Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Born Free

Metroplus, The Hindu, Bangalore Edition- Saturday,
August 14, 2004

Famila could well be an icon for the freedom of spirit.  But the untimely death of the hijra activist also speaks of how such
unfashionable icons are crushed by an insensitive society

What do freedom and choice mean? Who has access to them and who is constantly denied the right to a life of dignity?  The life of Famila and her tragic death at 24 raises poignant questions, which echo with a special significance on the eve of the Independence Day.

Everyone remembers with great clarity the first time they met Famila or the first conversation they had with her. A filmmaker
friend says with mild embarrassment that she remembers the way, the exact way, in which the light was falling on Famila's face the first time they met.

As a little boy

However, many of us knew little of the young boy she had been, born in a lower middle class family with perhaps an unremarkable life as a student in Sheshadripuram College.  In her late teens, Famila experienced her Nirvana and joined the hijra community.  It was in her subsequent role as an activist that many of us met her.  In one of her early public appearances, she spoke at the National Conference on Human Rights at the hill station Panchgani in the winter of 2000.   The half-frozen, issue-numbed delegates suddenly sat up at the sight of this soft-spoken, tall, beautiful hijra sex-worker, who spoke nervously but with enormous passion of the life many hijras led. It was the last time, perhaps, that Famila faltered in her public speaking. Even so, she had the audience - which consisted of the activist, the compassionate, and the curious - all equally awash in tears.

Famila was disinclined to martyrdom at the altar of human rights.  On her own steam and as an employee of Sangama (the NGO working for sexuality minorities rights), her primary focus was firmly in making a better life for her community both as a human rights activist and as a member of the community who was unafraid to critique or to lead.  But in the figure of Famila emerged a person who was able to link the sex-workers' movement with the LGBT movements. She was able to inspire jaded academics across the country and sections of the women's movement tired from decades of prosaic work.

She saw the issues of the marginalised everywhere as connected.  In 2001, she went to the Narmada valley during yet another crisis caused by the dam submergence.  "The first time I met Famila was at a protest organised by the Narmada Solidarity Forum," says Sumathi Murthy, classical singer and close friend of Famila.  "We stood in the rain at a street corner holding placards. We became friends.  Later we became colleagues at Sangama.  She ran the hijra outreach programme.  I learnt more about LGBT rights from her than anyone else. Through her way of life I learnt how she was capable of being critical of what she perceives to be the patriarchal structures of the hijra community.  She said many times that she had been lucky in the fact that her guru Revathi was progressive.  Others were not so lucky."  Most importantly, her confident straddling of the worlds she occupied moved others to courage.  "When I left home, I had already heard of Famila.  She helped me negotiate with my family and re-establish ties.  Her home was refuge for many people like me," says Kajol, a young hijra activist.  Her leadership was certainly responsible for the birth of Vividha, an autonomous group for sexuality minorities.

Revathi, Famila's guru in the hamaam, was one, who through her own progressive notions helped Famila grow.  "Even while other hijras were hesitating, she was a pathbreaker who came out of the hamaam and gained an identity of her own. Though she was my chela in the hijra community, I learnt a lot from her.  She changed my life and my thinking process and taught me a lot.

Despite her radical vision of the future, Famila was a creature of the moment. Unlike some harried activists who wear their harried greyness like a badge of honour, Famila had style.  Naturally a head turner with her Amazon-like beaut, she dressed with panache and danced with extraordinary grace.  One year she was the runner-up at the hotly contested beauty pageant at the hijra festival in Koovagam in Tamil Nadu.  She was keen on establishing non-doom-and-gloom cultural spaces for hijras in contemporary India.  She was pivotal in dreaming up and organising the colourful Hijra Habba in Bangalore, in 2002 and 2003.  She envisaged Hijra Habba as a forum for public visibility and a space for articulating significant questions for minority communities

Difficult year

Why did someone like Famila commit suicide? For many of her friends, the grieving has not yet begun because it is difficult to imagine her as anything less than monumentally strong and alive.  The last year of Famila's life certainly had been a difficult one.  Was it a more difficult one than others? "The life and work that she had loved had been taken away from her.  It was only natural that she was depressed," says LGBT activist from Mumbai.  Dismissed from her job she had gone back to being a sex-worker.  It is difficult to speak of Famila in terms of stigma of marginalisation.  She had always said that's sex-work was not anything she was remotely ashamed of. A cloud hangs over her resignation and the deftness with which she was pushed out of the limelight. Even now, many will naturally seek to gain from her untimely death.  There was certainly some amount of unhappiness in her personal life.  To speculate or not, to blame or not, to rationalize or not; it depends on our inclinations.

But there are rumours slowly growing louder, that being the poster child of the LGBT movement was not a nourishing one for a young person facing tremendous challenges to begin with.  In waves, people testify to the scores of times she has lent her clear head and compassion to them.  How did we let her die? This is the uncomfortable question we lesser beings must ask

-Nisha Susan


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