Things don’t happen overnight: PU’s first transgender student on a year of challenges and change
It’s around 1.40 on a bright sunny day in July. The campus of Panjab University (PU), Chandigarh, is abuzz with ongoing admissions. The Student Centre is packed. Laughter, cheers, and chattering permeate the air.
At some distance from this assimilation of old and new bonhomie, and tacit political manoeuvring for the forthcoming student union elections, is the vice-chancellor’s (VC) office. Needless to say, it stands in solitude. The air of childlike wonder from Stu-C refuses to blow this side. Nevertheless, it is an important space — both administratively as well as symbolically. It is the seat where changes that are dreamt of elsewhere in the campus, can be realised.
At the gates of the office, Dhananjay Chauhan alias Dhananjay Mangalmukhi, along with a friend, is waiting for a word from inside. They are here to hand over a letter to the V-C for some demands advocating transgender rights on the campus. Since it’s the lunch break, they must wait. Soon, someone calls them in. In five minutes, they walk out.
Faint smiles inescapably linger on their faces. Of course, they are not blushing. It’s that radiant smile that naturally comes when you do — or at least feel to have done — something good, not just for yourself but for others too.
Into the second year of her post-graduate course in human rights and duties now, 46-year-old Dhananjay became PU’s first and only transgender student so far in 2016. She scored 55% in her first semester and expects to get a first division in the second, the results of which will be declared soon.
In her letter to the V-C, she says, she has requested subsidised fee and hostel facility for transgenders, along with gender-sensitisation sessions across disciplines so that others from the community also feel encouraged to pursue higher education.
In front of the V-C’s office are two medium-sized gardens with flower beds of different hues and shapes. Not all of them are flowering in the parched July weather, but they still make their presence felt, some boisterously, others grudgingly. Akin to them is the multitude of personalities that people the university.
Sighting a grassy patch under a tree, we sit down for a chat.
How’s the year been?
After the Supreme Court in its historic verdict in 2014 recognised and upheld the rights of the transgenders, PU included the option of ‘third gender’ on its admission forms in 2015. Dhananjay says this encouraged her to apply for a masters course a year later.
The last one year has had both changes and challenges for Dhananjay. When she joined the university, she says, few knew about gender identity, about how it is different from sex, what is sexual orientation, or even who a transgender is.
“Harassment was common. The so-called educated students would pass distasteful comments, laugh. Had I retaliated, everyone would have become my enemy. So, I just ignored things.”
To avoid this, Dhananjay would move in groups of girls from her class. “When I was with girls, people would not say things. Girls from my class did not discriminate, but others would often laugh at me,” she says.
“I don’t want to make enemies, you see. Sometimes I fear that people may gang up and beat me up.”
“Sometimes things became very frustrating. People would peep or stare at me as if I was a caged animal. When I would eat in the canteen, everyone would stare at me. I did not feel like eating anymore,” Dhananjay says.
On being asked if things have improved in the past one year, she informs that people still pass comments. “The old students are now more or less aware of my identity, but the new ones bully around. They intentionally laugh out loudly and then turn away.”
“I feel very angry at all this, but I don’t have any other option. I don’t want to make enemies, you see. Sometimes I fear that people may gang up and beat me up. That has happened in the past on this campus many years ago, when I was a student enrolled as a ‘male’,” she says.
Asked about other challenges at the university, she says that transgenders are perceived to be sex workers. “Even on campus, people openly approach me to have sex with them. This is disgusting. I have to explain to them, politely, that I am not a sex worker; that I am here to study. Then there are questions such as, ‘Do hijras also have sex?’” she says.
“Even now, as we are sitting in this garden, many will be thinking that you are enticing me for sex. This mentality has to end.”
Speaking about her love life, she blushingly says, “Of course, like everyone else I too had crushes. But things aren’t easy for us. We have to often suppress our feelings.”
She was once married to a woman and even had two kids, but refuses to draw them into the story for fear of harassment. “My wife has been supportive. We don’t live together anymore, but we meet often.”
Confronting stereotypes that abound about transgenders in society has always been challenging for Dhananjay. “Many on the campus said I wasn’t ‘original’! That I don’t look like a transgender person! They would say I don’t have traits of a female that other transgenders have! I had to repeatedly explain things at length. Tell them about sexual orientation and sex readjustment surgery.”
Dhananjay has organised seminars with different departments on gender sensitivity.
“I made it a point to show my presence in public; not hide. I would sit at Stu-C till the evening, meet people, talk to them. I wanted people to question me. Who is she? What does she do? People asked me so many questions. Answering them took a lot of effort.”
- 1993: Completed BA (hon) history from Panjab University (PU)
- 1993: Took admission in MA history at PU. Left within a month after being raged and beaten up
- 1994: Took admission in LLB in the law department (evening), PU. Was locked in a room by 6-7 male students and sexually assaulted. Left the course within days
- 1994-1998: Completed diploma courses in Russian, French, and computer applications from PU
- 2015: Completed postgraduation in social work from Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi.
- 2016: Took admission in MA (human rights and duties) in PU. Became the varsity’s first transgender student.
One of the recurring questions that Dhananjay was asked was the difference between ‘transgender’ and ‘intersex’.
“People often misunderstand transgenders to be intersex. Transgender is an umbrella term. Intersex can be transgenders, so can males and females. The difference between sex and gender, that sex is biological and gender is about how one perceives oneself, is unfortunately not clear in many people, even among the educated classes,” she says.
“After a point, most people do try to understand. There are also those who don’t.”
However, the most common and disturbing question that she confronted regularly was people asking her what sex organ she has. “Even today, people come up and say, ‘can I ask you a question, but please don’t mind?’, and ask that question,” she says. With shades of frustration in her tone, she adds, “Every time I have explain to them that humans are born as male, female or intersex. All of them can be transgenders. The realisation that one is trapped in a wrong body can come at any stage.”
However, on the brighter side, Dhananjay says that fortunately the classes have been “great”. She says all her teachers have been very supportive and that she never felt being differently treated. “Luckily, I am in the human rights department. People here are sensitive and know about rights,” she says.
Despite the challenges, Dhananjay says there still is a silver lining. “After a point, most people do try to understand. There are also those who don’t. But sensitisation isn’t an overnight process.”
Within the community
Speaking about the response of the transgender community to her joining PU, Dhananjay says her “guru”, Kajal Mangalmukhi, is “very proud” of her and has always been supportive.
Presently, she is economically dependent on her community as they give her Rs 4,000-5,000 for monthly expenses. She does not accompany them for ‘badhai’ (collecting money door-to-door on people’s happy occasions). “I find it no different from begging and prefer to study instead,” she says. If she joins them, she too will be paid Rs 1,500 per day like others.
“At first, many in the community were resentful. They were less concerned about education and more about how the community’s ‘culture and tradition’ will continue,” she says, adding that those who have attended school at some level are welcoming. “But still there are many who feel insecure that if we study and get a job, how will their badahi continue.”
What about family?
“They did not directly ask me to leave the house. My father would taunt me, though, and scold my mother for my being transgender! He would blame her for giving birth to a ‘hijra’. Sometimes, after drinking, he would abuse her and tell her to ask me to leave and not use his name,” she says.
The father retired as a peon from a government department in Chandigarh. After that, when the family returned to their ancestral home in Uttarakhand, Dhananjay was asked to fend for herself in the city because “the family wanted to avoid the shame back home”.
“Sometimes my mother calls me. She asks me to take care of myself.”
Asked if she has any contact with them now, Dhananjay says, “Sometimes my mother calls me. She asks me to take care of myself. She is happy that I have moved ahead in life.”
Her relatives too were very negative to her being a transgender. However, Dhananjay says many in the new generation are different. One of her cousins is studying in Delhi University. According to Dhananjay, recently, some of his friends were talking about her and that PU now has separate toilets for transgenders. “They wanted to make a documentary on me and were looking for some leads to contact me,” says Dhananjay. “On hearing my name, my brother was in tears. He told his friends that fortunately he is my cousin. He also called me later.”
“I feel that I will again be included in the family, someday. I am hopeful. When society starts recognising and accepting you, your family also does the same,” she says, in a low yet confident voice.
Following the lead
Three other transgenders from Dehradun have applied at PU this year. One of them is pursuing graduation in Dehradun and has applied for a one-year certificate course in German. “She will be taking a post-graduate course in social work next year. She first wants to get comfortable and understand the environment here and then pursue her post-graduation,” says Dhananjay.
“Besides them, there were 4-5 transgenders from Punjab as well who wanted to apply this year. However, due to their inability to pay the fee and non-availability of accommodation in Chandigarh, they have dropped the idea for now,” she says.
“They say they will join when the university provides accommodation for transgenders. Fee can be paid by taking up a part-time job, but it is very difficult to get rental accommodation for transgenders in Chandigarh.”
“Neither do people want us to beg nor are they ready to accept us among them. Where do we go?” she asks.
She adds that her meetings with the university officials have been positive. “I do see hope whenever I move an application,” she says.
When she joined the university, there weren’t separate toilets for transgenders. “This was an important issue. I did not know which washroom I should be using. Then I spoke to some girls from my class and wrote an application and handed it to our head of department, who in turn forwarded it to the V-C.”
“In 1993, too, I had take admission in MA history in PU, ticking the ‘male’ option on the form.”
“It was immediately acted upon. I wrote the letter on June 17; and by June 26 the orders to construct four toilets for transgenders on the campus were passed,” she says with a broad smile.
“Things don’t change overnight. They will surely change, but only when more transgender students join in, make their presence felt and demand their rights. We have to fight our own battle,” she says.
To encourage other transgenders to become self-dependent, Dhananjay has also been in touch with NGOs and the social welfare department of the UT administration. “We are discussing possibilities of training transgenders as make-up artists so that they can earn something on their own. The department has been positive and soon 20 transgenders will be trained,” she says.
Once at PU before
In 1993, Dhananjay completed her BA (history honours) from a PU-affiliated college in the city, but it took 23 years for her to finally join a masters course under the identity she ascribes to.
“Joining a masters course after 23 years does not mean that I did not want to study. Even after my graduation back then, I wanted to take up a post-graduate course. But I wanted to do it with my own gender identity — as a transgender.” That happened only after the SC verdict of 2014.
“In 1993, too, I had take admission in MA history in PU, ticking the ‘male’ option on the form. I was bullied for being ‘different’, locked up in a room, beaten up. I left the university within a month,” she recalls.
A year later, she enrolled for a LLB in the evening shift. She left it after she was again locked up by 6-7 male students and sexually abused.
During her graduation, Dhananjay says, she did not disclose her gender identity to avoid harassment. “But still, anyone would come and beat me up. Perhaps they could make out that I was transgender. Even the police didn’t do anything.”
“To escape all this, I would hide. I took up music (vocal and instrumental) as a subject because its classes were conducted mostly indoors,” she adds.
However, the harassment because of which she had to discontinue her post-graduation twice did not deter her from studying further. In the next few years, she completed diploma courses in Russian, French, and computer applications from PU. “I wanted to continue my studies. Since diploma classes did not require me to attend classes daily, chances of being harassed were less.”
In 2015, Dhananjay also completed her post-graduation in social work from the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), New Delhi.
Apart from this, she has also been organising the Chandigarh Pride Parade since 2013 and has been invited to attend pride parades in Holland, France and Bangkok. She is helping to start one in Jaipur.
What does she want to do eventually? Dhananjay says she will enrol for MPhil and then for PhD.
“I want to be a school teacher because that is where emphasis needs to be given the most in terms of sex education and gender identity.”
Dhananjay says she also wants to make other transgenders economically independent by encouraging them to take up vocational courses. “There are two intersex kids in the dera (transgender commune) of Sector 26, Chandigarh. Their parents left them there. I will ensure that they are given proper education. I hope someday they become IAS, IPS officers,” she says.
“There are two intersex kids in the dera (transgender commune) of Sector 26… I hope someday they become IAS, IPS officers.”
Besides these, taking the fight for LGBT rights ahead will always be in her priority. The community in the Chandigarh region, she says, is yet to step into activism mode. “Most of the parties that are organised here are focused on socialising and looking for partners. We are largely unorganised. A lot needs to be done.”
In her free time, she likes to tune in to classical music and read. “I like the views of S Radhakrishnan (former President of India) and I also like history,” she says.
Munshi Premchand, Mirza Ghalib, Ustad Gulam Ali Khan, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle — the list of her favourites is endless. “I also like to listen to thumri. Girija Devi and Siddhesvari Devi are my favourites.”
Besides, Dhananjay likes to travel and observe nature closely; but rues that she hasn’t had many opportunities to do so. “But hey! someday I hope to see places like Masai Mara and Serengeti in Kenya and Tanzania, remains of the Inca Civilisation in Peru, the Egyptian pyramids, the temple of Angkor Vat, and spend time with the tribes in northeast India,” she says with dreamy eyes and a smile that conveys both hope and the stark realities of life..