Childhood traumas, a bad father, doubts over sexuality — Ashwini has lived a life many of us cannot think of embracing. All his hopes are pinned on soon becoming a woman
“I used to cry for hours and hours in the school washroom,” says an emotional Ashwini Kumar Singh, who will soon be ‘Avni’.
For Ashwini, life had enough surprises to throw at him. Biologically, he is a man, but he soon will undergo a sex reassignment surgery, so Ashwini prefers to be called a ‘she.’
Also called ‘Cheeku’ by her friends, Ashwini’s hard times started in childhood, when her father, who according to Singh was (and still is) a drunkard and wife-beater, and used to sometimes beat Ashwini too. “He once tried to scare me as if he’ll push me from the terrace,” recalls Ashwini.
To keep the child away from the drama at home, she was sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Varanasi, with whom she shared a healthy bond. At school all was well till she came into Class 6. Because of her femininity, many a times she was mistaken for a girl by her peers. “I could see that they’re only staring at me and not my friends,” she says about her classmates.
Her first awakening about her sexuality happened while playing hide-and-seek. A guy friend, a little older to her, touched her and pushed her against the wall. “For the first time, I felt different. It was an indescribable feeling.”
As with many young LGBTQ teenagers, Ashwini too, was still confused about her sexuality. On a visit to her village in Chandauli, UP, she kissed a girl too. Afterwards, she compared both the sessions and says, “I felt better and enjoyed more with the boy.”
She was still in touch with the boy, but things were turning difficult in school. Every day, she was being called “Hijra” and “G**du.” She was spending more hours in the washroom than the classroom.
She was a good student earlier, but since the boys were ready to pounce on anything she said, Ashwini decided to be silent. Even when she knew the answers, she would keep mum, so that the boys did not get an opportunity to make fun of her speaking “like a girl.”
At the age of 15, her cousin, who was much older, started casting an eye on Ashwini. “He would show me porn to seduce me. I couldn’t say anything because I did not want to offend anybody,” Ashwini recalls.
Soon, the seduction turned to molestation. Every other day, she was being molested by her cousin brother. She couldn’t go to her grandparents because they liked the predator and this was supposed to be Ashwini’s safe haven away from home.
Soon after, curiosity started kicking in. She was spending more and more time on the Internet, looking up things like every other Indian LGBTQ teenager. Terms like ‘Naz Foundation’, ‘LGBT rights’.
“I installed dating apps too. I met a lot of people. I realised that if I can see 500 people just in my area, the amount of such people in India could be imagined.”
But in school, it was depressing because of the ongoing bullying. Amid this, some dark spots started showing up on her hands. It was irritating her. She got scared and went to the hospital, got her blood tests done, but everything was normal. The spots didn’t show a sign of decreasing, she again got her blood tests done, and she was found positive for an STD.
In the middle of the consultation with a doctor, she broke down and started crying. She told him about her sexual relations with her brother. The doctor then called up her family and told them all about it.
After an initial period of denial, the family eventually accepted the reality. The cousin had graduated from IIT and was ready to start his first job, so he was not reprimanded, which for Ashwini was “unfair.”
Slowly, Ashwini understood gender dysphoria, it all started making sense to her. The mom’s dresses, doing make-up and not feeling comfortable as a man.
She started journaling her daily activities on her laptop, and would talk to the notepad app, which she calls ‘Cukoo’, for hours and hours.
Cukoo became her best friend, she says, “no one could separate us. There was honesty in our relationship.”
By now, she also quit the animation course she was pursuing at a local design institute. Fed up with daily taunts by her grandparents and relatives over her body, hair and makeup, Ashwini decided to run away from home.
She had just turned 21 and on the day of Rakshabandhan, decided to start a new life. However, before leaving the home, she wrote a four-page letter describing her plight, she also downloaded coming out stories and a few episodes of Satyamev Jayate from YouTube and kept them in a memory card. She kept this memory card along with the letter in a photo frame.
Reaching the station, she rang up her parents; nervously, she asked for her mom, but couldn’t talk, then her sister picked up the phone. She told her sister to check the photo frame and disconnected the call.
She also got an asthmatic attack at the station, and broke the sim, not thinking about how she would manage without her phone. She left Varanasi for a fresh start, traveling in a general compartment, sleepless the whole night.
She reached Delhi at 8 am, with only Rs. 2,000 and some clothes. Ashwini looked for a cheap hotel, and one person persuaded her to see a room. After reaching the hotel, she realised that she can’t afford it, so she told the manager, but the manager had some other intentions altogether.
“He told me to stay, repeating the word ‘Please’ too often for comfort,” relates Ashwini. She fled from what was clearly not a safe place. Later she got one room for Rs 600, but the money she was left with would have allowed her to stay here for only two nights.
Grindr, the gay dating app, came in handy. She made a profile and found a guy who was ready to take her as his flatmate, on a rent of Rs 5,000 per month. Ashwini found a job opening for a customer care executive on Quickr on a monthly salary of Rs 7,000, and started to earn a living. Soon after, her parents visited her. She thought they would scold her but they didn’t, though she observed something weird — her father’s touch.
“The way he touched me, pressing his hand against my chest, I didn’t like it. I told my mother but maybe she couldn’t acknowledge it,” tells Ashwini.
For Diwali, she went to her grandparents’ village. By now, her looks were changed: longer hair, thick layers of makeup and a woman’s top. “They stared at me but didn’t say anything.”
She got settled again after a few days, but another shocker was coming her way — a cure.
“I heard my mother and grandmother discussing some baba and saying that the remedy is working out,” tells Ashwini. She didn’t understand at first that they were talking about her – until she found out that some of her hair was taken from her comb along with her clothes and sent to a baba to look for a cure.
People started stalking her and spread rumours of her not having a penis, living with a guy and so on. She was disturbed again but by then was done living a dual life and did not let these comments bother her.
She sat down with her family to make them understand her sexuality. The family told her that it’s the society they’re afraid of. However, she ridiculed the argument by saying, “First you accept me then expect the society to do the same.”
The family was still reluctant to understand her situation, but her cousin sister called her Ashwini “Di” one day, and that was the time she felt happy with someone’s validation.
By now, Ashwini was living like a bird, free from society’s judgment and pressure. She was still told to not meet the people from the LGBTQ community because she was turning out like them. However, she replied, “I’ve lived enough with you lot. I didn’t turn out like you too.”
Today, Ashwini is living with her close friends in Lucknow, taking hormonal medication since four months now, which costs her Rs 1,500 a month. She’s happy, she says that she may return to Delhi, but that “people in Delhi are busy people, they don’t take out time for others.”
She’s looking forward to a change, which was denied to her at birth. She likes doing makeup, and aspires to become a makeup artist. Her only worry for now is to collect Rs 2.5 lakh for the sex reassignment surgery.
When asked if she would also like to change her voice, she concluded, “Mashallah bahut achchi awaaz hai meri. Sardi hai toh aapko pata nahi chal raha.” (Mashallah my voice is beautiful. Since it’s winters you probably can’t make out).