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The phone rings. It is Urmila didi, my cousin who lives in Gorakhpur. She is crying. There’s been a fight at home again, the same old domestic troubles that all married women seem to face, one way or another. And she’s calling me. Like she did the last time. And the time before that.

I listen patiently and try and offer her sympathy, support—things she’s deprived of, bereft of—because I do care and she knows that. We’re very close, having grown up together in a way and just hearing my voice can calm her down. It’s the same with Bindu didi, her sister. It’s the kind of intimacy that brings us all to tears when we speak to each other after ages, and when they plead with me and call me ‘Raju bhaiyya’, I can’t help but break down.

Raju lives and breathes inside me and no matter what I think or do or say, or how much I fight as an activist for transgenders’ rights. Despite the breast implants that make me feel like a woman and my saris and my precious lipsticks, Raju will always live and breathe inside me. He refuses to leave, this oldest son of the Tripathi clan on whose shoulders rest innumerable family responsibilities. I could be applying my favourite mascara and getting ready to go out, and suddenly there he is—staring back at me in the mirror as I pause, brush in hand, and look back at him. Raju.

Red Lipstick—The Men In My Life: By Laxmi with Pooja Pande; Penguin Random House; 220 pages, Rs399.
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Red Lipstick—The Men In My Life: By Laxmi with Pooja Pande; Penguin Random House; 220 pages, Rs399.

Sometimes he takes over too, when it is the need of the hour. He was there, putting on a brave show of masculinity when Papa was in abject pain from the cancer and suffering terribly. Making sure there was always enough money for everything, the treatment he required, the medicines he needed, all the financial support Papa was so dependent on. Papa, who had never asked anyone for anything all his life, and had lived his entire life righteously and with pride, his honour intact—a true head of the family who never had any of us wanting for anything, who toiled day and night for all of us, his family, for me. And when he was breathing his last, on his deathbed, Raju was by his side, he had to be. Papa had a blank look in his eyes for the longest time—pain can leave you so numb—but then he looked at me and I heard him say something. I heard the words in my head even though he did not mouth them. It was as if he was saying, ‘I am going, Raju. As the eldest son, now it’s your responsibility to take care of this family.’ I took Papa’s hands in mine and nodded, tears in my eyes. Papa closed his eyes and drifted off, I am sure he found some peace in my acquiescence, some assurance that even though he was going away, everyone would be looked after...

As Raju, I can never let my mother and the spirit of my father down—they have always been there for me even when it was tough for them, even when our society would taunt them in ways unimaginable and painful to any parent...When I became a hijra, my family did not understand why I was doing that, what it was that I was going through. As it is, I never told them directly—they found out one fine evening when they turned on the news and saw me speaking on behalf of hijras, as a hijra myself....

They could so easily have shunned me, which is the fate of most eunuchs in our country. But instead they chose the more difficult option: They wanted me to continue to live with them, as I was. I could be whoever I was, whoever I wanted to be—even if it meant being a hijra, if that’s what made me most comfortable in my skin—but to them, I must stay and always remain Raju. This was never spelt out as such, but it was understood. Anyway, what could I possibly gain from causing them so much pain, if they had to let their Raju go away forever?

On the TV show Sach Ka Saamna, my father had declared in no uncertain terms that he considered me his son. ‘As my eldest son, Laxmi Narayan is heir to my property in Mumbai and Uttar Pradesh,’ he had said. ‘My younger son, Shashi Narayan, is second to inherit.’ When he was asked if he had ever thought about throwing me out of the house, he had responded, ‘Why would I expel Laxmi from my family? I am his father, he is my responsibility. A hijra can be born to any family. If we shun them from our lives and homes, we leave them with no choice but to become beggars. I would never do that to someone in my family.’ He always maintained that he had no right to interfere in his son’s life.

Today, they have all accepted me as I am—our emotional bonding overrides everything. It’s not about my identity and sexuality any more. What they see in me, how they recognize me, is most important to them. And to me. After I achieved so much fame, there has been more than a general acceptance in any case. Now I can say even my sisters’ families in Gorakhpur are proud of me.

If Papa always saw me as Raju and only Raju—even when I went and initiated myself into the hijra community, even when I wore saris and make-up—who am I to question that? Who am I to decide how he sees me? I have no right. When I joined the hijras, it was Papa who had the second room at home taken off rent, so that I could continue to stay at home, as a hijra. I was once part of an unsavoury situation when my guru, Lata guru, tried to defame me. She called for a chatai meeting—it’s like the panchayat wherein decisions relating to the community are made—and my father insisted that my mother go and attend the chatai to ensure that my guru and the community did not take any decisions that might ruin their child’s life. No parent will ever say that—that yes, you should go to the hijron ka panch—but he did and he also instructed my mother to call him immediately if there were any issues. ‘Nothing untoward should happen to Raju,’ he told her. And my mother too, despite all that ghunghat business, really held her ground there. When it comes to her children, she is like a lioness protecting her cubs.

Papa would always be anxious and concerned about me. ‘Where is Raju?’, ‘Did he eat something?’, ‘When will he come?’ He was also very proud of me, praising me to the skies when talking about me. When I went to the UN—the first Indian transgender activist to do that—he said, ‘Oh, see my child. Whatever else there is or anyone says, Raju has definitely made me proud.’ ‘My child is my child,’ he would always say, ‘and he will be my son, my Raju, till my last breath.’

And so it is that Raju must live. Always. I cherish him and nurture him, and keep him alive for Papa, for Mummy, for my sisters, for my brother, for my family. That moment when I look into the mirror and see him might seem aberrant for someone on the outside, but one thing is for sure: Raju is here to stay.

Excerpted from Red Lipstick: The Men In My Life, with permission from Penguin Random House.

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