Swetha — Surviving Transphobia, Thriving through Dance.
“Karagam (Karagattam, a form of Tamil folk dance) is my life!” she exclaims, “when I had nothing and no one, it was the only thing that was there with me. I will always be a dancer first.” Swetha, the first Dalit trans woman pharmacist in Tamil Nadu, finds healing, fun and catharsis in dance.
Her journey to study for and establish herself as a professional pharmacist of repute has not been an easy one. She comes from one of the most casteist regions of Tamil Nadu. Not far from her village is in fact where the famous leader of Dalits, Immanuel Sekaran was slain.
Dalits in that region were under the control of the land-owning castes who kept them in mixed systems of slavery and indentured labour. Her parents were both working-class people. Her father worked on in the Tamil Nadu summer heat laying tar for roads and her mother worked both at home and went to the fields and forests. But they put their hopes and dreams on their Swetha and intended to do whatever they could do make sure she gets educated, gets out of the village, and has what she needs to be able to carve a better pathway forward for their family.
Schooling was a part of that effort. Swetha was good at her studies and she always got good marks in her exams but being a transgender child was not easy. All through her school days, she had to go from school to school in neighbouring villages to neighbouring towns, all the shifting being a part of her and her family’s strategies to deal with the violence of bullying and harassment.
At the end of her 12th standard (end of high school), Swetha had received really good marks in her exams. No one in her family at that point had the information to know what to do next. They were aware that Swetha would be eligible for good programs in colleges but what would she study? The only people in their village who understood the structures of higher education best were the land-owning castes, who sent their children to get educated in this way.
But they were not willing to advise Swetha or her family. There was also feelings of resentment against Dalit families like Swetha’s. People who had worked for them were moving on in this new time and getting an education and becoming on par with these dominant caste families. These changes in socioeconomic conditions were seen as anything from unacceptable to worthy of retaliation with violence.
Swetha remembers how the dominant caste landlord would call her when she was a child of only 5 or 6. He called her on the pretext of “odd jobs” but Swetha recalls that he would actually sexually abuse her. “I had no language to talk about this,” she says, “ even if I had had the language, what could my family have done to prevent it? We were at their mercy those days. The fate of our entire family, our living and dying, was in their hands. And they revelled in their corrupt power. But when I got admission into a college to study Pharmacy, you should have seen their faces. His and his sons — all of them. It signified their reign was over!” she smiles.
Swetha began to prepare to go and study at a Pharmacy College in Sivakasi. She did her best in her studies as always, but the level of harassment against her because of her gender expression was extreme. In the name of “ragging” ( rituals of abuse and humiliation of freshman college entrants, common in institutes of higher education), her fellow students found the space for extreme transphobia and transmisogyny. “Every day was torture,” she recalls, “ being in a boys hostel was torture, finding a bathroom empty to use, without boys being there, was impossible, every small thing was complicated. I wanted to leave that hostel so badly. One thing was my gender but the other was also that there were no other Dalit or Adivasi students there in that hostel. Most Dalit and Adivasi kids were day scholars who commuted from nearby villages and towns. The only people in hostel were people who had come from other states and often people who spoke English very well and were from rich families and were extremely transphobic. I felt completely lost, completely humiliated and completely alone.”
Compounding these troubles was the fact that she had always been a Tamil Medium student and was suddenly having to learn in a totally new medium of instruction — English! “I didn’t understand anything during classes! I couldn’t believe how little I understood despite trying to pay attention so much. It was totally like I was learning nothing from classes. Somehow I put in the extra time and effort but I managed to pass only three out of the first 6 semester courses”.
This was unheard of for her family back home. Swetha had never been someone who had failed a class or a subject. In fact, it had always been the opposite. She had always excelled in school. No matter what she had faced. Her father was worried but assured her it would be ok. The newness of college life and a new place would result in such failures but it wasn’t to be taken to heart. He told her how every single person in her family and her village was proud of her beyond belief. Understanding only that Swetha was studying something in the medical field, everyone in her village was calling Swetha — “Doctor”. They were all rooting for her.
Feeling the hope they all had in her, she resolved to finish her studies and decided to move out of the hostel and into a separate room in town. Despite the difficulty of having roommates who again discriminated against her and were transphobic, she found it slightly better and was able to successfully complete her degree and pass all her courses. She was finally a Pharmacist!
Now the time had come for Swetha to find a job but the crisis of her gender expression was getting worse. She wanted badly to go to meet other thirunangais (trans women), to get surgery, and to be seen and accepted as a woman in society. She was afraid to tell her mother and father who saw this moment differently. They felt they had invested in a son who should now go forward, get a job and payback to the family in kind.
Unable to stand the weight of the expectations on her, she ran away and joined a group of thirunangais nearby. There they dressed her up, did her makeup and she even found a job with an NGO working with transgender people. But the pay was Rs.150 only a day and she was realizing that this would not cover her expenses for her surgery.
Looking for another way, she eventually joined an Apollo Pharmacy in Chennai as a pharmacist. Here she faced discrimination and harassment every day at the hands of her managers and customers. She had to live in a room with 12 men and faced sexual violence and transmisogyny under those conditions.
Finally, fed up, she decided to do the one thing that she was most passionate about — Karagattam. She remembers fondly how she would watch karagattam dancers in her village, completely enraptured. “ I would go to every show without missing one and then later I would try to replicate all the steps myself! I love this dance form so much. When I dance I lose myself.” She found out that she could earn up to Rs.3000 per dance session and decided then that she would try this line of career in Karagam. At least she would be doing something she loved.
Slowly Swetha was becoming a household name in Karagam performances across parts of the southern Tamil Nadu. And slowly she built her economic independence around it. Saving up paise by paise for a house of her own, for things in the house like a stove or a fan, and for her own surgery.
She says, even her dancing audiences could be seen through the lens of caste. “I would be more afraid of Thevar audiences. “ These guys were dangerous. They didn’t treat us, artists, well. They wouldn’t even give us a proper place to change. And they insist on us singing songs of Praise about their caste. Which I find very irritating to do knowing what kind of oppression they were all into perpetuating … on the other hand, Dalit audiences watch raptly, they look for good steps and timing, they give us better respect and facilities. It’s actually fun when the audience is appreciative and they don’t treat us as some dancing objects.”
After some time, Swetha made enough to think seriously about surgery. When she went to get the initial blood tests and preparations done though however, she got a serious shock. Doctors informed her that she was HIV positive. Swetha felt devastated. She couldn’t believe the news. She went into a deep spiral of depression and isolation. She even stopped dancing and was in a very bad place when she met her thirunangai mother, Grace Banu.
Grace gave her much needed support, especially emotionally. With her help, Swetha had a successful surgery and eventually was guided her job at Tamil Nadu AIDS Institute as a pharmacist there. With the help of her own Dalit transgender community, she was able to recover and take up this job.
“I am always smiling, pleasant and kind to the patients who come for medication. Many of them are HIV positive and many of them are treated as untouchables. I want them to have a pleasant experience. I try to educate them and tell them that AIDS doesn’t spread through touching and harmless interactions. That we should continue to treat one another as human beings. And that with medications and care, we will be ok!” says Swetha.
She’s back to dancing too. Whenever she has the time, she says she does it for fun and it helps her unwind.
Here is a story of Dalit survival through the structures of caste feudalism, class, childhood sexual abuse, inequities in higher education, transphobia, and surviving AIDS. Through it all, Swetha’s resilience through dance, her own deep sense of kindness, love and community is one of the most inspiring stories we have ever heard.
Thank you, Swetha! Big Salute to you! And a big Jai Bhim!
This article is based on verbal interviews with Swetha herself. All information pertaining to her life and her health have been published with her permission and after her review.