On October 19, 36-year-old Pappathi, a resident of Coimbatore, walked up to the Covai Trans Kitchen, ready to start her work for the day. The trans woman who had seen discrimination in most quarters of her life, found peace and a sense of meaning working as a kitchen apprentice under Sangeetha, another trans woman and president of the Coimbatore district transgender association. In September, 60-year-old Sangeetha had fulfilled her lifelong ambition to open her own restaurant. Through 'Covai Trans Kitchen' she aimed to provide trans women dignity through a safe and welcoming work environment.
"When I got there, however, the restaurant was closed and I couldn't reach Sangeetha madam. I left home that day, with a sense of unease," she tells TNM. "And two days later, my world came crashing down when I heard she had been murdered," she adds.
On October 18 evening, Sangeetha had been murdered at her residence in Sai Baba colony, allegedly by 23-year-old Rajesh, who worked with the trans women in the restaurant. He stabbed her on the neck before dumping the body into a plastic barrel filled with water and salt. According to the police, Rajesh had been making sexual advances towards Sangeetha since the day he joined. And on Sunday, when he became forceful, Sangeetha allegedly threatened to report him to the police. Afraid she would get him arrested, he is suspected to have murdered her.
"This is just extremely shocking to hear," says Pappathi. "Rajesh came to the shop looking for a job himself, after he saw a video of Trans Kitchen on YouTube. Sangeetha madam never suspected any ill intention. She gave him a job because that is how kind she is. She never turned away anyone who asked for help," says Pappathi.
A leader and an inspiration
For the Coimbatore trans community, Sangeetha stood as a shining example of what they could achieve despite the constant hurdles thrown their way. Any trans woman, say members, could identify Sangeetha and lead you to her residence. A trans woman who went to Sangeetha for help, the members echoed, would only go back with their problems solved and their stomach full.
Sangeetha who had a penchant and flair for cooking, began taking orders for biryani at a young age and was an earning and independent member of the community. But even as she grew in stature, she uplifted members of her community, say other trans women.
"I left my house in 2004, when they couldn't accept who I was," says Shilpa, a member of the transgender district association. "I knew nobody and had noone to help. I was 22 years old and didn't even have an identity anymore. I would have been crushed under mental and emotional stress if not for Sangeetha, who became like a mother to me. She helped me become the person I was meant to be," she adds.
Shilpa is amongst the hundreds of trans women whom Sangeetha led to district offices to help secure ration cards and voter identification cards.
"She was amongst the trans women who approached the DMK to help us get identified as 'transgender'. Before that we all know what derogatory terms were used to refer to people like me," says Shilpa. "For many trans women, Sangeetha is the leader who showed us that sex work and begging is not the only way we can live our life. She conducted cooking training sessions for scores of members of the transgender community. And once they were trained, she helped them secure jobs across the district in the catering business," she adds.
Sangeetha often told her trainees, recalls Shilpa, that in order to progress, they had to find the right job opportunities. And even though she ran a catering service from her own residence, Sangeetha always dreamt big.
"That is why she was so intent on opening the Trans Kitchen. It was her life long goal. She wanted a space for trans women to come work and help them progress in society," says Shilpa. "It was a big achievement for someone from our community to have a space that was branded 'trans' and to face any stigma head on," she adds.
At the kitchen, says Pappathi, Sangeetha was mindful of the physical and mental strains her workers face.
"Given that several of us had had surgeries to alter our bodies, she never made us strain ourselves. In fact, even at her age, she would do double the work that we did," she says. "She had such a zest for life and was always looking to do and achieve more. She not only taught us cooking but also taught us how to handle the outside world," she explains.
People who knew her describe her as soft-spoken, jolly and dedicated.
"She wasn't loud or brash. She lived in a dignified way and she was made President of our association because she spent close to three decades serving members of our community," says Shilpa. "We saw her as an example of how we can grow despite the discrimination we face. But her murder has now left us rattled," she adds.
The brutal death
While Sangeetha was considered approachable and a leader who solved problems for the community, she was never open about her own personal hurdles, say members of the association.
"We had no idea that she was being troubled by this man named Rajesh. It has come as a deep shock to all of us," says Shilpa. "When we die because of sex work, police and people blame us for choosing a 'dangerous' field to work in. But now, Sangeetha has died trying to empower other trans women. How will you justify this? Who will you blame this on?" she asks.
Trans women question if despite their line of work, the dangers will persist.
"Sangeetha advised us to stay away from sex work and opened up job opportunities for us.She helped us find our footing in this world," says Pappathi. "If this can happen to her, what about the rest of us? What is the guarantee for our safety?" she asks.
Trans-rights activists are pointing out that this murder has once again raised question about the safety of trans women in the country.
"This murder is a display of misogyny. When sex workers from the community are attacked, they offer unacceptable excuses and blame the victims. But today, Sangeetha has faced a similar attack. What excuses will they offer now?" asks G. Sankari, founder of Nirangal. "This murder reiterates the reality that we don't even have the right of a regular citizen. We are ostracised by family and society, and so we are easy targets. Our politicians too do not truly represent us. Are we also not voters who deserve the same rights as the next person?"