It was early on in the coronavirus lockdown. On the 1st of April in Guwahati, Raj, 25, was driving his wife Meena’s scooter with her riding pillion (both names changed on request). They were on a hasty journey from Meena’s parents’ home to their own and later to a hospital. Meena was feeling rather unwell. But they were stopped by the police mid-way for violating the lockdown rules. The situation became more difficult as Raj was driving without a license. He was fined Rs.7,000 and was directed to pay the same to a magistrate in a court.

Madhav (name changed on request), 26 years old and single, stays in a rented place in Guwahati. He used to run a betel nut, paan and tobacco stall and did this work for over a year. In February this year, he joined a private company in the packaging department, but left it just a week before the lockdown was announced because of non-payment of salary. He was looking for another job when the lockdown was imposed.

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Quote: Unable to cope with the toxic office environment and the uncertainty of payment, he left the job and was looking for another when the lockdown started. Meena, a beautician, managed the household, but her salary was slashed during the lockdown from Rs.15,000 a month to just Rs.5,000. This was not sufficient to buy adequate amount of food, let alone pay for the house rent and Raj’s medicines for hormone replacement therapy, nutrients, calcium and vitamins, all of which he has to take lifelong.Raj is a trans straight man from a well-off family in the Goalpara district of Assam. He was disowned by his family a year ago because of his gender identity and his decision to opt for gender affirmation surgery. Raj moved in with Meena, then his girl friend, in Guwahati. He had just been through a bottom surgery and was unemployed. His ties with his family worsened after he married Meena.

Raj is an undergraduate and had been trying his hand in different fields in search of a stable job. After many attempts he landed a job this year in February as a sales employee in a private company. As a trans person, Raj was aware that the odds could be against him in the workplace. He behaved politely with his employers and seniors, hoping to be in their good books. But soon enough he started getting bullied and mistreated by his seniors, who taunted him for his demure physical appearance and soft voice. He was harassed and burdened with extra work and his payments were delayed.

Unable to cope with the toxic office environment and the uncertainty of payment, he left the job and was looking for another when the lockdown started. Meena, a beautician, managed the household, but her salary was slashed during the lockdown from Rs.15,000 a month to just Rs.5,000. This was not sufficient to buy adequate amount of food, let alone pay for the house rent and Raj’s medicines for hormone replacement therapy, nutrients, calcium and vitamins, all of which he has to take lifelong. Raj’s intake of hormones became irregular not just because of financial constraints but also the unavailability of the prescribed hormones. He has been unable to get his quarterly hormone level and other check-ups done.

This daytime photograph shows Raj and Meena at their wedding ceremony at Hatisila Ganesh Temple on the outskirts of Guwahati. The photograph has been taken from behind the couple and their faces are not visible. Raj and Meena are in customary wedding attire and standing with folded hands, facing the temple deity but a little outside the temple. The temple is a natural and mammoth rock shape on a hillock. Part of the rock shape resembles an elephant’s trunk, hence the name of the temple. The deity is placed in a cave-like space between two large rocks – the space looks like an elephant’s mouth. A young girl is standing with folded hands close to the deity. The couple are some distance away from the deity. A few people, including another girl child, are standing next to the couple. The temple floor, both inside the cave-like space and outside, is made up of white tiles. The author Shivalal Gautam was present to provide moral support to the couple and shot the photograph.

Raj and Meena at their wedding ceremony at Hatisila Ganesh Temple on the outskirts of Guwahati. Photo credit: Shivalal Gautam

The couple went to stay with Meena’s widowed mother, who since many years had her older married daughter, her husband, an alcohol dependent, and their child staying with her. She too was struggling to make ends meet. On the day Raj was fined by the police, Meena got into an argument with her mother because she kept taunting her son-in-law for being unemployed and expecting good quality food. In the end they decided to leave. The patrolling officers who stopped them refused to listen to their problems.

Raj is now again on the hunt for work. Since he lacks academic qualifications and does not have significant work experience, he is dabbling with his luck at different odd jobs. Ever since Raj underwent the surgical process, he has not been able to take adequate post-surgery self care, including bed rest. This has become even more difficult now, affecting his mental health. He has been having frequent fights with Meena – on a few occasions in the past they were on the verge of separating. But seeking mental health services for himself or for couple counselling is not an option for him.

Raj applied for the financial support provided by the central government to trans persons during the lockdown. But he never got the money. His mainstay has been the temporary financial support provided by a queer support group in Assam.

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Madhav is a cis gay man and a migrant from Jagiroad in Morigaon district of Assam to Guwahati. He grew up seeing and facing domestic violence. He has three siblings. Many men and even minor boys in his village, including some of his family members, are drug and alcohol dependents. He has faced verbal and physical violence from other men who were under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and abhors both substances.

In 2014, when he was around 20, he decided to migrate to Guwahati for a peaceful life and better work opportunities. But life was not easy in Madhav’s adoptive city as well. He faced difficulty in communication as he was not well versed in Hindi, and his command over Assamese was considered ‘crude’ and not ‘soft and sweet’ like that of the city dwellers. His rustic traits were not appreciated by his employers and it took him a long time to adjust to city life. Now, he prefers to stay aloof and seems to get along mostly with children.

In the five to six years that Madhav has lived in Guwahati, he has worked on a number of odd jobs but none has lasted for too long. He has a passion for bodybuilding and got a part-time job (parallel to his work in a private company) as an instructor in a gym he used to work out at. But the gym shut down because of the lockdown. He had already left the job at the private company. So when the lockdown started, Madhav lost all work and had to depend on the little savings he had. He could not find any new work. There was some government relief that was distributed in his area but he could not access it because of his migrant status. None of his identity documents were from Guwahati which he was informed was necessary to have.

Quote: At one stage Madhav was forced to cut down on his food intake to once per day to sustain himself. There was the added pressure of supporting his family back in Jagiroad, who too were facing loss of income. The frustration of unemployment made Madhav anxious and irritated. He would shut himself up in his room frequently and barely speak to anyone. Once, he lost his composure and got into a fist fight with a male neighbour. He isolated himself further after this incident.At one stage Madhav was forced to cut down on his food intake to once per day to sustain himself. There was the added pressure of supporting his family back in Jagiroad, who too were facing loss of income. The frustration of unemployment made Madhav anxious and irritated. He would shut himself up in his room frequently and barely speak to anyone. Once, he lost his composure and got into a fist fight with a male neighbour. He isolated himself further after this incident.

When the lockdown rules were partially relaxed, he started searching for jobs and after a few days of continuous hunting, he got one as a security guard. This is not a job he loves, but he knows he has to be content with it. He found it after walking for miles in the city as he could hardly afford even the seven to ten bucks needed for shared public transport services. He gets no off days and has to work 12 hours every day as a security guard.

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Raj too has had to walk around miles for new work. He was forced to violate lockdown norms a second time when he took up a temporary job of supplying cigarettes to shops around the city. He earned Rs.1,000 per day till the lockdown was lifted. But he had to do all the work on foot. In the process of interacting with quite a few people, he risked exposure to the coronavirus infection. But what Raj has in terms of support from a queer group, Madhav does not.

Queer spaces have not been accessible to Madhav and the only time he socialises is on dating apps. These too are not very welcoming given the class and language barriers that are typical of many such apps.

In Raj’s case, his family is at least aware of his gender identity. But for Madhav, talking about his sexual orientation to his family of farmers and daily wage earners seems impossible. Just like with Raj, chances are that his family too will disown him. For now he prefers to live in peace, dreams of learning ‘Bollywood dance’ so that he can be a professional dancer some day, and desires to have a same-sex partner.

Raj desires stability and wants him and his wife Meena to be accepted by his family. He wishes for an inclusive workplace and a regular source of income so that he can provide for Meena’s needs and focus on his own gender affirmation surgery and aftercare.

There is no lockdown on dreaming for a better life, is there?

Inset: ‘Coronavirus Diary’ – queer citizen journalism in action! This monthly Varta webzine column brings you news and analysis on how queer communities, other vulnerable groups, and their allies are responding to the hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic and associated lockdown in India. Content published under ‘Coronavirus Diary’ is contributed by participants in the third pilot of the Varta Community Reporters (VCR) Training and Citizen Journalism Programme (May to September 2020). This edition of the programme also involves strategic dissemination of the published reports for community morale building, experience sharing and advocacy to ensure that affected people gain access to resources for immediate survival and long-term self-sustenance. The VCR Programme aims to build communication, documentation and journalistic skills among youth and other groups marginalized around gender, sexuality or other social markers. In the process, it also attempts to enhance the employability of the participants. The programme consists of training workshops (including online ones), mentoring sessions, and writers workshops on gender, sexuality, human rights, communication, documentation and storytelling. The current pilot is the third under the VCR Programme. It covers Assam, Odisha and West Bengal states, and there are seven VCRs (queer individuals and allies) engaged in the programme. This pilot is supported by CREA, Delhi. The first pilot of the VCR Programme was conducted in Manipur from March to August 2018, and stories generated through the pilot were published under the ‘Manipur Diary’ column. The second pilot, from February to July 2019, covered Assam, Manipur and West Bengal and the stories generated were published under the ‘VCR Diary’ column – Editor.

Visit this page for more details on the Varta Community Reporters Training and Citizen Journalism Programme.

The author of this article, a participant in Varta Trust’s citizen journalism programme (inset above), carried out a situational assessment of the survival and sustenance priorities of Assam’s queer communities during and after the coronavirus lockdown. The stories narrated in the article are based on semi-structured interviews conducted over phone as part of the situational assessment – Editor.

About the main photo: A scene from Guwahati during the ongoing lockdown. Photo credit: Indranee Kalita