While growing up in Udupi, Karnataka, some 400 kilometers away from the capital Bangalore, Nayana Udupi’s dreams soared high. The eldest of her two siblings, Nayana was always fascinated by the corporate world, unlike her father, who took over his family business. But little did she know during those innocent, carefree years that life ahead wouldn’t be all that rosy for her.
As we catch up with Nayana on a pleasant Tuesday evening, she has just returned from work. “Oh, what a busy day it was,” sighs the 40-year-old, and then passionately describes to us her daily routine. Unable to spell my name right despite several attempts, she declares she is going to call me Suhas, and giggles like a little girl time and again. “I am still a little afraid when I talk to the press about this. To an extent, transphobia persists even today,” she breathes nervously, but proceeds nonetheless.
The last two decades have been tumultuous for Nayana. Right from the bitter remarks over her gender to housing issues and unemployment, she has battled it all bravely. And now that her career has finally taken off – “Touchwood!” – her determination to excel at work is stronger than ever before. “Your struggles are your best teachers, you know,” she says.
The recently held Pune Pride March was special for Nayana. For the first time, her peers and colleagues from Thoughtworks had accompanied her. Thoughtworks was one of the six companies that had taken part in the pride parade to promote inclusiveness and acceptance at workplaces. For Nayana, it was a proud moment, and an opportunity to make things better for others from her community. “Neither are we of any different blood, nor have we arrived from another planet. I don’t know what this discrimination is all about,” she says.
She refuses to talk about her male identity – “This is my present. This is who I am today.” She was only 16 when she left her house for Bangalore. Her father wouldn’t support or understand her. Constant mocking and bullying for being different from other boys would steal peace from her life. Every day, little by little.
“It affected me a lot. I moved to Bangalore to finish my high school. I used to work at hotel receptions in the night, earned enough to make ends meet, and attended college in the morning,” she shares. “It was challenging, but there was no other choice,” she quickly adds.
A year after finishing high school, Nayana moved to Pune where she found immense support and complete acceptance from her community. “They stood by me through thick and thin. My decision to study, undergo surgery, and ambitions were fully supported,” she says. However, surviving without a source of income in a city like Pune was quite a task.
“Back then most people believed that transgenders should either beg or do sex work. We were looked down upon. There was no workplace that accepted us,” she recalls.
There were times when she would apply at places as a female, but things wouldn’t go beyond the meeting with her recruiters. A freelance work that she had managed to get slipped off her hands after her employer learnt about her transgender identity. Nayana, by now, had made up her mind to battle all odds and chase her dreams, come what may. “Though I hated it, I had no other option but to do sex work. The reality outside was a bitter pill. Every day was a struggle, but I did sex work for nearly 4 years,” she says. “Every day I went to sleep with a hope that the situation would get better sooner or later. It is the hope of betterment that pulled me through,” she shares.
Now that her situation is better off, she is trying everything in her hands to ensure others from her community can pursue their dreams as well. “As the awareness is increasing, companies are opening up opportunities. This is a positive sign,” she says. Nayana says people need to be more compassionate and humane towards others. “We have the privilege of being humans. All of us have been blessed with lives. Let’s not waste this life in petty discrimination and unnecessary mocking,” she says. “Also, let’s not allow gender to control our ambitions,” she suggests.