This Diwali, Aarthi called. I expected her usual warm greetings and was unprepared for her distressed voice.
“I wanted to tell you sooner but could not get you on the phone. Abhi, I have bad news for you.”
I was very tensed. Aarthi had never spoken to me like this. “What happened?“
“You know Sukanya?”
”Sukanya? I haven’t heard from her in nine years. She vanished from my life. The last I knew she shifted to Bangalore without saying goodbye. What happened to her?”
Aarthi replied, now sobbing, “Sukanya’s no more!”
My heart skipped. There was silence. At last, I shouted, “How? When?”
“She went to Bangalore. Nobody knew where she was or what she was doing.”
I had first known Sukanya as a dusky hijra girl when she was no more than 26 years of age. She used to work with me as an outreach worker when we ran a special programme for transgenders and hijras in Mumbai at the Humsafar Trust. More than her physical beauty, I always knew Sukanya to be humble and well-cultured. She used to greet everyone with a beautiful, sweet smile and a polite voice.
We had a special bond between us from the start. Sukanya and I were like real sisters, but there was a side of her personality which I never figured out. Some used to joke that Sukanya could be identified from a kilometer away since she was always drunk. To hide her drinking, she wore heavy perfume and used mouth fresheners. I encouraged her to quit many times, but her promises to stop would be broken the next day.
Finally, I got mad. I shared my anger. Sukanya cried and kept crying. I tried my best to console her. Sukanya talked about the rejection from her family. She told me about her struggle for survival as a hijra. She was an outreach worker part time during the day, but at night she did sex work. Finally she broke down and revealed she was living with HIV for almost two years. She had no support and was terrified of dying. The more she worried, the more she drank.
Sukanya told me, “I want to finish this life so that I can come back in next one as a good girl. Sukanya means ‘good girl.’ The life of a hijra is full of discrimination, hatred, and loneliness. In the next life, I want to be a pretty girl. I want to have everything in life. I want the love of my parents. I want to be married and have kids. I want to be healthy, and I want to earn my income with dignity.”
I connected her to a mental health counsellor, and she started showing improvement. I was happy with her progress. I moved to a new job, and my contact with her reduced. The last I heard about her was that she wanted to reconnect with her family and left without telling anyone. It made me happy to think of her reunited with her parents and living at home in Karnataka. Until Aarthi called on Diwali.
Aarthi told me that Sukanya had been murdered, brutally. Her murderer is rumoured to be her longtime partner, who hanged her from a ceiling fan to give the impression of a suicide. The police have still not charged anyone with the crime. For the rest of the day, I could not speak to anyone but kept thinking: Is it so difficult for a transgender to find love, live with dignity and be accepted by her family?
Her murder is still sinking in, and my thoughts return to her again and again. Above all, I hope she comes back in another life as what she always wanted to be: Sukanya, a good girl, but honestly, she will always be one in my heart.
With support from the Global Fund, Pehchan builds the capacity of 200 community-based organisations (CBOs) for men who have sex with men (MSM), transgenders and hijras in 17 states in India to be more effective partners in the government’s HIV prevention programme. By supporting the development of strong CBOs, Pehchan will address some of the capacity gaps that have often prevented CBOs from receiving government funding for much-needed HIV programming. Named Pehchan which in Hindi means ‘identity’, ‘recognition’ or ‘acknowledgement,’ this programme is implemented by India HIV/AIDS Alliance in consortium with Humsafar Trust, SAATHII, Sangama, and SIAAP and will reach 453,750 MSM, transgenders and hijras by 2015. It is the Global Fund’s largest single-country grant to date focused on the HIV response for vulnerable sexual minorities.