A colourful revolt

  “Hamari saanson mein aaj tak woh hina ki khushboo mehek rahi hai”

(The smell of henna from many moons ago is still embedded in every breath I take)

Sitting in her cosy home, Ashish Shigwan reminisces about childhood. She recalls crushing leaves from the nearby henna tree and applying henna on her hands. It’s a vivid memory brought to life by powerful storytelling. It leaves you feeling heady, the scent of the natural dye lingering on as she talks.

With a certain fondness she dives into the past, flashing light on ways she passed her time as a kid – playing with dolls and kitchen utensils, plucking blades of grass and flowers, and running after butterflies as her male classmates indulged in cricket, nurturing their machismo and calling her names because she didn’t join them. At home, no one suspected anything amiss. Belonging to a Hindu family, she had had her ears pierced – a fairly common practice among men. So even if she wore an earring, it wasn’t something ‘to worry about’.

Born in 1987, Ashish a.k.a Lavanya (she prefers ‘Ashish’ as it manages to create a more lasting impression on people when they see her wearing a saree, makeup and using a conventionally masculine name) identifies herself as transgender today. She says that words like ‘gender’ and ‘identity’ held no meaning for her growing up, but she had begun to realise she was different. That realisation, she now knows, was significant, even if it could not be defined or labelled back then.

Around Class 9, social gatherings became a strict no-no for her. Her voice hadn’t cracked unlike other boys her age and when she used the parameters of their pubertal changes as a way of measuring her own, things didn’t add up. Their broad shoulders, manly gait, and a certain spike in confidence that comes to some during that peak in adolescence became a constant reason for playing the blame game. She took turns shifting the compass from herself to her parents to The Almighty. Why couldn’t He have made her like the others, she wondered, always with resentment.

Society has a funny way of noticing the absence of people even though it might never acknowledge their presence. Questions began to trickle in about why she was staying indoors all the time. The house became her safe haven, even if it felt like a prison sometimes. Her body certainly felt like a prison, one she seemed desperate to break out of. She wore her sister’s frocks, her mother’s sarees, bangles, makeup and tried on their footwear. One day, her mother walked in on Ashish wearing a saree. She was shocked and unable to say a word.

That night, however, there was a showdown at home. It was the beginning of a series of arguments where her mother would indict her father – first, for not being able to take charge of the situation as the man of the house, and then later for not being able to ‘fix’ their son. Ashish’s father instructed her to behave like a boy, almost as if it were something Ashish had been putting off for a long time. All her toys were thrown away and the make up she had stowed away in her cupboard was discarded.

A fresh diktat was passed and all her actions came to be monitored, like doctors trying to study the symptoms of a new patient. “How I talked, where I went, who my friends were, they kept a tab on everything. I felt like a criminal. All this time, outsiders made fun of me, now my own family was persecuting me. When people start pointing fingers at us, we think we are wrong and think we are a burden on everyone”, explains Ashish.

Word spread quickly and people started arriving at conclusions – Ashish had become feminine because she hung out too much with girls and played with girls’ toys, or maybe she had been raised with too many women in the household. Who knew, and more importantly who cared enough to speak to Ashish herself? Ashish says that the phobia around alternate gender identities or sexual orientations is born when people see someone different from them and feel threatened.

The fear on that end plays off the fear experienced by the individual and it’s a vicious cycle. “It took me an 8-year revolt, losing friends and family to accept myself. People had always associated transgenders with fun and sexual pleasure. Dealing with them wouldn’t be easy but the bigger challenge was telling the world who I was and that if they couldn’t accept me, it was all right. I decided to live life on my own terms”, says Ashish.

It was 2002 when Ashish moved out. Her mother had given up after a failed attempt at counselling, and her father, still expecting a miracle to convert Ashish back to a man, showed his support by arranging for her accommodation. He came around eventually, but her mother never did.

After Class 12, she started doing part-time work to support her independence. A computer agency that she worked at let her go without paying her. Her next job as a ward boy at a hospital meant night shifts and early-morning college, but she adjusted. When people called her names like ‘gud’, ‘maamu’, ‘chakka’ (pansy), it fractured her spirit but she held on for dear life. Stones were pelted at her and mid-air they transformed to rocks of self-doubt; she felt like she had to trudge uphill with this weight alone.

Eventually, she befriended a group of transgenders and met Amma a.k.a Nandini, a transgender hailing from Lucknow. The group convened at Amma’s house every evening, she played the dhol and everyone sang, danced and made merry. Ashish learned that was Amma was bringing money into the house and that’s why she hadn’t been ostracised. Ashish thought to herself, “To gain acceptance, we have to become society’s need”.

Ashish invested her time accompanying Amma to the functions where she danced and made money. She saw the love and adulation Amma got wherever she went. However, it soon became clear to her that culture and religion were forces powerful enough to make people fear and revere those they otherwise shirked and neglected. All the respect Amma received was a result of this fear of God, it was borne out of necessity rather than want.

Tracing her steps back to the first time she wore a saree publicly, Ashish recounts, “During the Yallama festival, we had to travel to town for an event. I was nervous but feigned confidence. Once I got on the train, the anxiety made way for happiness. It was a liberating experience. This was the real me, I had been a slave to society all this time, and after 18 years, it felt like I had finally won the war against myself.” Her conviction increased tremendously after this episode, she began getting out more frequently during the day draped in sarees and oozing a devil-may-care attitude, conquering the apprehensions of running into family members.


Ashish gleefully shares details of how she and her friends carried out mini social experiments, buying tickets to enter public spaces, and seeing how the authorities reacted to their presence, trying to enter temples just to see what happened. Sometimes, cops passed lewd comments at them; but Ashish had decided to not break the law – she always urged her friends to buy train tickets by saying, “If you can spend 200 rupees on a lipstick, why can’t you spend 10 rupees on a train ticket?”.

This inherent itch to do the right thing is a quality that Ashish is unwilling to part with. Ashish studied law and is an advocate today. She does legal counselling in cases of domestic violence and protection of child rights on a pro bono basis. She also runs an organisation called Prayas – Ek Koshish where a small and dedicated team works with child labourers, their parents, women who are HIV positive and people of sexual minorities. This year, one of the groups on the Youth Fellowship Program has come to PUKAR through Prayas.

Ashish’s association with PUKAR dates back to 2012. She was on the Youth Fellowship Program 3 years in a row, working with women and men on trans issues while addressing misconceptions about her identity amongst the group members. Even after completing her stint as a fellow, Ashish has continued to be a regular feature every year, taking time out to guide fellows in their research.

There’s a warm glow on her face when she talks about PUKAR. “The Youth Fellowship created opportunities for us to connect with people, it gave us a platform to build awareness about our identity and we made friends at PUKAR”, she says.

When the topic of transphobia, homophobia and biphobia is broached, she says that acceptance cannot come from sympathy, it has to come from a feeling of being equal. Even though we see a buzz about transpeople on television, social media and in movements around the world today, she says complete acceptance will take time, but change is a process of nature and maybe 100 years later, the efforts will bear fruit.

Talking about her work, Ashish says, “Parents are worried. When we try to mobilise children, all their myths come out to play, they wonder if we will convert them. We have to build confidence and trust, and assure them that their children are safe with us. People might support or reject us, but we shouldn’t judge anyone till we know their level of awareness and access to information regarding gender identities.” By now, it is clear that Ashish has imbibed and successfully implemented the values of democracy, participation, critical thinking and passion from her experience as a fellow.

She thinks trying different strategies might be the answer – advertisements, rallies, videos, films, comprehensive sexuality education in colleges? She believes if the youth can be captured with the right messages, the future might be brighter than it has been for some of her companions.

Even though times are better for transgenders now, Ashish talks about lost love, broken relationships, families torn apart, lives ended, and closeted identities as a result of the stigma riding on the backs of people who belong to sexual minorities or have unconventional gender expressions. She says that if the law protected them, maybe more stories could have had happy endings.

Talking about happiness, colours have always been a positive influence in Ashish’s life, from the colour of Henna on her palms as a child to the attraction to colourful clothes and people. By challenging the politics of fear, she has chosen the colour of expression over the blackness of rigidity and conformity. Colour symbolises change in her life, it represents her identity as a source of empowerment rather than shame. And as long as it does, Ashish will not stop soaring.

“Jahan kahin tha hina ko khilna, hina wohin pe mehek rahi hai”

(Every spot that was destined for Henna to flower, Henna has made that spot fragrant)

Note: The lyrics are borrowed from a Noor Jahan song called ‘Hamari Saanson Mein Aaj Tak’. The lyricist, however, is unknown. 


Making every second count

Tehmina Sabuwala, an ex-fellow, currently mentors a group of six women who are part of this year’s Youth Fellowship Program. She completed her fellowship last year where her group studied SMART Cities through the lens of marginalised women. In this post, Tehmina reflects on the experiences that have shaped her understanding of gender, exposing her to traditional gender role definitions and expectations that have usurped women’s personal time and space, and how this group of six women is trying to change that.

At my previous job, a2017-03-13-PHOTO-00002977s a documentarian, I developed the habit of clicking pictures capturing some of my observations as moments. I was also simultaneously pursuing my journey as Youth Fellow at PUKAR then. Sunil Gangavane, my facilitator, saw some of my pictures and said they appeared to have the same underlying theme. “What is the theme?”, I asked him. But he asked me to figure it out for myself. Back then, I couldn’t.

While doing the fellowship, Sunil recited a poem that moved me since I hadn’t come across women’s struggles in that form before. At the time, our group was researching SMART Cities from the perspective of marginalised women because we wanted to hear their voices in a discussion largely dominated by men. I felt deeply connected to their stories but was still unaware of what this really meant.

It was only recently, when I attended a month-long course at Visthar (a civil society organisation in Bangalore) called Gender Diversity and Social Transformation (GDST) that the dots seemed to connect: gender had played an important role in my life throughout – the photographs, my resonance to women’s stories of hardships and the need to know their opinions were testament to my keen interest in gender issues.

At Visthar, my fellow participants came from different countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria,
Nepal, Bangladesh, and Indonesia among others. One day, we were asked to compare the routines of a husband and a wife. What emerged from the exercise was an interesting picture: women across countries worked much harder than their male counterparts – taking care of the house and their children even while keeping a paid job.

As a child, I remember seeing a similar pattern at home and thinking it was unfair. When I was around 8, we went to Panchgani for a family holiday. A family member asked if I was liking it there, and I innocently replied, “Yes, I am. Because my mom doesn’t have to cook.” While everyone laughed, my mom was moist-eyed because even a child like me could see how hard she worked with little or no returns in sight.

This year, I’m co-facilitating a group of six working women at PUKAR – one is a community health volunteer, one is an Anganwadi worker, three of them are voluntary social workers and one is a computer teacher. They are the first all-women group in PUKAR between the ages of 28 and 45, part of a fellowship where most participants are under 21. Their families encouraged them to join PUKAR and their children said, “Go and live for yourself now”. Their research explores the problems, challenges and injustices faced by community health volunteers, all female, by the way.

In one of our meetings, I shared with these women a translation of Betty Friedan’s “The Problem That Has No Name”, an excerpt from her book, The Feminine Mystique, which was first published in 1963. It changed the lives of many American women by bringing their restlessness, lack of identity and unhappiness to public attention. Before reading to them the excerpt, I asked them to observe the differences between their routines versus their husbands’.

When we met after 2 weeks, they wrote down their observations. When they began sharing, the results seemed strikingly similar to those that came out of the Visthar exercise. As they engaged in a discussion on the importance of distributing work equally between their daughters and sons, it became clear that it wasn’t a woman’s job alone to cook, clean or take care of the children.

When I reflected on the activity I conducted with these six women, I thought to myself – even though one needs to be extremely sensitive while having a discussion about discrimination with women, getting them to participate is not difficult. The real challenge lies in engaging men from the same age group. There is still a long way to go, and I really wish that gender sensitisation becomes a part of school curriculums some day. If we want to cut down discrimination, it is important to teach children from a very young age. Right now, I feel lucky to be part of a space like PUKAR where the quest for knowledge becomes the currency with which these women negotiate unconventional gender roles for themselves and set an example for their children and husbands as they do so.

A change-maker in the offing

No one believes Vishal Jayram Patel when he says that he is the father of a 6-year old. At 32, his youthful exuberance makes them question their flawed notions of what parents should look like. He’s got a warm, welcoming smile that spreads from ear-to-ear. Behind his solid smile, though, is a steep learning curve, with a graph that is plotted by hardships, acceptance, and triumphs.

A few years back, Vishal was a short-tempered man, anxious about working in a red-light district and unaware of his latent transphobia. In 2013, his job as a supervisor with the BMC on the RNTCP (Revised National TB Control Programme) introduced him to Kamathipura. He says, “I was reluctant to work there, I had heard bad things. My friends used to tease me. My mother asked me to stick to my work. I remember being solicited by a lady outside Alexandra Cinema once.”

As time passed, his monthly visits to the area undid his apprehensions to an extent; but a complete change of heart was set in motion when he came on board the Barefoot Researchers for Better Communities fellowship at PUKAR in 2014. His group, Swayam, comprising paraprofessionals trained in social work from Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work, studied the politics of stigma attached to spaces such as Kamathipura and its consequences on the residents.

Vishal’s observations of the problems faced by female sex workers in Kamathipura played a crucial role in shaping the group’s topic. The research turned out to be the perfect opportunity for Vishal to expand his universe as the study brought his own deep-seated misconceptions to the fore. One of the women opened up about how she escaped the clutches of her considerably older husband, who regularly abused her, and landed up at CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) where she was lured by a lady into the world of Kamathipura. Vishal saw the storms that had decided the fate of these women and left them in no position to steer the course of their own lives.

As a child, his school years had been underscored by a weak financial situation at home, so when female sex-workers narrated their hardships of putting their children through school, he could relate to their stories.


The fellowship became the mirror which reflected his shortcomings and his strengths. Vishal explains, “I understood myself and my values through the fellowship. I learned to listen to people with a different point of view. My time as a fellow has taught me that respect is a two-way street.” It is perhaps this idea of respecting and treating people as equals that has permeated into the relationships he forms and the things he does. Some of his closest friends are transgenders, his feelings have transformed from an outright fear of the community to unconditional love and support for them.

In the fellowship, dissemination is of key importance; it marks the time when fellows take their research back to the community to start a dialogue. For Vishal, dissemination is of key importance in life; he leaves no stone unturned to create awareness about TB and HIV irrespective of the setting – bus, train or market – as he engages with people who are willing to lend him an ear.

As a Senior Treatment Supervisor on the RNTCP, Vishal often goes beyond the demands of his job, be it negotiating space for immunisation against TB or identifying a lab for testing. “I spend my free time visiting old-age homes and orphanages to contribute in whatever way I can. My wife complains that I don’t spend enough time at home.”, he adds.

Today, as a mentor for one of the groups on this year’s Youth Fellowship Programme, Vishal has come a long way. As enthusiastic as he is about his role, one of his main attractions is the chance to learn more through the experience. His thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, his spirit indomitable and his desire to do good burns bright. He acknowledges that the road to change will always be fraught with difficulties but he will keep marching on, with his hand on his heart, saying, “All is well!!”.

The Powerpuff Girls

On January 21, just as the sunlight was starting to achieve a diffused effect in the evening sky, the people of Bhim Nagar checked all chores off their lists, hurriedly making their way to the Buddh Vihar (community centre). Perched atop a hillock, the Buddh Vihar in Bhoiwada’s Bhim Nagar is a modestly sized room, its walls adorned by portraits of Savitribai Phule and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Slowly the centre started to fill up, one-half of the room eagerly occupied by mothers with infants on their hips, a few women with wallets and handkerchiefs clutched in their hands, and a handful men. The other half was hijacked by girls – a group of sprightly 11-21-year-olds, as they shuffled chaotically, the older bunch instructing the younger ones, trying to duck the microphone suspended from the roof.

Finally, the proverbial curtains were drawn open. The younger lot among the group, 11-14-year-olds, stood facing the audience, its numbers now increasing as people teemed outside, some standing on their toes, trying to catch a glimpse of the scene inside. It seemed unusual to see so many people jostling each other to participate in the celebrations of 16 girls who had completed the Journey Towards Dignity programme and were about to talk about education as their right, sexual health, and abuse.

Taking turns, the girls shared their learning, their presentation dominated by the sheer excitement on their faces and the josh in their voices. It was an unspoken declaration, it screamed “Yes, we know about menstruation, child sexual abuse, and good dietary practices!” as they performed their acts focussing on these topics.


The girls make a point through their skit

When the older batch aged 15-21 came on, a certain seriousness filled the air; the applause died down. Two girls delivered emotionally charged monologues – one spoke about experiencing abuse perpetrated by her own uncle, the other about dealing with the first day of her period. A play became the device through which the audience witnessed the tragedies of a grandmother whose flashbacks showed gender-biases in their full glory, affecting every aspect of her life.

The rawness and power of each performance made it evident that the girls were drawing from a pool of shared grief, a pool made up of all the injustices that they had experienced in their own lives, of the punishments meted out to them for being born as the ‘the weaker sex’ while they exposed the weaknesses of the society.

That evening, the limitations of the centre’s space became a boon as there was no escape for emotions, of sentiments that are usually buried under layers of austerity. Her voice shaky with emotion, the mother of one of the girls said, “I did not have faith in my daughter to speak the way she did today, I am so proud of her, she has shown a lot of courage”. As other parents nodded in agreement, the girls grinned, knowing that they had seized the day. A small victory signalling the bigger wins that awaited them.


One of the girls receives a certificate of completion from her parents

The period problem: will you whisper or stay free?

दीदी, आपने लास्ट सेशन में मासिक पाली के बारे में बताया, और सेशन के दुसरे ही दिन मुझे मासिक पाली आई, सेशन के वजह से मुझे कोई दिक्कत नहीं आई

Neha (Name changed to protect privacy)


Blood. Sweat. Tears. That’s how it starts, doesn’t it? It’s a dangerous loop – don’t talk about it, let the myths prevail, panic when you finally see red, perceive it to be some sort of cancer when in reality, fear is the cancer coursing through your veins, approach the shopkeeper with caution – ask for a newspaper or black bag to hide the contents that once seen could destroy the world and every time you need to reload your ammo, make your way to the nearest change station so discreetly, that it would put Houdini to shame.

13-year old Neha’s story has a different beginning. In an environment that requires an orchestration around a natural process, Neha’s confidence exudes through a simple statement of how she handled her first period. It is noteworthy in the Indian context where lack of sufficient knowledge and myths leave young girls and their parents unprepared to deal with menstruation and create a culture where the language used to discuss it is highly encrypted.

Sadly, millions of Nehas still navigate their way through each period playing a game of charades – using gestures to let their friends and female relatives know it’s THAT time of the month, quietly signalling them to check if they have stained their clothes. The culture of silence is an invisible monster – it speaks through legends and myths, passed down from one generation to another, paralysing young girls and women every month for 4-5 days. The kitchen, jars of pickles, places of worship and male members of the family often become off limits as menstruation continues to be considered bad and impure.

This ostracisation is humiliating, degrading and more painful than the physical pain endured during menstruation and often saps them of their sense of dignity. Through its program, Journey Towards Dignity, PUKAR prepares adolescent girls like Neha to take the first step towards empowerment and well-being by engaging them in discussions on sexual and reproductive health, gender, and violence.

The program has helped Neha break the cycle and confront her fears. Her statement is a happy declaration of the newfound understanding of her body – of menstruation as a biological process, free of guilt or misconceptions. With this victory, Neha now holds the key to bust the myths and change the attitudes around menstruation of the innumerable people in her life.

Starting with a clean slate

In an age where we celebrate everything, what is the significance of a day meant to recognise the impact of teachers in our lives? Every year, on September 5, Teachers’ Day is celebrated across schools and colleges in India. Usually, the occasion becomes a smorgasbord of activities where the role of teachers is minimal – they simply have to be present.

At Guru Nanak Khalsa College, the third-year students carried the mantle of organising events and activities with a larger objective. The teachers of two departments had been going through a rough patch and the students wanted to help resolve these differences.

PUKAR works in close collaboration with the college, and some of the students who are alumni of the Youth Fellowship Program, met with our facilitator, Rohan Chavan, and together they brainstormed ideas for the event. At the end of the discussion, a novel and exciting plan had emerged.

Last week, when the sun finally dawned on Monday, September 5, the teachers had no idea what was in store for them. First on the list was an activity where each teacher had to draw an object that defined them and share the explanation behind their choice to everyone else. They produced drawings of books, of birds, of flowers. The lotus drawn by one teacher became a metaphor for them opening up to one another as they narrated their ideas behind the pictures.

img_4208The next step was a game called, ‘Aaj Ke Designers Hum’, wherein the male and female teachers divided into two groups, and they had to fashion an outfit for themselves using only newspapers and pins. They accepted the challenge wholeheartedly and used their inherent resourcefulness as teachers to create interesting results.

img_4214By this time, there was a lot of positivity in the air and the students capitalised on it by encouraging all the teachers to pin a sheet of paper to their backs and allow other teachers to share their opinions of them. The only catch? – they had to be constructive and affirmative in their feedback. The next few minutes saw the teachers running around, making sure they reached out to as many of their colleagues as possible. The sight of teachers approaching each other to write something positive was a rewarding one for the students.

To conclude the festivities, the students presented teachers with stoles and declared them winners, highlighting their unique qualities. Pooja Jarupti, one of the students, and our very own youth fellow from last year, recounts with pure joy how one teacher said that she was reminded of her childhood and was grateful that the students had applied their learning from the Youth Fellowship Program in such an apt setting.

Indeed, these Youth Fellowship alumni have been able to sustain and demonstrate their strength as team-workers and proved that education is a dynamic, two-way process. They’re close to the end of their last year in college. When the time comes, we hope that they throw their hats in the air with the same confidence that they showed donning them in their roles as facilitators to bring their teachers together.

Of the people; by the people; for the people

Sunil Kaachra, a resident of Bahadoli, is a busy young man these days; he is one of the members on the committee to draft a plan for the utilisation of funds under the ‘Aamcha Gaav, Aamcha Vikaas’ (Our village, our development) scheme of the 14th Finance Commission.

A quick online search for Bahadoli will tell you that it is a village located in Palghar Tehsil, District Palghar with a population of roughly 1500 people; it will even show you a highlighted patch of green on the map of Maharashtra.

However, for the past 2 years, Bahadoli has been one of the villages where PUKAR’s IFA-EGFA (Information For All, E-Governance For All) project has been running with the aim of enabling the people in 14 villages of Palghar Tehsil to access rural, tribal and e-governance schemes and service deliveries in order to improve their quality of life.

Sunil is one of the E-Sevaks recruited by the project to do door-to-door education and create awareness about the schemes and services available to the people living in Bahadoli village. 2 years back, Sunil was doing odd jobs with no signs of getting involved in matters of governance. Today he says, “Working as an E-Sevak with PUKAR has increased my self-confidence and stoked my desire to do something for my village and its people”.

The recent formation of the plan-drafting committee became an occasion for great joy and pride when all 5 positions excluding the one occupied by a Gram Sevak, were filled by E-Sevaks – Sachin Patil, Sachin Kudu, Kiran Pawar, Rahul Patil, and Sunil Kaachra.

5 Volunteers for 14th finance commition (2)

Kiran and Sunil, who had both discontinued education post 12th standard, have enrolled for graduation and are showing a keen interest in social work. Having formally studied agriculture and arts, Sachin Patil had always leaned towards working for the development of his village and sees his selection as an opportunity to do even more.

“Under the 14th Finance Commission’s ‘Aamcha Gaav, Aamcha Vikaas’ scheme, there was a need for 5 Swayam Sevaks, and therefore, 5 of us PUKAR E-Sevaks submitted our names. After being selected, we went all around the village to gather information about the problems that people are facing and presented these to the Gram Sabha. We will take these issues into account while drafting the 5-year plan for the scheme and will work towards the progress of our village.” Sunil concludes.

Conversations with these young men open the window to their shared vision of making Bahadoli a better place to live in, with an emphasis on the participation of its residents to fulfil this vision.  Come August and the committee will submit its plan to the Zilla Parishad; what better time for these 5 members to deliver on the values of India’s democratic framework than the month of independence itself!