The most common nickname I was called in school was “Ali”.
“Ay, Ali, why you standing there? That’s the girls’ line. Come here and stand!”
“Ali, pass the ball no.”
“Ayeeeee, look who’s coming! Ali Ali Ali!”
For those of you unfamiliar with the term ‘Ali’ (though if one has lived in India long enough, there’s no way one wouldn’t have heard it), it means a person who is transgendered. Why was I called that? Because in the seventh grade, I began growing a moustache that would have rivalled Veerappan’s.
Perhaps not 🙂 But my hormones kicked in that year, I got my period and my body started sprouting hair in places that were hitherto unknown. And one of the most prominent and unfortunate places was the spot above my upper lip where a man’s moustache grows, black and lush and of course, hairy. Only, instead of a man, it was transplanted onto me.
And thus began two long years of comments like the above, mostly from boys.
“It’s just because they like you,” my friend declared with all the wisdom of a teenager. “Boys only tease the girls they like no!”
I took great comfort in that because what validation it was! These boys liked me because I was awesome and “Ali” was just their way of hiding their feelings.
The following is an excerpt from a diary entry I penned down around this time:
Dear Barney, (Barney and Friends takes credit for this name:))
Why must life be so difficult? Do you know how many boys like me? Sigh. Here, let me list it for you:
*insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*, *insert name*.
Imagine, 22 and counting! I think *insert name* also has a crush on me though he doesn’t really show it. Why must teenage boys be so complicated? How hard is it to just tell someone you like them?!
Although I’m one to talk. Half the school likes me and the one boy I’m in love with doesn’t love me back. It’s just like in the movies, isn’t it? Everyone pines after the popular girl but the popular girl loves someone else who doesn’t love her back.
Anyway, Barney, I must go to bed now. It’s getting late and tomorrow is Monday!!! I get to see you-know-who after two WHOLE days! Goodnight! And remember, 22 boys like me!
Rereading this entry after years, I burst out laughing. How confident, how cocky, how delusional and how happy I sounded! But which teenage girl (or adult, for that matter) wants to face the sad reality that being teased means that sometimes, people are just plain mean? I certainly didn’t.
Grade 8 didn’t help matters because being hugely athletic, I was out in the sun nearly the entire day. And so, I became “Dark Ali”.
“Dark Ali, why you so dark?”
“Darkali, you want to learn shaving so you can remove the moustache?”
“Darkali, grow a beard also so that we can be matching-matching.”
Dark Ali merged into a proper noun, making me sound like a Persian prince.
Was I traumatized? Perhaps not as much as I could have been because I whole-heartedly believed that these boys were madly in love with me and didn’t know how to show it. And thank God I did because who knows how it might have turned out, otherwise. In a perverse way, I began enjoying the attention too.
By the time Grade 9 rolled around, however, I was tired of all the teasing. Enough was enough, I thought. I’m going to remove this moustache once and for all. I convinced my mother that this was essential for my continued popularity in school. Did she really want a daughter whose name nobody knew?
I think she may have preferred it that way. Thankfully though, she indulged me and procured the number of the lady who ran a salon in our compound.
“Go to Hilda Aunty at 5:00,” she said. “And please take someone with you. It may be painful. Shall I come or will you take Bourna?”
Bourna was one of my closest friends in school, my cycling companion, swimming buddy and crush confidante. All these years later, she remains one of the most important people in my life.
“No no, you don’t come! It’ll be boring. I want nice company. I’ll take Bourna.”
So saying (sorry, mummy :)), I went off happily, unaware of the torture that lay in wait.
The first thing that struck me when we entered Hilda Aunty’s salon was the big push up-push down chair that sat in the middle. It looked very much like a chair I’d once seen in a horror movie and didn’t seem to present a good omen.
This was supposed to be a transformational moment. Why was this chair looking so ominous?
“Sit down here, dear,” said Hilda Aunty as she levered the chair up. I glanced nervously at Bourna.
“Errr… okay,” I mumbled, sitting down warily at the very edge. I looked to Bourna who, in the way of teenage girls, looked quite gleeful at what I was to go through.
“Can I ask Bourna to stand next to me, Aunty? I’m feeling a little scared.” I turned to her.
“Yes, of course! Bourna, dear, please come and stand to her left,” Hilda Aunty replied cheerfully. “I will start on her right. Scoot up, dear, and put your head on this head rest.”
I did as I was told, scurrying up and holding out my hand so that Bourna could hold it. I don’t know what I expected – perhaps a razor or some magical instrument that would painlessly and smoothly remove my moustache in one go. What I saw instead was a spool of thread emerge from Hilda Aunty’s voluminous pocket.
She unravelled it silently, looking straight at me and I shot upright. This was exactly how horror movies began where someone got strangled. Was I really going to be stupid and expose my throat to her?
“Something wrong, dear?” she looked at me expectantly.
“Er.. yes, Aunty,” I said, trying desperately to sound confident. “What is that for?”
She laughed. “This is what I’ll use to remove the hair. I wind the thread around my hand, hold it above the hair, catch hold of it with the thread and pluck.”
I stared at her in horror. “But that’s going to hurt!” This was worse than the strangling.
She laughed louder. “Oh, just a bit, dear, not too much. Come now, be brave. It’ll be over soon.”
Famous last words.
I took a deep breath and lay down on the headrest, eyes shut and Bourna’s hand tightly clutched.
I’ll spare you the details. But suffice it to say there is little in the world more torturous than feeling hair plucked from your skin, one at a time, knowing there’s nothing you can do about it.
I lasted all of five minutes, squealing all the way through before finally jumping out of the chair.
“Enough, Aunty, please!” I begged. “Tell me it’s done.”
“Just two more minutes, dear. Come back.”
After the longest two minutes of all my lives, I paid her before heading back home. I was in pain, my skin was throbbing and red, and I felt woozy but I’d done it! I’d removed my moustache! Finally, I looked like a girl!
We got home and I called out to my mother proudly. Look at what her little girl had accomplished!
My mother appeared, smiling, until she got a close look at me and stopped abruptly. She squinted before leaning closer.
“What?” I asked, feeling self-conscious. “It doesn’t look nice?”
“Why have you come back with half a moustache, Divya?” she asked, looking quite bemused.
“Your moustache. Half of it is still sitting on your face,” she said before bursting into laughter. Bourna, the traitor, joined in. Here, I’d set out to look like a girl and ended up looking like Charlie Chaplin.
To cut a long story short, Hilda Aunty had gracefully removed half my moustache and forgotten the other half. After an enormous amount of convincing by my mother and Bourna, I was pulled back to the salon to get the job finished. When it was over, I looked like my upper lip was made of milk. It was so pale and thin, I almost wished I had the moustache back.
Needless to say, the boys called me “White Ali” for a while before the nickname gradually faded into oblivion. The lack of hair diminished their interest, the exact opposite of adult men 🙂
Why this story?
In my time at the ashram, waxing has taken a backseat. Not used to shaving, it isn’t a habit I’ve been able to cultivate. More than able, perhaps I don’t want to because what a cumbersome process it seems – soap, shave, rinse, repeat. I could watch a whole episode of F.R.I.E.N.D.S in that time, or even two. We (the ladies, i.e), however, have been blessed with a resident whose beautician training helps enormously in keeping our eyebrows spic-and-span and our moustaches non-existent.
A proper mix-and-match of attire has also taken a backseat. I pull on the first pair of pants I see in the cupboard along with whatever kurti or tee-shirt I spot. In the winters, an unrelated jacket, multicoloured socks and slippers that have seen better days finish the look.
Sometimes though, I wake up feeling quite feminine. On these days, I pull out a long dress or skirt, wash my hair and leave it flowing around my shoulders, and put on a big red bindi. Four days ago was one such day though I didn’t want to wash my hair. So, I slipped on a thermal t-shirt, pulled on a long black dress, and put my hair up in a bun along with a small red bindi. I felt wonderful until I realized I had only the same old dirty slippers and socks that my father wore to office.
Footwear makes or breaks an attire, after all. But what to do 🙂 It was all I had. I looked a little like a matron once I was done.
That afternoon, someone came up to me. “You are looking a bit like those people on the train.”
“Who?” I asked, confused.
“Those people who clap their hands and ask for money no? Them. The Hijra people.”
My jaw dropped. “So, you’re telling me I look like half a man and half a woman? Wow.”
For just a minute, I felt offended. Their intention was obviously to pull my leg.
Why do terms like “hijra”, “ali” and “nine” exist? Hijra was once a beautiful term for people of a gender other than male or female. It has now become derogatory slang.
At a human level, how we are born is not a choice just as whether we are born straight or gay is not a choice. It exists in the genes. It is part of our manufacturing. And yet, in our ignorance of what being transgendered truly means, we form our own assumptions and jump to our own conclusions.
Why did I feel offended? Because the conditioning still exists in me – perhaps it was the teasing in school, perhaps it is being part of the collective consciousness. But feeling angry at someone for calling me hijra is like feeling angry at someone for calling me a woman.
Why is gender an insult?
The most beautiful of Gods, Ardhanareeswarar, is half a man and half a woman. We worship Him. But when a human being appears in front of us as the same, why does respect disappear and fear or repulsion appear?
Our sex is not a choice. But our gender is. Do you have male organs but want to identify as female? You can. Male, female, transgender, gender neutral, genderqueer, non-binary, agender – anything you want, you can be.
Am I a woman? Yes. Am I transgendered? No. It’s a choice.
And a choice should never be an insult.
Did I like my moustache? No. Would I have removed it if I hadn’t been teased? No.
Do I like having hair on my legs? Yes. Do I like the feeling of clean legs after getting waxed? Yes.
Our choices make up who we are. Should they really be defined by somebody else’s words?
Because words are like arrows. Shot accurately, they pierce the heart. Whether they are laced with honey or poison is entirely upto us.
A MAN REBORN
like the earth
after first monsoon.
like the shiver
from the brush of lips
the water, an arm –
like the caress of
soft, downy hair.
on and on and on and on and on.
Is this what it is
No experience has ever
the curve of a waist
and pulled me
I didn’t know
Beyond man and woman,
time and ether,
she showed me
to heal means
breaking my heart open
until each piece
turns to love.
I walk this earth,
a man born
to be reborn
the scent of flowers,
shiny waist-length locks,
a hint of golden eye-shadow.
and I yearn for the day
Yesterday was Women’s Day. Not just for those who were born female but also for those who chose to become female. And what a beautiful celebration that is 🙂