‘If you want the full story, you have to start with our love story’

In a home, a couple stands smiling. One wears a dupatta and looks at the other, who wears a patterned shirt. On the bright pink wall behind them there is a photograph of the couple and a string of Transgender Pride Flags. In the background we see an open window and a kitchen.

After years of flight, a disabled trans activist and his partner find home in small-town Karnataka

It is a still afternoon. Something deliciously smoky and pungent is in the air. I am waiting to interview Kiran, a trans rights activist who lives with a disability. His wife Manasa* has walked me down from the bus stop. I’m sitting in a cosy home, stone-roofed. I’m immediately led into the room with a fan, on full blast, where I wait for Kiran.

‘Special,’ Manasa announces, placing a beautifully cooked akki rotti on a plate before us, once Kiran has completed a meeting and arrives. We sip coffee and talk.

The display case is filled with photographs. He shows me album after album of photographs of activities, friends, awareness-raising events. The stories abound. The many identities he navigates are a source of endless tension. ‘I may be accepted as a disabled person, but will people accept me as a trans person?’ But it also extends to his origins in Andhra Pradesh: as a migrant, he’s received threats and blackmail attempts from a far-right outfit.

Because he is of Lambani origin, obtaining an accurate ST certificate was a herculean task. Because he has polio, he was enrolled as a child by a supportive teacher in a women’s disability hospital. But because he is trans, he was extremely uncomfortable around women. ‘I had to act like a woman in the hostel, but inside I felt like a boy.’ Teachers harassed him, pressuring him to present as a girl. ‘I came to the hostel because I didn’t feel accepted at home. And now I was uncomfortable at the hostel too.’

‘If you want the full story,’ Kiran says, ‘you have to start with our love story.’

He was 15 when they met, in Warangal. Manasa is one year his junior; Manasa’s sister was Kiran’s classmate. Their friendship slowly developed over activism projects for disabled communities; soon, they were in love. ‘I sensed the attraction the very first time we met,’ he recalls. After a few months, things began to get serious. ‘On the one hand there is genuine happiness, but there’s also the worry that she shouldn’t be inconvenienced or troubled by associating with me. But she didn’t relent.’

But Manasa’s parents wanted to get her married. When she nearly got engaged, she decided that action had to be taken. ‘She called me and said, you marry me or else I will die,’ Kiran recalls, sipping coffee. ‘I thought she must be joking. I met her and explained the situation, the problems.’ He felt that the opposition they would face would make their lives extremely difficult. ‘Society will not accept us. Be well and marry somebody else, is what I said.’ As it transpired, this was foresight.

There was much fear and stress. Kiran was concerned about the responses of their family and friends. One day Manasa swallowed poison. That’s when he kicked into action. ‘That’s when I said, okay, something has to be done. But by then the family began to doubt that there was something between us. They blocked our friendship, didn’t allow us to meet each other.’

Then, one day in March 2008, determined to sustain their love, they left for Thirupathi. ‘It was 7 am. We had it planned — it would be done, pukka.’ A mass wedding ceremony was taking place, with 125 marriages, Kiran says. They explained the situation, said that it was a love marriage, that their families weren’t amenable. ‘We appealed to them to help us. They saw that I was disabled and didn’t ask too many questions.’

At last, Manasa and Kiran were married.

Things didn’t end there. Manasa called her parents and said that she had married Kiran. ‘Do whatever you will, I’m not returning home,’ Kiran recalls her saying. Manasa’s family used their clout to violently confront Kiran’s family. They placed a complaint, alleging that Kiran had kidnapped their daughter — a common strategy for families who object to voluntary marriages. The police promptly booked a case, and, according to Kiran, began to track their cell phones. By now, the couple were in Nizamabad, on the advice of a friend. They had switched off their phones, fearing a barrage of angry phone calls. ‘But I switched it on for a second, and the police found my location,’ he says.

A media circus ensued. ‘They began to attack, and ask very negative questions.’ I ask if he’s comfortable talking about what must surely have been a difficult and upsetting experience. ‘Yes yes, no problem.’ At first there were one or two channels, and then, when the couple visited the police station, they were faced with an entire crowd of media persons. ‘They were running it live, and as breaking news. I wasn’t able to answer their questions. They were extremely invasive: this is against our culture, how will you have children.’

A drawing of two people kissing, eyes closed, their faces merging to form a single one. The background is dark red.

Credit: Milan Rubio via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

It’s ten years ago now; the details have stayed vivid. ‘What should we do? We didn’t know what to do. We decided to give it up and made a plan to die together.’ He switched on his phone for a minute, to call home and bid his family farewell, and that was when he heard from Bangalore-based Sangama, reaching out to him.

They had been following the entire crisis from Bangalore, and had obtained his number through media contacts. ‘They told me, don’t die. We’ll help you. We exist to help you. They told me everything. But I didn’t know Bangalore, what they were saying about human rights, gender, sexuality, all this. I didn’t know what that was.’ Overwhelming as the situation was, the couple began to slowly hope and see their options. ‘Our mood changed a bit.’

After some back and forth and counselling from activists, they decided to move to Bangalore. The news media’s nonstop coverage of the events had affected their privacy; people were identifying them in public. It was just eight days after their wedding, March 17, and they moved to Bangalore. ‘We didn’t know the language. I didn’t know what kind of work to do. And I had a surgery to undergo on my leg.’ After a year of bed rest following the surgery, Kiran received a fellowship from a Bangalore-based NGO. He was encouraged to pick a rural area to work in, and he chose a small town near Bangalore, which has been home base for Kiran and Manasa for a few years.

There was much work to be done, but Kiran decided to take things slow. ‘We spent a year making friendships, building trust, and we identified the problems of the community.’ He founded a trans rights organisation soon after.

But as the years passed, Kiran began to also feel the need to specifically address the sexuality and disability intersection. ‘There were so many issues I was noticing — whom would disabled women confide in, especially about their bodies and sexuality?’ Slowly, issue by issue, friend by friend, Kiran built community in the town.

‘Everyone asks us about wheelchairs, books, what do we need,’ Kiran observes. ‘But no one really tries to empathise and understand our feelings: do we want marriage, do we want love? Nobody asks us.’

You sense a certain sense of rest and relief when Kiran tells me that they’re mostly happy. ‘We’re mostly happy, what is there to say,’ he repeats. ‘We’ve learned to resolve our conflicts. She makes herself heard, strongly,’ he says, laughing affectionately, referring to Manasa. ‘They work too much!’ Manasa replies. And they playfully chide each other for a few more minutes.

The couple’s families have slowly begun to reestablish contact, after three years. ‘They had forgotten about us, as if we were dead. Then they sent word through a relative. My mother came and met us, said, be well. They’ve accepted us now, they aren’t trying to keep us apart.’

Kiran worries that things could turn in an instant, a trajectory he feels all too familiar with. ‘I’ve been recognised for my disability work. But after our wedding, after we were outed, things went very bad. Within seconds, my name was ruined. People forgot about my activism. It’s unpredictable how society will respond.’ In the town where they’re based, about 50% of the town knows of their marriage. ‘If someone calls me Madam one day and Sir another day, I respond. I want things to change — but slowly. If I do it suddenly and insist that people only see me in this way, it won’t work.’

For example, they can’t safely rent a house as husband and wife; they currently pass as friends. ‘If a third person says something about us to the owner, it’s over. They’ll see it as a marriage between two women, and it’s unacceptable. Somewhere, we have to compromise and negotiate with them. We don’t like it, but we are not being accepted by society.’

These days, Kiran shuttles between Bangalore and home: he’s seeking mandatory counselling before he can undergo top surgery. ‘There are hardly any senior or experienced doctors in this area,’ he says. ‘They look at us as trial pieces, seeing how they can use us.’ We swap our stories: doctors over-prescribing medication, trying out different medications or treatments without bothering to fully understand our experiences.

Kiran insists on dropping me to the bus stop, but realises we haven’t taken a photograph together. We zoom back home, on his well-equipped Activa. Another friend has come to visit Manasa. We all huddle around and grin.

*Name changed

Neha Margosa writes and lives in Bangalore, India.


Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal