एक ट्रांसजेंडर, जिन्होनें अपनी तरह की सौ से ज्यादा ज़िंदगियां बदल दीं

Transgender Sadhana Mishra: Journey to Social Development Officer

Finding herself in the midst of children gives her endless joy. And, when they address her as Maa, Sadhana Mishra is overwhelmed with emotions, every single time. She has recently been appointed the Social Development Officer at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, Bhubaneswar, one of the world’s biggest schools in the world to impart free education and boarding to tribal children. What’s so great about this news, you may wonder. Well, Sadhana Mishra is no ordinary woman—she is not a woman by birth. She has struggled all her life to live the life of a woman and has eventually emerged victorious. A propensity towards all things feminine was a trait she discovered even as a child of four or five. “I loved dressing up like a girl and playing with my sisters and her friends rather than my brother,” she recalls. Teasing and taunts from men carried on. The only person who understood her at the time was her mother. Coming from an orthodox tribal area, Keonjhar, in Orissa, didn’t help her cause either. Even her father, who was a peon in the same school where Sadhana studied, wasn’t spared from jibes made by other students, ‘Your son is a chhakka,’ they would taunt. However, even as a child, Sadhana never let it be known that she was affected by all this. “I never wanted to appear weak. Even if I cried, it was when I was alone,” she says.

This harassment only made Sadhana stronger. There was too much to deal with apart from the mental persecution. As she grew up, there were physical problems to face too—stomach aches, trouble urinating, etc. “The face I saw in the mirror was that of a beautiful woman, fully decked up with sindoor and flowers,” she says. Cross dressing however was not an option given the mindset of the people she was surrounded with. She says she did whatever was possible, like growing her hair, and wearing men’s clothes with a feminine touch. “It used to give me mental peace.” Even that didn’t go down well with the members of the family, who forced her to cut her hair short and tried giving her medicines to change her orientation. Sadhana was always a good student and excelled in other activities, especially singing, but was a victim of discrimination and never got the chance to work on her talents. One thing that kept Sadhana’s morale up was her determination to prove herself and be self-reliant. To stifle every voice that derided her for her gender. While still in the ninth standard, she started tutoring children. Not only did it keep her mind occupied, she also found out that children were capable of giving unconditional love more than grown-ups. College was no less hell than school.

Discrimination continued, but Sadhana wasn’t ready to give up. “People were calling me Maichya (a local word for transgender), which is like a gaali (abuse). I started having a problem with it. I decided I had to change this scenario. My struggle was at its peek and my determination kept getting stronger.” At that stage, she felt education was the best way to empower herself. Single-mindedly, she pursued college and took up Sociology. She got to do a lot of welfare work in its ambit and understood she had the capability to reach out to people. That was her strength, and she wanted to capitalise on it. Sadhana experienced newfound confidence, which also gave her the courage to leave her small town and move to Bhubaneswar for her Masters. Doing her Masters in Social Work (MSW) at the National Institute of Social Work and Social Sciences (NISWASS) changed Sadhana and her life completely. There was discrimination, but she was better prepared to tackle it now. She had decided enough was enough. “While studying, I got a placement to work with my community in Gujarat. I came in touch with the only gay prince in India, Manvinder Singh Gohil there. I met Lakshmi Tripathi, she adopted me as her disciple,” says Sadhana, talking about the upward trajectory her life had taken.

She realised that despite their gender and sexual orientation, these people lived respectable lives, they had an identity of their own. She felt more powerful, and that’s when the life-altering transformation happened. “I changed my look to what I wanted. I didn’t want to compromise. I didn’t want to bow to any norms. I changed my name from Satya Sunder Mishra to Sadhana Mishra. I felt powerful. I wanted to reach a standing in life where people would consider me an important person,” says the feisty lady. So, out went the awkward men’s clothing. Sadhana openly adopted the sari as her costume and now when you see her, she is always dressed in an elegant sari, immaculately draped. She is conspicuous, thanks to the bold bindi on her forehead and perfect make-up. This metamorphosis however led to her brothers closing their doors on her. After all, she had been bold enough to come out about her gender status to the supportive local media. They couldn’t digest that.

“If I wanted to be accepted for what I was, I had to open up about myself. I felt it would help others like me to gain confidence,” she says, adding that she didn’t mind her brothers ostracising her because she knew her mother would always stand by her. In 2006, Sadhana completed her MSW. Powered with a new positive streak, she thought of starting something in Orissa. She found a friend in Meera, and together they started an organisation called Sakha in 2007. Though it worked for the rights of the transgender community, Sadhana was sure right from the beginning that she would not restrict herself to only that. “I wanted to help anyone needing it—whether it was women’s rights or sex workers’ rights. I especially love children and I wanted to work for them,” she says. However, it turned out that planning something and executing it were two different things. Being transgender didn’t help.

It took Sadhana three years before she could get the organisation registered. “Those in authority said I was a criminal, an illegal person. They would punch me in the stomach or stare at my chest and touch me inappropriately, as if trying to find out what I was really made of. I didn’t want to take any of it. I challenged them and fought with them, and finally we got registration in 2009. The media was very supportive through my struggle,” she reiterates. The impression that most transgender people are in the sex trade business has to be wiped out, strongly feels Sadhana. “Education is therefore important. For that, we have to make it easy for them to study. Most of them drop out because of discrimination.” Sakha took off and Sadhana found herself forgetting her personal woes. The fight was getting more and more intense and challenging. She found herself being accepted by people, children loved her. “I got love,” she says emotionally. “That was a win for me.”

Sadhana painstakingly worked in the field of gender identity, gender discrimination, social mainstreaming of transgender and development of underprivileged children and women, besides HIV AID Alliance. What’s more, last year, she even attended the International Visitors Leadership Programme (IVLP) in the USA for a month. “Out of eight of us who went from India, two were from Bhubaneswar. When I got the mail, I was shocked. By then, I had been all over the country for my work but never abroad. I never expected this kind of appreciation,” she says, sounding ecstatic. Things were looking up when she met Dr. Achyuta Samanta, the Founder of KISS, at a magazine event where Sadhana was felicitated. She was taken in by the work he was doing at KISS. A few days later, on June 10, her birthday, she walked into the institute, clutching her CV, requesting Dr Samanta for a job. “He asked me why I wanted to join KISS. I told him I wanted to work with children. I told him I wanted to fulfil my dream of being a mother this way since it was not possible for me otherwise. He agreed. I respect him a lot. He is a very spiritual, honest human being.

KISS is not just a school, it’s a temple and he is its God.” says Sadhana, quite sure that this move by him will encourage others to let go of the bias and bring more transgender people into the mainstream. Sadhana has undergone surgery and is officially a girl now, but that doesn’t mean she will deny she was transgender. “I have to show the path of self-discovery to others like me,” she says, pride gleaming in her eyes. At KISS, she feels loved, respected and accepted, not only by the entire staff, but also the students. “Amongst the thousands of staff members, I am the only transgender and I really stand out amongst them, but that is only because of my height,” she laughs after cracking the joke. “I cant believe I have thousands of children today. I enjoy working with them.” Here, she is involved in designing projects for their livelihood, sustainability approaches, counselling of children and motivating teachers. Now, I have to make a guideline for scholarships for children,” says the proud lady. Today, Sadhana feels her struggles have been vindicated. “Now, people want to know my story, my fight, my journey. Now, I am with such a big organisation. I am a successful working woman, which is what I always wanted to be. I have won. I hope I inspire others to succeed too,” hopes the woman of the hour!

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