Thursday, March 4, 2021

Deepavali, community and Amma Asha Devi

Discrimination tarnishes the chance for many to celebrate anything.

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Deepavali morning witnesses the older members of a household giving the younger ones a warm oil bath. A gentle massage of gingelly oil before sunrise is followed by a scrub with a concoction of powdered herbs. The cleansing of self is finished with a shower, after which the whole family sits together to pray before putting on new clothes dotted beforehand with turmeric.

The rituals continue with a visit to the temple for more prayers before the celebration and feast awaited by old and young alike.

It has been almost 30 years since Kak Nasha participated in these rituals with her family. She left home at 19 after years of abuse over her identity as a transwoman.

She is now nearing 50, but memories of the rituals surrounding the celebration are still fresh in her mind, and she insists on keeping them alive. She follows the Vedic tradition of refraining from meat for three days, as well as from tasting the food prepared for the deceased and the Devas that present themselves throughout Deepavali.

She also remembers the traditional feast, snacks and sweets that are the staple of any Deepavali celebration – but the ones in her memory will always taste better than those found today in Jalan Ampang, Brickfield or Jalan Tengku Kelana in Klang.

But she was not always so fervent about maintaining these traditions.

A vital variable in the strength of a belief is always family. As people detach themselves from their families, their beliefs and spirituality are also affected.

Kak Nasha experienced the detachment that is the common theme for sexual minorities. For the first five years after leaving home, she felt a wedge between herself and the temple that kept her beliefs alive. She would turn her face away from the building as she passed by, a sign of disrespect to the gods which made it their home. Prayers, another sign of faith, were also put aside as they offered no solace from the abuse and discrimination she faced.

The abuse did not stop when she left home. She managed to find a job in the service industry, but there too she found discrimination. There was no opportunity for any lateral movement although those she had trained were promoted. She stayed in a position which paid her a fraction of what she felt she deserved.

Eventually, a fight broke out between her and her manager which ended in her termination.

Living in Kuala Lumpur has never been cheap, even in the 90s. Her loss of income forced her to seek survival in the alleys.

Even before Kak Nasha left home, she had known of Amma Asha Devi, or simply Amma, famous as the mother of all trans in Malaysia. The first Malaysian transwoman to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, she was held as a leading figure in the trans community.

As she owned land and a business in Chow Kit, her residence became a shelter which other trans individuals sought when they were chased out of their homes or found themselves in moments of conflict which needed her wisdom to resolve.

When Amma found out about Kak Nasha’s predicament, she offered her a space to rent and a community to call her own, reviving the sense of kinship Kak Nasha had lost years ago. The area Amma owned was also the residence of other transwomen like Kak Nasha, and became a place where they could do sex work under Amma’s protection. The community was held together by Amma and their common struggles as transwomen.

In the world beyond the rows of shop lots and shelters in Chow Kit, the transwomen were foreigners in their own land. But as soon as they entered Amma’s territory, they knew that they had reached a welcoming presence.

Kak Nasha was one of Amma’s frequent targets. If Amma saw Kak Nasha passing by her home, she would give her an English newspaper for her to read aloud. Unlike many trans who shied away from current news, Amma was keen on keeping up with politics and sports. Perhaps this was a way for her to bring forth news for other transwomen in her community, to reconnect them with the world outside the streets of Chow Kit.

Deepavali was an important occasion for Amma. She would prepare a grand feast for everyone, no matter who they were. The feast would be finished as soon as she set it on the table, but she never considered it a bother to go back to the kitchen and prepare more.

She would also set up a projector and screen old Indian films for visitors. This was when Kak Nasha could give herself a break and enjoy the food and films along with the rest of the transwomen in the area.

Celebrations are not always a joyous occasion. Discrimination tarnishes the chance for many to celebrate anything. For the sexual minorities driven out from their own families, celebrations are a reminder of what they could not achieve.

Amma was a chance for many transwomen to regain lost beliefs. With Amma, Kak Nasha found a reason to celebrate Deepavali. It is a day during which she commemorates the memory of Amma and her community and celebrates the life beyond the struggle she went through – a life which she is now content to live.

Until the community that was once present in Chow Kit may be found everywhere for sexual minorities, semoga kita terus berbakti dan merai.

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