Society told her that she is not a woman; but she became a mother. They told her that she has no rights of her own, that she does not exist in the eyes of the law; yet, she took in an orphaned girl to protect her right to a happy childhood, so that another little girl doesn't get trafficked and disappear into oblivion.
As an impeccable embodiment of the best of human nature, Gauri Sawant makes for a formidable woman.
No, it's not her crisp cotton sarees that bear the unmistakable appeal of an Indian woman of the world, or her Usha Uthup-esque bindi. It's not even her eyes, when she looks at you dead on and speaks to you with buoyant confidence.
It's knowing about the terrifically bold life decisions she has taken in order to reach this stage. A boy with feminine tendencies that he felt were too precious to lock away in a closet, Gauri Sawant, born as Ganesh, decided not to change to match her sex, but to change to match her identity. And after growing up devoid of the pleasures of family, she decided not to be deterred by her social status in this regressive country, and resolved to mother a family-less child, in order to make sure no one meets a similar fate as her.
After Vicks recently identified this icon and documented her journey to demonstrate that care, love, and a sense of family must go beyond class and gender, we tracked her down ourselves—and found that her real story was even more heart wrenching and beautiful than the one shown in the campaign, which went viral and has clocked 13 million views and counting.
When I ask Gauri to recount some of her childhood's most lucid influences, she immediately warns me that her childhood, firstly, wasn't an enjoyable one where a mother worried and doted over her and a father dreamt up big things for her. And that even the few moments she managed to steal that made her happy in an otherwise confusing childhood, somehow, always ended up condemning her to the other end of a screaming contest.
Born in Bhavanipeth in Pune as Ganesh Sawant, she was a police officer's son being raised in an even more masochistic environment than normal, in the sarkari quarters. Owing to a 10-year gap between her pregnancies, her mother didn't want Gauri at all, even though her father was geared up to have a second child. "She didn't want me to come into this world, and even tried to get an abortion in the seventh month. But the doctor told her that this baby was now so evolved and strong that one couldn’t destroy her even if she were slammed against a wall. It was into such yes-and-no back-and-forth circumstances that I was born, so I also turned out with an equally confused gender identity," she narrates, playing with her words in her usual tongue-in-cheek manner.
“Yeh baccha itna mazboot hai, ki aap deewar pe bhi fekenge toh woh vaapas aa jayega. Mera janm hi itne haan-naa mein hua tha, toh mera gender bhi iss tareeke se form hua.”
Gauri did not feel different—she was just as human as the next person, after all. But as she grew older, and people tried to put her into a rigid box that her feminine disposition made her too flamboyant for, she started understanding that she was not like the others. "I didn't feel like a hijra or girl, but I knew I had some unusual traits. I would always make friends with the girls, and never played with the boys. I loved to play ghar-ghar (House) with the girls—plucking leaves from the ajwain trees and cutting them into little rotis with the cap of a Thumbs Up and so on, collecting sing-dana and pretend boiling them in the cooker—I enjoyed it all so much! I would get yelled at about this a lot at home. But I never changed," she says.
Another clear memory is a conversation with an aunt at a wedding, when she was barely 10. “She asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up—and I answered, ‘I want to be a mother.’ They all thought, ‘He's young, and will understand how he cannot be a mother when he grows a bit older.’ Everyone told me, ‘You can't be a mom; at best, you can be a dad, and must become a police officer’," she says.
Her mother died when Gauri was barely five, and after her passing, neither did anyone double up as her mother figure, nor did her father carry out his parental duties proactively. "There was no one to give me attention, to worry about me when I was late from school, or not doing my homework. Because my antics were effeminate, my father, a policeman who belongs to a very macho profession, was slightly embarrassed of me, and was convinced that I would bring shame to the family name someday. He kept his distance since then, and didn't love me enough," she says.
“Bachpan ki meri koi meethi yaadein hi nahi hai.”
Her father went on to be transferred soon, and they came to Mumbai. The principal of her new school once called her father in to inform him that Gauri had strikingly feminine traits—not as a complaint, but as an observation. But her father did not take that too well, and it set off a series of unfortunate events in their life. He took it out on her, ceased to look eye to eye with her, and eventually, cowering under the shame, stopped talking to her completely.
"When he would come home, I would quickly rush to the bedroom. He used to not see my face. It was not his fault. My behaviour was so effeminate that anybody and everybody would make fun of me, calling me names. Dad would fire bullets at work and come home to a son that everyone made fun of. He was not always like this. When I was young, like every other father, he would take me on bike rides and love me equally. But there has never been any discourse in my family about sexuality, gender etc; they were not sensitised at all. Once, my father told me, ‘Tu road pe taali bajaate ghoomega’. It hurt me a lot. This other time, when I called him for some work, my 'hello' itself was different, so he told me, ‘Kya hijre jaisa baat karta hai’ (why do you talk like a eunuch?) So, I never answered the phone when he would call," she recalls.
In spite of being alienated by not only those who meant the world to her, but by the world as well, she unabashedly wore her identity on her sleeve, and never tried to hold back her rainbow-coloured impulses that the world couldn't make sense of. "Meri zehn ki aurat kabhi mari nahi. Spring ki tarah, jitna dabaya utni hi upar aati gayi," she says.
One day, when she was 17, Gauri woke up to a door left ajar, and she thought that the writing on the wall was as clear as it would get. "I understood that this was it, it was time to leave. I later realised that he had stepped out to get the tiffin, because our food would come from the mess. When he returned, I heard that he just sat there for three days in shock, while holding that very dabba," she narrates.
Gauri left behind her home, her family, and her city, but not her identity. "I had 60 bucks, and knew that a train comes from Chinchwaad that passes through Pune and drops us to Dadar in Mumbai. I went to Siddhivinayak as it was Tuesday, and had the two laddoos I got for prasad as lunch, and in the evening, I had ragda pattis at Dadar station. I couldn't eat that, and the boy who served me water brought the glass with his finger inside it, and I couldn't drink that! There was a tap somewhere in a canteen I found, with rice and food stuck to it, which I drank from," she recalls.
She had a friend, a gay-turned-trans sex worker, who agreed to put her up for three or four days. "I wasn't pretty or fair enough to get into sex work, so she never offered me a gig there. But she fed me and cared for me, and later, I was introduced to Humsafar Trust (one of the oldest LGBTQ organisations in India). By the grace of god, I never had to beg," says Gauri.
She earned Rs 1,500 a month. Her communication skills put her right up there with Hitler and Obama—she speaks with authority even as her words drip with wit, humour, and generally great diction, and so, she was deployed to the communications and outreach team—to motivate and advise people undergoing an identity crisis to embrace themselves and their true identities.
Formally rejecting her biological sex, she also chose to transform into a 'hijra'—which, as of a landmark ruling by the Indian Supreme Court, has now been recognised as the official third gender, popularly referred to as eunuchs. Biologically, they are neither male nor female. “I knew the reality, I did not want to become a woman—people would not accept me and my body as that of a woman even if I got the painful procedure done,” she says.
“Godrej ke pankhe pe aap kabhi bhi compressor lagaoge and woh cooling bhi dega, lekin logon ko digest nahi hoga. Baad mein maalum pada ki Haryaanvi auratein toh mujhse bhi lambi hoti hai.”
She came to work with a lot of people, and it was one of her main tasks to spread awareness about STDs and encourage sex workers to get tested. One of them was Gayatri's birth-mother, an HIV-positive sex worker.
Gayatri was never breast-fed, and the disease eventually claimed her birth-mother's life, when Gayatri was five. After her passing, there was talk of selling Gayatri off for sex work in Sonagachi, which fell on the ears of Gauri. “I was strongly against that. At that time, I did not know that I would become a mother, that I would raise her and be narrating my story one day. I just knew that this little, motherless, vulnerable girl needed protection and care,” she says.
The transition to becoming a mother figure, and then, quite simply, her mother, was organic. Gauri would feed her, bathe her, send her to school, and take care of her studies—and very naturally, the two came to share the most special of bonds—that of a mother and her daughter, the two of them against the world!
Gauri had filed a petition seeking these basic rights for the LGBT community as well, and was part of the crusade that made sure the third gender gets Aadhaar cards, as dictated by the NALSA bench. Riding on this jubilance, Gauri even tried to legalise her arrangement with Gayatri by adopting her formally, but the government does not give custody of a child to a member of the LGBT community. But that has not deterred Gauri from soldiering on, raising Gayatri in an unabashed manner.
She had been featured by various publications even before the Vicks opportunity came knocking. However, shooting this campaign catapulted her into overnight stardom. She turned down the offer at first, but agreed six months later, when they revisited the script and made it less daunting for the exuberantly confident activist who secretly and rather comically harbours stage-fright. But the fact that Gauri simply had to be herself—something that she is consistently denied the right to do—had sold her on it.
While the whole country shared a watershed four minutes watching that video, Gauri has chosen not to show the video to Gayatri, who will soon return from hostel for her summer break, just yet. “While my intentions were clear, I never want to risk letting Gayatri feel that I used her for gaining this recognition. I won't have an answer for her. The moment that I choose to tell her about this, it will be of the essence,” she says.
While raising Gayatri, Gauri has witnessed the unfolding of a brand new sexist syndrome—“man-raising”. “In the absence of a father, all the men around her—neighbours, uncles etc—feel the need to kick into overdrive and become primary caregivers, in spite of the fact that Gayatri still has one parent—me. And since I am the mother and father both, these men try to influence Gayatri's opinion on this delicate bond we have even more. So, I will wait for the right moment to tell her about the campaign,” she says.
Gayatri calls her 'Aai' which is the Marathi word for 'mother' and literally means ‘Aatmarupi Ishwar’ (God in essence and spirit). “Gayatri is the angel of my eyes,” Gauri says, adding, “I haven't done anything for her, she's given me everything—the title of 'mother', which is one of the truest manifestations of womanhood, in my journey from boy to girl,” she says.
As for her activism, Gayatri, besides working with 1,000 to 2,000 people for sensitisation about their legal rights and STDs, is actively involved in the running of a shelter for young trans individuals who are turned away by family. She also has a pet cause – saving the turtles and nurturing the street dogs!
“Bezubaanon ki aankhein bahot kuch bol jaati hai.”
Gayatri, Gauri says, is average in her studies, but wants to be a doctor. Gauri, above everything else, wishes for her daughter to become a great human being, one who truly accepts everybody in every form, and can tell right from wrong.