New book examines how TB affects marginalized populations, including transgender people

As the sun sets below the horizon and dusk sets in, Soumya tries to find her way to the temple premises through a dusty road. There is a large crowd around her and Soumya, draped in a red sari and wearing a sleeveless blouse, artificial gold bracelets and a glittering necklace, is unable to find her friends. She gasps as she pushes her way through the crowd.

Uncomfortable as sweat trickles down her brow and ruins her heavy makeup, Soumya fends off the surging crowd and shouts at those who deliberately try to jostle her. “Come and take off my sari and take me here, you scoundrels. Haven’t you seen a beautiful woman? You don’t have a mother and a sister at home? she shouts in Tamil to a man middle-aged. He smiled at her with lustful eyes before disappearing into the crowd.

Soumya continues to rage against him. By the time she reaches the temple premises, many men have fallen victim to her fury. She finally finds her friends waiting for her near the temple and sits down near a tree near a flower stall, exhausted from the ordeal. She leans against the tree and drinks water while her friends gather around her.

Soumya and her friends along with hundreds of others will be getting married shortly in a mass ceremony on this full moon day. There is a huge crowd around the temple. There are dozens of small sacred fires burning within the temple premises. A little later, Soumya and her friends are married, and proudly wear mangalsutras around their necks, the marker of a married woman. The ceremony is over in a few minutes. They all married the same fiancé, Aravan, who is not with them but inside the temple.

Soumya and the others start dancing and clapping after the wedding ceremony. They kiss to congratulate each other. “Now my friends are going on their honeymoon,” says Soumya. ‘I hope you don’t want to participate in the honeymoon. Otherwise, let’s talk about it. I am now free to answer all your questions, Mr. Reporter,” she said with a disarming smile.

Her friends, meanwhile, chat with men who want to have unprotected sex. There are a few minutes of haggling then they leave with their partners for the neighboring fields. Soumya pushes her way through the crowd and heads for a small tin shop a good distance from the temple.

‘Oh! I forgot to introduce you to my husband. Have you seen him? He is gorgeous with his huge mustache. You can see it tomorrow. He will come out of the temple,” Soumya said excitedly. As we walk through the crowd, it’s late at night and the whole area has turned into open ground for sex.

Welcome to Koovagam, a dusty village in Kallakurichi district, Tamil Nadu, about 200 km south of Chennai, the state capital. The village comes alive every year in the month of Chitirai (April/May) with thousands of members of the transgender community arriving there to marry Lord Aravan (Koothandavar).

The festival is important for transgender people or Aravanis (as they are called in Tamil Nadu), for various religious, cultural and social reasons. It is the day when transgender people identify with the reincarnation of Lord Krishna. Legend has it that in the Mahabharata, a young warrior called Aravan, the son of Arjuna, had to be sacrificed on the altar of war so that the Pandavas could defeat the Kauravas. A day before he was sacrificed, Aravan expressed a desire to get married, but no girl was willing to be widowed a day after marriage. It was then that Lord Krishna took the form of Mohini and married Aravan.

Thus, the transgender community in Tamil Nadu and many parts of India identify with the Mohini avatar of Krishna. They marry Aravan on a full moon day and are widowed the next day when Aravan dies.

“It’s the day when we feel a sense of dignity because we feel like a reincarnation of God,” says Soumya.

She gasps as she enters the back of the paan and the flower shop. The merchant knows her. “Come, you can sit here and talk. I’ll send you a cup of tea,” he offers, leading the way to a room inside. “Please sit at a distance,” she asks. “Otherwise you will print an article that Soumya, a transgender, infected a journalist with HIV and tuberculosis. And that too, without having sex. Either way, you are more interested in preaching to us about HIV and TB than understanding the reality of our lives,” she laughs.

“Do you have HIV and TB? ” I ask.

‘Ha! Ha! I have everything in my life. It’s a perfect movie with all the masala, emotions and fights. But who cares about my life? I have to thank you for your interest in talking to me. Otherwise, I’m a sex doll and especially today, no one wants to talk. Everyone just wants to have sex. We are sex-hungry people,” she said without stopping to catch her breath.

Soumya is reluctant to share details about her family and background, but reveals she realized she was “different” at school. Soumya discovered that she had “girly feelings”. At the eighth standard, she told her mother that she wanted to wear a girl’s dress, prompting her mother to beat her.

She was taken to a spiritual guru, who told her parents that their boy had been cursed by God and that certain rituals needed to be performed to appease him. But nothing changed after the rituals. One day, she ran away from home to become Soumya. She became a beggar, living on the streets of Chennai. A group of transgender people spotted Soumya on the street and introduced her to a new world.

“It was the start of a new life. It’s been over fifteen years now and I’m living my own life,” she says. Commercial sex work has been her main occupation over the years. “I wanted to find a job. But no one gave it to me. I was ready to work as a housekeeper or a sweeper. Anything… But people laughed at me. No one gives jobs to transgenders. How should we survive?’ She is visibly upset. “Transgender people have a soul, a heart and emotions, and are not just a body that can be used whenever people want to fulfill their desire,” Soumya says in a voice choking with emotion. She fought with her family, society and herself to counter prejudice and establish her identity as a woman.

“You came to study HIV because the government and NGOs focus on it. But HIV and TB are not new to us. They have become part of our lives. We accepted it and we have to live with it,” she says.

The incidence of tuberculosis in transgender people is not known and needs to be measured. The Revised National Tuberculosis Control Program (RNTCP) records the sex of service seekers under three categories: female, male and transgender. In 2018, a total of 1,676 transgender people were diagnosed with TB and this was reported in the RNTCP.

A few years ago, Soumya was diagnosed with HIV. She says she did not receive proper treatment and after developing a persistent cough and fever, she was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. “I find it difficult to survive. No prostitution for me now because of these evils. I saved some money but I don’t want to spend it all on my treatment. The government says there is free treatment, but that is just bakwaas (nonsense). We are not getting timely treatment or medication,” she complains.

Soumya says God – her husband Aravan – gave her HIV. It is not surprising that Soumya contracted tuberculosis immediately after contracting HIV. “A doctor told me that if you have HIV, you get tuberculosis. HIV and TB are like brothers and sisters. They can’t live without each other,” she says.

Overwhelmed by emotion, she suddenly bursts into tears. “I don’t know why, but today I remember my sister and my parents. I have no idea how they are…” Unable to speak, she stops for a moment. “…But I feel I have every right to live my own life,” she continues. “I felt like a girl’s soul was trapped in a boy’s body and my parents and society weren’t ready to accept me in that form. I don’t think anyone, not even their parents, should be allowed to control their life. And that’s why I left my house. Freedom has a price and I have paid a heavy price. Soumya says she can feel death approaching and that tuberculosis has accelerated her journey towards the end.

Excerpted with permission from Lives on The Edge: Tuberculosis in Marginalized Populations, Radheshyam Jadhav, Speaking Tiger Books.