my berth without asking me? What do I do no? Shall I ask him to leave?’ She was worried now and not a single word escaped her mouth.
She had heard a lot of stories from her friends and families about people who dress up as women. These people apparently cursed, blessed and begged. They even allegedly kidnapped children and had ‘weird genitals.’ She had heard that they would touch people inappropriately if they were denied money and always roamed in groups.
As if the person felt Sita’s eyes on him, he turned to her. With a smile, he said, ‘So sorry for sitting in your seat!’ He seemed to genuinely apologise to her. Before Sita could say anything, the person continued in perfect English, ‘The guys next to my berth were making rude and vulgar comments. Since you’re the only woman, I came here. I tried to wake you up but since you were fast asleep, I just sat here.’
After listening to the person speak, Sita felt her nerves calm down a little. But she couldn’t allow this person to sit and travel with her. So she replied politely, ‘Sir, I understand but…’ before she could continue, she heard a firm, ‘No! I am just as much a woman as you are! And I know you are trying to be very respectful by calling me sir but I would like to be addressed as a woman.’ The person in the saree made it very clear.
‘But you’re a man, dressed up as a woman!’ She responded, angry that this person had spoken back making her forget what she was about to say.
‘Yes, I was born a man. But I chose to be a woman and became the woman I’ve always been!’ came the soft but firm reply.
‘What is your name?’ Sita asked, still unsure of who the person in front of her was.
‘Shama,’ the person responded.
Wide awake now, Sita nodded. Shama looked like a ‘normal’ woman and wasn’t even remotely close to what Sita had heard about ‘hijras.’
Sita turned her head to check the other compartment where she saw the men smirking and calling Shama disgusting names. She saw disgust, fear, anger and helplessness in Shama’s eyes.
So she turned to her and said, ‘Please sit comfortably and if you want, cover yourself with this spare scarf I have.’ She gave Shama the scarf. Shama gratefully took the scarf and the two of them sat in peaceful silence and soon, Sita drifted off to sleep.
When she woke up, she was surprised to find Shama gone. She thought, ‘She must’ve gotten down at one of the other stations.’ Sita found her scarf neatly folded and placed near her feet. She continued with the journey, the incident playing on her mind.
A few years later, Sita had begun working in Hyderabad. One evening, she was on her way to a grocery store when she saw a young man in front of her. This man was in a pink shirt, blue trousers and was wearing makeup while walking very prettily.
Sita went to the store, bought what she needed and walked out. She turned around after she heard loud laughter. There were two men sitting just outside the shop, passing comments about the young man in the pink shirt.
The man looked like he was used to these reactions and didn’t really pay attention to men and continued walking. However, Sita couldn’t resist herself and felt anger building inside her. She stopped in her tracks and walked back to them.
Through gritted teeth, she said, ‘Are you done laughing?’ She stared at them until they felt uncomfortable and walked away sulkily like they hadn’t done anything wrong. They definitely didn’t expect a stranger to confront them.
Sita kept walking back to her house wondering why were there no lessons taught at school about respecting individual choices. Instead, they had lessons that told them to be a ‘good person’ who woke up early and slept early. She wondered why were there no lessons that covered sexism, casteism, racism, homophobia and transphobia.
Sita was suddenly glad she learnt her lesson sooner rather than later as she thought of the lesson she was taught on the train journey years ago.
In order to grow, we do need to unlearn a few things, don’t we?
Picture credits: Still from Tamil movie Super Deluxe
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