A couple of weeks ago, when I left the launch party of an upscale restaurant, a trans-beggar came up to me and said “Katrina, paisay dou naa” in a nasal, overly-accentuated accent, and I burst out laughing. Most of these guys usually have a killer sense of humour and since they make you laugh, I believe that you become liable to pay them, as there has been a transactional exchange. I mean don’t we pay comedians for the same reasons?
This incident took me a few years back, when I was working as a journalist with the Express Tribune and got the opportunity to sit and talk with Islamabad’s favourite trans-beggar and sweetheart “Bijli”. I was so eager to get to know her story as she happened to be as feisty as her name and unusually witty and charming.
I took her to a restaurant and offered that we have lunch but she politely refused, leaving me humbled by her courtesy and formality. After two coffee cups and countless compliments on my shoes, she opened up to me about her past. I noticed that behind her upbeat aura, was a story laden with immense pain and grief. “My brothers kicked me out of the house when I was only 14.” she said with a solemn look in her eyes. “They said that I brought dishonour to my family whenever I would go out and men would tease me” she added.
She shared with me how almost all of the transgenders in her community had been kicked out of their homes for supposedly bringing shame to their family name. “The most painful part about being kicked out of my home was of separating from my mother. She loved me a lot but it was the brothers decisions that overruled”, Bijli said.
During our discourse, I learnt that Eid was one of the most challenging times for the khawajahsirah community as it is was a reminder of the heart-wrenching separation from their families. “On the first day, we doll up, dance and have fun but on the second day we cry and mourn because we miss our families so much, especially our mothers.” she added.
I felt fumed at her brothers and all those who consider the trans community as worthy of being shunned. “Many men on the streets insult us and sometimes throw stones at us. For them, humiliating us is a hobby.” she said.
I couldn’t fathom how anybody could get themselves to mock or abuse someone so harmless. However, what I found super inspiring about Bijli was that all her tribulations did not harden her but made her kinder. She regularly partook in humanitarian endeavours for the khawajahsirah community and those in poverty. “If someone is in need, I collect money for them. And if someone is part of a brawl, they come to me to resolve matters and look up to me as a mentor” she told me.
I was relieved to learn that on the other hand, there were also those light-bearers, that treated the khawajahsirah community with the love and respect that they deserved. “Recently, a group of women donated sewing machines to us and enrolled us in a vocational centre. Other than that, a local café owner has offered me to have free food at his café and a beauty salon offers me free treatments sometimes” Bijli told me, with a smile on her face.
I wanted to delve deeper into her mind so I asked her what she dreamt of, “I wish to be employed as a servant in the house of a government employee.” she responded. I was also astonished at how, a person with such a developed comedic talent and a humanitarian spirit was merely dreaming for the job of a servant. But then all myths of how the ignorant consider trans as “cursed” and “uncouth” just came flooding to my mind and I got my answer. But that did not deter me from conveying to her, how enamoured I was with her gifts.
“With your talent, you should be on the stage as a comedian, making people laugh” I told her. “Why don’t you go to one of these art centers in the city?” I added.
“They don’t let ‘people like us’ in” she replied,
“Were the arts only restricted for the elites?” I thought.
Several years down the line, my hope for Bijli and the transgender community to become a more integrated part of society, became somewhat of a reality when I stumbled upon pictures of her celebrating her birthday party where over 50 people were in attendance. They seemed to belong from all echelons of society, including the owners of ChaiChowk, Juicy Gossip, The Cheese Factor, Coffee Planet Pakistan, Bits n’ Bites and Funky Bake and CupCake cafe with their contributions. It was a testament to the fact that slowly but surely, people are awakening to the acts of compassion and community.
I also discovered that she had been hired as an ambassador for Dairah, an NGO where she worked to help and support, underprivileged trans-women. I guess Bijli and those like her embody the true meaning of alchemy as they are able to magically turn all of their sorrow to salvation and curate a positive and productive reality for themselves.
I also realised that you do not have to be rich to help those in need. Bijli is not rich in terms of wealth but she regularly partakes in charity. I also learnt of the power the underprivileged have over the privileged. Bijli and the transgender that I met recently, did not have their guards up like a privileged person usually would. You could have a chat with them at any time and they wouldn’t look at you suspiciously.
It’s ironic how these people do not have any education but they end up teaching you the most valuable lessons of life, of spreading joy, no matter the circumstance and of giving back, no matter the status. They also taught me the difference between enlightenment and education. The former being a kind of awareness, that could be far superior to the latter, a kind of wisdom that no university could teach you.