Paris on a whim

Stumped as I was for something to do to celebrate my 23rd, when my mum ventured the idea of escaping to Paris for a bit of a mother-daughter holiday, I jumped on it.  It was literally booked about ten minutes later.

The weather was sunny and warm, and we walked around, ate lovely food, shopped, and visited a few places I hadn’t been before (and some places I simply love).

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Goat’s cheese salad – a must-have. Always good, and different in every café so you have a reason to just never not order it.

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Two patisseries that my housemate and I used to frequent on our study abroad year – we lived just down the road. The one on the left is sino-francais and doubles as a chinese takeaway 😛

Canal Saint-Martin

Canal Saint-Martin

Canal Saint-Martin

Canal Saint-Martin

Somewhere we visted that I hadn’t been to before was the Canal Saint-Martin, in the east of Paris.  It was packed along its edges with people enjoying the sunshine and browsing the boutiquey shops along the banks.

We stopped in a trendy crêperie for some caramalised apple goodness.

Sunbathers

Sunbathers

Someone get these Parisians a beach!

Sailing boats in the Jardin du Luxembourg

Sailing boats in the Jardin du Luxembourg

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I really recommend visiting the Marche aux Puces (flea markets) to anyone who’s planning on visiting Paris.  It’s easy to get to, just take the line 4 to Porte de Clignancourt on a Saturday, Sunday or Monday and follow the crowds.  There’s a massive market that’s sprung up around the edges of the actual market, make sure you don’t get fooled into thinking that’s what you’re looking for!  Head for Rue Rosiers, and Marche Dauphine, and explore from there (you can get a map from the website).  Track down some moules-frites for lunch 🙂

Early morning Seine

Early morning Seine

My favourite part of Paris, I think, is Montmartre.  We spent a good part of our last day ambling around, exploring the area behind Sacre Coeur that is remarkably void of tourists and very pretty, with little craft shops, a park and great views over the city.  I like the feeling of space you get up there – the rest of Paris can at times feel very hemmed in.

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I’ll be back.

Lochs, Walks and Castles

A couple of weeks ago I got back from a spontaneous week-long trip to Scotland with a friend.  Whenever the two of us plan a trip it’s always going to be over-ambitious, if history’s anything to go by.  What had started as a plan to drive around almost the whole of Scotland (ok, it had actually started as a plan to go to Finland, but we won’t talk about that), morphed into the rather less ambitious but wholly more doable trip to the Ardnamurchan peninsula and the south west highlands.

The drive there only took twelve hours thanks to the motorway being suddenly declared unsafe and closed just past Birmingham.

But we got there in the end.

We woke up in Moffat after having finally arrived the night before, to be greeted by a statue of the ubiquitous highland sheep on our way to find breakfast.

We woke up in Moffat after having finally arrived the night before, to be greeted by a statue of the ubiquitous highland sheep on our way to find breakfast.

After the first of many hearty Scottish breakfasts (I don’t think we could really have found any other sort of food apart from hearty, even if we’d tried) we wandered into the shop of Moffat’s ‘singing potter’, a born again Christian by the name of Gerry, who believes he’s been saved by a miracle (you can read about him here).  He invited us into his workshop and tried to sell us Jesus, but we ended up buying just a couple of pottery seconds, which didn’t at all break while we unpacked the car at the end of our trip.  Noo.  Anyway.  It made for an interesting introduction to Scotland.

We carried on through Glasgow that morning towards Ardgour, where we’d booked for two nights, driving across Rannoch Moor and the Trossachs and Loch Lomond.  The scenery is stunning, the moor about as desolate a place in the fog as I’ve ever seen, with just the odd white box house accessed by tiny roads.

Waterfall on Rannoch Moor

We pulled the car over to photograph this waterfall just beyond Rannoch Moor

Rannoch Moor

The moor.

Ardgour itself is a tiny hamlet, and mostly I’m guessing made up of holiday properties.  The inn we stayed in, accessed by taking the ferry across from Corran (around £7 for a car) was old fashioned (think green rooms and inappropriate music playing in the restaurant) but friendly and there was a jovial atmoshpere in the bar area, where we sat and planned our trip to the Ardnamurchan peninsula.  The next day we drove out into what felt like the middle of nowhere , and I was never sure if I was on a road or a private drive, but we eventually found a car park and walked for a couple of hours.

The Inn at Ardgour

The Inn at Ardgour

Abandoned boat in Ardgour

Abandoned boat in Ardgour

Walk near Arisaig

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We thought we were walking to the Silver Sands of Morar, but to be honest I'm not sure we were!

We thought we were walking to the Silver Sands of Morar, but to be honest I’m not sure we were!

On the drive back we headed for Castle Tioram, a ruin that you can only reach at low tide. The castle was bought up by someone who wanted redevelop it as a private house, but he wasn’t allowed, and so now it’s just standing there, needing to be rescued, because it’s visibly crumbling.  The sign that says don’t approach the walls is fixed on the wall, so you get all the way up to the stone, read the warning, look up, and suddenly become aware of the slightly worrying angle the place is sitting at.

Castle Tioram: would have been imposing landing here.

Castle Tioram

You can only reach the castle by walking across to it at low tide

You can only reach the castle by walking across to it at low tide.

It was much more atmospheric than the massively touristy Castle Urquhart that we visited later in the week.  That one even came with a hilariously half-arsed video, complete with marauders advancing on some sheep, flanked by unbothered highland cattle.  I don’t doubt the conservation money is vital, but I’m glad I got to see Tioram without any of the gift shops and car parks.

A bridge on the drive back from Castle Tioram

A bridge on the drive back from Castle Tioram

We also inadvertantly drove over a mountain to get a glimpse of a loch.

We inadvertently drove over a mountain to get a glimpse of a loch.

 

War Tourism

Our host has given us directions using a human being – movable, usually – as a landmark. “Go past the junkie,” he said. “Then you’re there.”

Sure enough, the solitary figure on the pavement watches vacantly as my friend Hannah and I slip behind the advertising signs and small piles of rubble. We’ve found ourselves at the end of one summer in Mostar, in the Herzegovina part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The building we’re entering – a tower – was once a bank, captured in the Croat-Bosniak war and converted into a sniper tower. It’s made up of angles; triangular and aggressive in design, or so it appears now.

Bereft of windows and completely hollow, stepping inside is like walking into a multi-storey car park, only the floor is lined with broken glass, litter, general debris. Old documents here and there. Bullet casings.

Disquieted, I follow Hannah up several flights of stairs – unsupported, marked in red where declared by some authority as unsafe. My hesitance is half because I’m nervous of what we might find, and half because a sense of guilt is playing on my mind, making the camera around my neck feel heavier than usual. Little more than a decade ago, gunmen chose to nest in this building because of its height and outlook, and murdered people. I take few pictures. Hannah takes more. We justify our curiosity to each other – we’re students of conflict and should witness its realities. I still feel voyeuristic.

Over the half height wall looking at the adjacent buildings you can still see the damage the bullets wrought, while standing where their shells fell.

I look instead to the school across the road, its bright orange walls some contrast to its surroundings. Out of the gates of the United World College, opened in 2006 to aid reconstruction of post-conflict society, children and young adults of mixed ethnicities finish their day of school. Behind the college, across from the entrance to this looming ghost of a bank, a trendy café with cream umbrellas plays host to a lively crowd.

All over Mostar buildings sit unrepaired or crumbling, decimated by fighting. Beautiful old structures from a past now clouded by recent history. But there is more than a little recovery, even though it seems slow. The famous bridge has been rebuilt and is gleaming (I slide over the polished stones). The old town is a tourist gem – artisan shops and restaurants, with only galleries and a museum to tell of the past. Everyone is welcoming and talkative. One day, when the damage is no longer so visible on its surface, the Mostar tourists encounter won’t be so completely defined by conflict, but by its hospitality, its food, and its surroundings.

The day before we leave for Sarajevo, in an old fort overlooking the River Neretva at dusk, we learn that our tour guide hasn’t told his son about the war. The information is offered unbidden, reflectively.

“But don’t you want the children to learn, so that history doesn’t repeat itself?” asks an Australian girl. “No,” he says resolutely. “He’ll never know what people did to each other here.” He’s protecting his son’s innocence, and of course in other places we are urged never forget. Still, I wonder if it matters, and if we ever learn anyway.

Bosnia

The landscape of Bosnia Herzegovina is beautiful, lush and green, albiet marred by the too-frequent ruined buildings and walls scarred by bullets from the vicious wars of the 90s.  The first thing my friend and I did in the country was a tour around Herzegovina the day after we arrived, visiting an ancient Muslim holy house at Blagaj; the old town of Počitelj which was destroyed by the 1992-96 war; a catholic pilgrim’s site and location of a supposed miracle at Medjugorje and, last but not least, the Kravice falls, where we swam in a freezing lake (turned film set).  And that’s not even mentioning the food.  

Blagaj, Pocitelj and Kravice waterfalls

Blagaj, Pocitelj and Kravice waterfalls

Despite arriving in Mostar 3 hours late (budget time for your transport in this region) we were picked up as scheduled and taken to the fabulous Deny Rooms hostel, where that night my friend and I and a gaggle of Australian backpackers signed up for Deny’s Herzegovina day tour, drank some rakia (potent and went down easily) and shuffled off as a group for a traditional Bosnian meal in a local restaurant.  

Happily thrown together with new people, in Mostar we ate and explored with the other guests.  I don’t usually sign up for tours, preferring to explore by myself or with my friends, but because we’d all met the previous night it felt like we’d be missing out if we didn’t, and so we booked an extra night, and didn’t regret it once.

One of my better breakfasting experiences, by the side of the River Buna

One of my better breakfasting experiences, by the side of the River Buna

The picture above is where we had breakfast on the morning of the tour.  It was misty, and we were led through thick stone walls into a courtyard full of tables and trees, and a massive stone walk-in oven (ok, cooking area), and told to guess what we were having for breakfast.  The answer: börek and an unsweetened yoghurt drink.  I was more excited about the yoghurt drink than the heavy pastry with meat or cheese.

There were kittens at breakfast.  One of them kept climbing on the girl who least liked cats, and was eventually plucked up by the neck by one of the tour hosts, who pretended to throw it into the river.  It promptly came back.

The Muslim holy house, or Dervish house, was just across the river from the restaurant.  It’s built right at the bottom of a cliff too tall to photograph, and juts out over a vividly blue pool.

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Blagaj dervish house from across the river

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Close up, the two hostel owners who guided our tour wearing their I

Our next stop, Počitelj, on the left bank of the River Neretva, just south of Mostar and strategically important from the 15th century all the way up until the late 19th, was all but destroyed in the war of 1992-96, as was so much else in the region during those years.  We were guided by two rambunctious kids (and it’s not often that word actually applies) up to the fortress, where the view was amazing out over the river valley.  You can also climb up inside the tower.

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View from the walk up to Počitelj’s fortress

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The old town of Počitelj and River Neretva.  You can see the fortress just left of centre.

Another short drive and we were at the bizarre site of Medugorje, 35km from Mostar.  The story goes that in 1981 the Virgin Mary appeared to some teenaged walkers in the hills, and the church built to commemorate this attracts Catholic pilgrims from all over the world.  There are literally hundreds of gift shops selling kitsch religious souvenirs, and not much else.  There is a huge car park, and the church itself is an underwhelming pale yellow building.  There was a service going on inside, though, and it was more packed than any church I’ve seen.

Our day finished at the Kravice waterfalls, where we ignored the rain and obvious onset of winter and swam in the lake.  It was absolutely freezing, and while I’m glad I took the plunge (heh) and actually swum, I knew my limits and couldn’t make it all the way across to the waterfalls, the current being really strong and the temperature having evacuated my lungs of air.  Letting the current help me back to the shore I grabbed on to a dinghy sheltering a load of filming equipment. Drying off I ordered tea instead of beer (and was then the envy of quite a few cold people) when we all gathered in yet another restaurant lakeside to be served up a massive meal of meat in just about every form and (thankfully) some salads.

Kravice Waterfalls

Kravice Waterfalls

Bonus picture: dressing in loaned scarves to look around the dervish house:

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Hue to Hoi An by moto

Vietnam Coast Ride

My eighteen-year-old self.

This photo was taken by my friend Laura when we were travelling in Vietnam in March 2010, en route to Hoi An from Hue, both coastal towns.  The guesthouse in Hoi An was run by a man called Thuy, whose toddler I remember scuttling around the lobby’s tiled floor on a mini bicycle, pursued at all times by its mother.  The guesthouse was in a street of similarly inviting, family-run accomodation.

Hue was the first town in Vietnam where we really felt the heat, having been treated to overcast and quite cool weather around Hanoi, Halong Bay and Tam Quoc, the more northern places we’d visited.  We were keen to get even further south, to the beach towns we’d heard and read about.  When Thuy offered us an alternative to the bus we’d been intending to catch – a ride to Hoi An on the back of his and a friend’s motorbikes, we immediately agreed.  We were already used to catching moto taxis around the towns, so why not?  Besides, we knew that this stretch of coastline would be beautiful.

It was, too – bright blue skies and a turquoise, sparkling sea on the left of us, the roads winding along.  Sometimes they edged the cliffs so that I was glad to be on such a small vehicle, watching cars and the odd lorry or coach squeeze precariously past each other.

I’d put on jeans and hoody, aware that in the UK we wouldn’t think of getting on a bike without leathers of some sort; although most tourists (including us, in towns) would think nothing of riding along in shorts and a t-shirt.  I still can’t really bring myself to ride a moto with bare legs.  We passed at one point some endurance-types on hefty motorbikes laden with luggage (my backpack was balanced in front of the driver, probably attached with some sort of bungee).

Many photos were taken of the road ahead of us as we trundled along, all of them looking to my mind like doctored photos from a travel brochure.

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Hue-Hoi An 1

We stopped a couple of times along the journey, once to visit Elephant Springs, a swimming spot named for it’s elephant-shaped rock,  which I suspect is not quite a natural phenomenon [see picture] and the Marble Mountains, where we wandered among countless marble statues, some impressive, others bizarre and all out of scale next to each other.  It was in the gift shop here that the seller caught sight of my fake silver ring, purchased for 99p somewhere back home, and offered me anything in her shop in exchange for it.  Knowing it wasn’t silver, I picked something suitably inexpensive, a small marble swan, and, slightly perplexed, agreed to the swap.

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Elephant Springs, just outside Hue

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Marble statues at the Marble Mountains

A wonderful journey, on which I also learnt not to dismount a motorbike from the side with the exhaust on it, and that if you do do that, to remove your leg from the burning metal and not just stand there wondering what that odd stinging sensation is.

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Saving the rest of the coast road for another trip…

This post is a response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Snapshot Stories.  The task was to go into the first photo album you find and locate the first picture of you.

A year abroad in a nutshell

So.  I’m in the last couple of weeks of my year abroad in Paris, and I can’t believe it’s nearly finished already.   Some of it has gone achingly slowly – the odd lecture, a paper that I couldn’t write – but most of it has flown by.

My time at Sciences Po began with the so-called ‘Welcome Week’ back in August, which would have been more aptly named had it been known as the ‘Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid Week’, where the concept of the problematique was introduced to us and we were given daily practice assignments.  The stress was remedied, though, with the bar-a-night events, which were a great way to meet people.

I settled in pretty quickly and the first semester went by.  We went to see the Christmas lights being turned on on the Champs-Elysées , and laughed at the patriotic but not really seasonal colour scheme, and completely failed to catch a glimpse of Audrey Tautou, who was switching the decorations on.  Christmas shopping in Paris was not as easy as you’d think, due to my not happening to be a millionaire.

It was nice not having exams to revise for in January.  I came back for semester two in the second half of the month, and for the first few weeks had not a lot to do.  My courses were easier.  Some of my friends had also left, after staying for just one semester.  But the work soon picked up, and now the teaching’s finished, although it’s only April.  I have one exam on May 9th and then I leave for good a couple of days later.

I’m trying to make the most of the last couple of weeks here.  In the past few days I’ve visited Chartres (and loved it), the Musée D’Orsay, and La Defense.  I have a host of other museums to visit, and day trips to take, whilst trying to squeeze in a bit of (much needed) revision.  It’s so nice having free time, even if my last class at Sciences Po was sad.  Now I just have a checklist of things I can’t possibly leave Paris without doing!

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Oyilattam – Folk Arts in Tamil Nadu

Oyilattam AudienceIn a small whitewashed building in the village of Ayyur, Tamil Nadu, I watch, cornered, as the Oyilattam troupe bustle about applying sparkling make-up to their faces and adorning themselves with colourful, decorated clothing.  Red sashes are fastened around waists.  The dancers are all male, and a group of five or so trainees, boys of ten to thirteen, prepare elaborate headdresses for the older ones.  Outside, village children, curious of the novelty taking place in the darkened room, try to sneak through the door and peer in through the windows, continually swatted away by our host.

‘Oyilattam’ in Tamil means ‘dance of beauty or grace’.  Armed with only this knowledge, and with little idea of what to expect,  I had arrived to witness the traditional performance during Sandana Koodu, a festival celebrating the harmonisation of Muslim and Hindu religions.  As well as a glimpse into the folk culture of Tamil Nadu – folk arts, for me, always having a unique ability to conjure up the soul of a place – I was to be shown the ability of such arts to transcend the social barriers that can, and have, come from differences in religion and caste.

A. Kannan, 36, P. Sekar, 25, and S. Balaji, 23, are the ninth generation of their family to dance the Oyilattam dance, continuing a tradition which has lasted for four hundred and fifty years.  They are accomplished enough to start performing as young as thirteen.  The dance is Hindu, but performed to all, regardless of religion or caste, and has a wide appeal.  The dancers tell me that these festivals are a symbol of unity and of bringing people together through shared enjoyment.

As the sun sets late in the day, we take our places in the village’s square, where neon light displays are already glowing.  The Oyilattam dance is performed on the floor, with the audience forming a circle.  The dancers take rhythmic steps, standing in two rows, and as the drum beats faster, the dancers speed up, twirling cloths in their hands in honour of two Hindu gods – on the left, green for Vishnu, and on the right, red for the goddess Amman.  The dance is introduced by song, and later joined by cymbals, bass drums and wind instruments.  Everyone has stopped what they are doing and are gathered around to watch, children lining the edge of the dancing space having to be shooed away at intervals as they shuffle dangerously close to stamping feet.

Folk artists across Tamil Nadu have tribal origins – previous generations lived in the mountains and came down into villages to earn money, their traditional occupation being hunting.  Dance, at this time, was used as an escape; a way of relaxing at the end of a hard day’s work.  It makes sense, therefore, that Oyilattam is in fact a dance about agriculture, the moves representing different stages of the farming year – the first being the act of throwing the seeds and planting, another of harvesting and of tying the harvest, the accompanying songs narrating.  As was traditionally the case, men and women can perform Oyilattam, and the dance is also often adapted to form a means of telling a tale, usually the ancient Tamil epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, stories central to Tamil and wider Hindu culture.

In modern times we think of folk arts as a declining form of entertainment, but folk dance is increasingly being used to create new employment opportunities in Southern India. The Tamil Nadu Tourism Department and a variety of non-governmental organisations such as Tamil Maiyam are actively supporting traditional folk arts.  University courses in traditional arts and folklore are springing up, bringing awareness of this aspect of Tamil culture to younger generations.  Because of this, the Oyilattam dancers are confident their traditions are not dying out. Instead, they are increasing in popularity and gaining in status, viewed now on an equal level with Bharatha Natyam, the most popular and widely performed classic dance of the region.

Tamil folk dance is alive and well, and is enjoyed by all levels of society and all ages. People are in touch with their history and their ancient culture here, and it seems there is hope this will be maintained for years to come. Traditional arts are not performed for nostalgia, but can still be current. This sort of entertainment has a unique authenticity and immediacy, and the atmosphere and excitement of the festival in Ayyur was due to the a continuation of years of tradition.  Anyone in Tamil Nadu for a visit should definitely seek out some traditional dance and folk traditions for an experience truly rooted in local culture, past and present.

This article was originally published online and in print at the Madurai Messenger (www.maduraimessenger.org) in March 2010.

Amudhan R.P. – Filmmaker and Activist

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Film director and media activist Amudhan R P discusses why he makes the kind of films he does, igniting a spark of social change to help people inch towards a world without borders, boundaries and divides.

To Amudhan, film maker and political activist, films are an instrument of social change. A tool that he deftly uses to encourage discussion and push boundaries. Film plays a large role in popular culture across India, and growing up in Tamil Nadu Amudhan was influenced by Tamil cinema in particular.  As a boy he always wanted to make feature films when he was older, but it wasn’t until he was completing his MA in development communication that he was introduced to the documentary and quickly became hooked. “I realised I didn’t have to go to Chennai, work with a big team and spend loads of money,” he says. “I could fund my own films and be just as successful.” There is a tradition, he says, of documentaries in India, citing filmmakers such as Anand Patwardhan, K.P Sasi, and Chalam Bennurkar.  To this day Amudhan has created ten films, and is working on the next two, as well as organising various screenings and film festivals with works by other directors, on a wide variety of topics. His films are very much his creations alone; his office comprises just one computer and although his success has grown, Amudhan’s work remains true to its cause and his animation in discussing it shows his continuing enjoyment in its creation.

Among these are his first documentary, Leelavathy, released in 1997 and focusing on the murder, that same year, of a female member of a local civic body, and  Shit (2003), a 25 -minute documentary which follows Mariammal, a sanitary worker who cleans a public toilet. The film earned a number of awards.  Amudhan remembers people vomiting in the cinema – such is the impact of footage which shows a manual scavenger’s everyday routine. “It is right there in the face,” he says, so people have to take notice. Amudhan was pleased that the matter was really taken notice of by its audience, and has since been used in campaigns against manual scavenging.  Amudhan puts ‘dirty’ topics onto the screen, to bring them into the public discourse.

Coming from an activist background, Amudhan saw that art could be used as a means of conveying a message. His father was a communist and political activist and Amudhan grew up with the concepts of social change and revolution. Coming from this environment, he realised that his interest in film would work as a vehicle with which to raise issues he felt strongly about – something that he says he was motivated to do due to a feeling of social responsibility.

And sure enough, sometimes the popular support this brings is all it takes for human rights groups, for example, to take notice and be able to act.  All over India, too.  These films are in fact being watched globally in seminars and conferences.

Amudhan knows his films are being pirated, but this information doesn’t bother him. “At least people are watching my films,” he says. It is all about getting the message out. He is modest about the effect that film can have on society; it is a “small voice” only. However, the wide reach it has, especially in a country where film is so popular, means there must be substantial potential to spark change, on whatever scale, when the right people are reached.  If there is a reaction, even a negative one, it means the issue exists, and Amudhan feels “honoured” that he has provoked a response through something he has created. The strongest opposition seems to have be around the issue of national pride, which he offended in creating a spoof music video of a popular song by A.R Rahman. Originally glorifying India, the new ‘Shit Version’ of the song contrasted footage of toilets and sanitary workers over the same music.

Amudhan’s next film, his eleventh, will be about the Special Economic Zones policy. This is a reaction to conflict. He is also working with groups that are opposing the policy, and his film will bring their point across to many.  Amudhan hopes to reach “as many [people] as possible,” with his films, he says, but “even if only one group understood, that too would be fine”. One group that the specifically targeted is students, and the films are screened in colleges across India. Perhaps this group has the most potential to create change, being the adults who will shape India’s immediate future. But the strength of film in India seems to be that everyone loves it and it has the power to spread across vast distances, whether it is film for film’s sake, or politically charged, and this has made it a very effective messenger here.

This is one of three articles I wrote while volunteering at the Times of Madurai (now the Madurai Messenger) in 2010.  The website, and original articles, can be found here.

Unheard Voices, Untold Stories

Kodimalar is from the NGO Arogya Agam in Tamil Nadu

This is one of three articles I wrote while volunteering at the Times of Madurai (now the Madurai Messenger) in 2010, when I was eighteen.

A group of transgender women share some aspects of their journey from a once hounded community to improved acceptance in society that now “listens” to and responds to their consistent demands to be treated with dignity and respect. It is, however, their empathy for women’s issues and their ability to reach out to society that is most impressive — just look at what they have achieved for others when given just half the chance.

The welfare of transgenders or ‘Thirunangai’ in Tamil Nadu is an issue around which people are very active at the moment. Recent laws and new rights have meant the lives of many people have improved dramatically from years of being ostracised and cast aside to a recognised, socially important and happier community. At Arogya Agam, a Theni based NGO, residents Kodimalar, Sembaruthi, Eleya and Kanda spoke about being part of a marginalised community now poised on the cusp of change.

 

Cast Out

Kodimalar, who went by a different name then, realised at thirteen that she wanted to become a woman. She wanted to wear women’s clothes and says she was only interested in boys. When she told her family this, she was forced to leave.

Kodimalar had a difficult early life. “I was treated badly, not invited to functions, for example family weddings, so I decided to go away from my home and mingle with others who were like me,” she recalls. At that time, around twenty five years ago, that meant going and living with people on the edge of society. They earned money by dancing in front of corpses at funerals, begging in shops and by sex work. “We would travel around together and men would call on us. There was no awareness of diseases, like HIV/AIDS and others so we would catch them. We were refused treatment at hospitals, so some transgender people died.” Verbal and physical abuse towards transgender women was rife but seldom if ever punished by police; instead it would make the situation worse. There was no legal protection, or none was enforced.

 

The Start of Government SupportIn the last twenty years, this has started to change, with new organisations and self help groups springing up. In Tamil Nadu Arogya Agam created a programme which enabled transgenders to form small self help groups and then began initiatives whereby they could receive training or start small businesses, to create new ways of earning money. There were ten living there at first, but now that number has grown into ten separate communities. There was a focus on individual talents; now the transgender women work in cooking, handicrafts, toy making, as beauticians, tailors, clerks, computer operators and members of a folklore troupe, much of the training supplied by Women’s Development groups.

‘Transgender Day’

In 2004 there was collaboration with another organisation to create the Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative (TAI), a foundation which now has branches all over Tamil Nadu and over 5000 members, and works to prevent the spread of the disease and to educate about it. Four years ago on January 18th, many members of this group gathered in Chennai to petition the authorities for a special day for transgenders, as after all there were days dedicated to women and to children. They were told that as this was the day they had gathered, January 18th could be their day, and they have celebrated this every year since by going out and doing things for communities. Trees have been planted in the past, as well as over 3000 people pledging to donate their eyes to the blind. This year they staged a play to educate about tuberculosis, and next year will donate to a poor village near their home and pay for a free feast for all the inhabitants.

Affirmative Action

“When the government got to hear about these activities, a welfare plan started,” says Kodimalar. Transgender is a recognised status on education admission forms, and better education about the spread of diseases has resulted in less stigma surrounding them. Also, crucially, the transgender population here has the support of the police, with special training programmes being brought in to teach police how to behave towards and protect them. The introduction of housing entitlements and separate ID cards for transgenders has also meant that in the case of the women interviewed, some families have been more welcoming of them; more ready to accept the choices they have made.
Beyond Stereotypes

The portrayal of transgender women in the media, too, has changed, which has meant there is less stereotyping going on. “Before we were very negative, always the joker, the clown”, said Sembaruthi of the characters transgenders have previously been shown to be in films. “Groups petitioned against this in court, and now directors always avoid doing it.” Transgenders are now being given real roles in cinema; characters with depth and emotion and this inevitably impacts perception of them in the real world.

The transgenders at Arogya Agam now visit schools to teach about awareness, something that is important to them because they themselves experienced bullying and teasing, and still do today. By teaching at schools they educate children about their lifestyle. Kodimalar recalls a school where she noticed one of the boys was acting very much like her, who approached her after the class and asked advice. “He gained confidence, and I gave him special training,” she says.

What still needs to change?

The transgender women at Arogya Agam still face mockery from people in the street; although their activities in recent years have gone a long way in improving their status. They say they require more funding from the government – they are now given free surgery to change their gender, showing just how far support has come, but it does not cover everything that the transgenders would like it to. A simpler request is for allocated seats on buses, as given to women.

When asked how they feel nowadays when these changes are taking place, the transgender women say they are happy.  “We used to be so scared,” Eleya said, “When we went into the women’s toilet we would be beaten. There is freedom now.” The past undoubtedly held a lot of suffering. There are trained counsellors at Arogya Agam, who Kodimalar says are very important when new transgenders come to the NGO, often from red light areas in big cities.

Reaching out to others

Kodimalar feels strongly about the fact that the young women in her village are too often not completing their education due to being married very young. Women’s rights are an important issue for them. But this shows, as do their other activities, that despite their own suffering the transgender community is doing a huge amount to help other people – minority groups and those in need; even the environment. Because they do not feel “useful”, in Kodimalar’s words, because they cannot continue their families by having children, she and her colleagues pledge to donate their organs when they die. It is clear this community should not feel they have to remain hiding—just look at what those at Arogya Agam have achieved for others when given just half the chance.