A rickshaw ride away from Berhampur’s town hall is a bustling market, Bhapur Bazar at Annapurna Market. Tucked into its lanes is a small shop, Om Fashion Ladies Corner. Inside are shelves lined with hairpins, scrunchies, glass bangles, and bindis. J Ravi Kumar, 48 sits behind the counter. “My younger brother and I run this shop,” he says, and then immediately corrects himself. “I mean my younger sister and I run this shop,” and gives us an embarrassed smile. Kumar is still struggling with his pronouns, ever since his sister Ranjita, 32, a makeup artist who identifies as the third gender, transitioned. The brother-sister duo of Kumar and Ranjita now run and own the shop along with the salon, the latter having turned into a safe space for other members from the third gender.
A few years ago when their family started looking for a bride for then-Ranjit, she came out to them. Like 90% of transgenders in Odisha, who don’t live with their biological family, Ranjita was shunned. A study recently mentioned that there are about 70,000 transgenders in Odisha, of which 3,000 live in Berhampur.
One of the many places Ranjita was turned away from was beauty parlours. “They would tell me that the parlour is only for ladies. But I feel like a lady,” Ranjita says. “I needed to wax, get my eyebrows threaded, and there was no place I could walk in. Everyone rejected me.”
Transgenders are excluded from society, employment, economy and livelihood opportunities. But Ranjita, despite the daily stigma she faced, didn’t stop fighting for her birthright: To be treated as an equal, with dignity and respect. The siblings decided to open a salon for third genders in Berhampur—a first in the state—five years ago. Delhi got its first ever beauty parlor for transgenders only last year when Ramjas College students helped the community build one. In 2014, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling for hijras and other transgender people by recognising a third gender legally that is neither female nor male.
Over time, Ladies Corner salon in Bhapur Bazar has opened up to welcome everyone. Ranjita, who learnt how to apply mehendi [henna] and later makeup, says, “All clients are welcome here. Ab toh ladki log bhi shuru hogaya hai aana. [Now even girls visit my salon]. I don’t treat anyone differently.” When asked if she feels any bitterness that she was not allowed to enter salons in the past, she says, “Oh, no. I let it go. I forget. I just want to help my own community now. Sab izzat kare, sammaan de [Everyone should respect everyone].”
The salon has also helped the brother-sister duo bond and accept each other, unconditionally. Kumar now manages all of Ranjita’s appointments. “She is booked till December,” he says, proudly showing off a notebook with all of Ranjita’s future appointments. When Ranjita came out to her family, her brother was the only one who supported her. He helped set up the salon and the business. With continued interaction with Behrampur’s transgenders, Kumar has also started questioning his own and society’s attitude towards gender non-conforming folks. Even though he sometimes slips and calls Ranjita his chota bhai [younger brother].
The joys of a salon are many. Ranjita says, “Here my people from the community come and talk to me about their problems. Not just their skin, but also of their hearts.” It is here that the Berhampur’s transgenders meet to take care of not just their outgrown eyebrows, but also to share their love stories, nursing their broken hearts with a little support from friends.
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