As the young Manjamma lay unconscious, after being brutally raped in the middle of the night by drunken men, she could not have imagined that one day in 2021 she would receive the Padma Shri from the President of India.
Traumatised, a chill ran down her spine, imagining how brutally then men would rape women — after all, she being only transgender. A woman born in a man’s body.
Or was she? This is unclear.
Manjamma was born B. Manjunath Setty in Kampli, a small town in the Bellary district of Karnataka. The paradigm of paradoxes in her life was not just limited to her struggle to own her identity. She belonged to the Arya Vaishya community who are considered upper caste and condemn transgenders. Alongside this, her mother gave birth to 21 children but only only survived. When she was young, her mother would dress her as Krishna, not knowing that one day her child would relinquish it all and perhaps become Brihannala, the eunuch identity Arjuna took on in the last year of his exile.
After the epileptic seizures, sudden menstrual bleeding (is she intersex then rather than transgender?), beatings by family members and unconscious chanting of prophecies, Manjamma knew she had been chosen by Goddess Yellamma and should become a jogathi — an intermediary between the goddess and the people. Like devdasis, jogathis are worshipped and blessed, never openly forced into prostitution. They are considered avatars of Parshurama, who takes birth in this form to redeem himself for questioning his mother’s chastity. Other literature traces the concept of Rishi Jamadagni’s son who did not obey his father’s order to sever his mother Renuka’s head and was hence born napunsaka (impotent).
But, most importantly, jogathis never undergo surgical transitions, as they believe that then the body cannot embody the goddess and her power. They are somewhat like the Navajo ‘two-spirits’ in that sense. Along with the problems concerning marriage and abandonment of their bodies after their death, their struggle has so far remained invisible, that is until Manjamma became the first mainstream folk artiste of Jogathi Nritya and thus endowed a voice to her community.
The book, From Manjunath to Manjamma, has been written by Harsha Bhat, a journalist and former senior sub-editor of Swarajya. It is eloquent but sometimes suffers from a certain lack of narrative structure as well as absence of thoroughness, as Manjamma does not know English or Hindi. Therefore, the author tries to do justice to her journey using the subject’s own words. Critical topics such as the history of the jogathi tradition, its differences from the devdasi system, the sociopolitical context of how Yellamma worshippers emerged and when, are not discussed. The book hints about Manjamma mothering several others, but the details are abysmal.
As one scrolls through the ten chapters of Manjamma’s life, neatly separated from other another and lacking either fluidity or a logical sequence, one fails to fully understand the ignominy and anonymity of being transgender, if one is not already acquainted with the experience of being marginal or marginalised.
The impact of Covid-19, too, on Manjamma’s life is not discussed, while that is a story worth knowing. Several transgenders in Tamil Nadu, for example, were blamed, stigmatised and beaten as those around them believed that they were causing the virus to spread. But then again, as American novelist Jack Kerouac said, “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” Perhaps, the simplicity of the incidents narrated in the book has power in them that renders the book important to this invisibly visible community, and therefore it is better that they have been put on paper than not being documented at all.
From Manjunath to Manjamma: The Inspiring Life of a Transgender Folk Artist
By Harsha Bhat and Jogati Manjamma
Published by Harper Collins
pp. 171; Rs 399/-