TOM PIETRASIK | Photographer

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The opening spread to a feature I illustrated on the lives of Aravanis.
Caravan magazine, 2010

The dimly lit corridors of the Arcot Hotel are rank with the smell of sweat, cigarettes and stale beer. The hallways ring with loud chatter, raucous laughter and the occasional scream. The summer heat is sweltering. Half-open doors reveal grungy rooms crowded with large women in various stages of undress. Pink petticoats, padded bras, hair extensions, sequined saris, miniskirts – some on, some off. Out in the passageways, a few men hang about, hungrily eyeing the women who stride out of the rooms. One grabs at Kalki as she walks past, dressed in a modest salwaar-kameez, her glossy hair pulled back in a ponytail. She turns and speaks to him softly before she gently extricates herself and moves on. The man suddenly seems reduced, almost bashful. The hunter looks hunted. But this isn’t surprising. For Kalki Subramaniam isn’t quite who she seems. Out here, all definitions, all identities, are fluid. The only certainty is that in this packed hotel I’m the only naturally born woman. The rest are aravanis, kothis and panthis (transgenders, feminine homosexuals and their seemingly straight male clients).

This is Maureen Nandini Mitra‘s introduction to her fascinating story on the lives of south India’s transexual Aravani community, recently published alongside my photographs in Caravan magazine.

More of my photographs running alongside Maureen Nandini Mitra’s words on India’s Aravani community.
Caravan magazine, 2010

Defined by their sexual-orientation, Aravanis are rarely accepted by India’s largely conservative society. As a consequence, many are tormented by the disapproving gaze of others and suffer a lonely existence from which they seldom find solace. The transgender gathering I photographed in the Tamil town of Koovagam is one occasion when Aravanis are able to emerge and take centre-stage – if only for a few short days a year.

Unlike the wider Indian gay community I’ve written about here, I found the Aravanis I met in Koovagam and Chennai to be a rather self-absorbed lot. This may be the result of their being shunned by society and enduring the lonely stigma of rejection. I’m sure it doesn’t help that – like much of Indian society – many Aravanis lack the education or resources to properly articulate their concerns beyond an understandable desire to express individual anguish.

An Aravani sex-worker shares a cigarette with some boys while looking for clients in central Chennai. Denied the opportunity to undertake regular jobs, many Aravani’s are forced into selling sex to earn a living.
Chennai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

So, while India’s wider gay community who have begun to confront discrimination with a collective campaign for rights and recognition, Aravanis continue to define their struggle in very personal terms. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is chat-show host Rose Venkatesan who describes herself as an transgender celebrity.

When Maureen and I approached Rose for an interview, she was being trailed by an American TV crew who were profiling her for a documentary series. Rose was brought up in an upper middle-class Tamil household and, having studied for a degree in the US, we had hoped that she might have offered us an informed and articulate perspective on the transgender experience in India.

Instead Rose insisted that her presence in our article would reap us financial reward for which she must be compensated. She demanded several hundred dollars. Suffice to say, we didn’t pay and ultimately neither her wit nor wisdom – nor her portrait – graced Caravan’s pages.

An Aravani takes a shower before venturing out onto the streets of Chennai to look for sex-work. Denied the opportunity to undertake regular jobs, many Aravanis are forced into selling sex to earn a living.
Chennai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009



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Langur monkeys forage for food in the grounds of a Hindu temple inside Ranthambore National Park.
Monkeys are honoured by Hindus across India, thanks to the popularity of the monkey-god Hanuman.
Rajasthan, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2008

There is plenty about life in Delhi that I failed to anticipate when I arrived to live in the city eight years ago. Among the most annoying is the menace of monkeys. More specifically, the rhesus monkey, a feral creature with plenty of confidence and – more frighteningly – a stubborn intelligence to torment all but the most zealous animal-lover.

As luck would have it, I have just such an animal-lover living across the road from me. While she scatters chapatis about her balcony for the benefit of the local monkey troop, so the rest of the neighbourhood must hope her simian friends don’t decide to roam in search of tastier fare. I have, on more than one such occasion, failed to keep the doors of my apartment firmly shut and discovered monkeys helping themselves to the contents of my fridge. Shouting at them doesn’t help. In fact, unless you have a stick or start throwing shoes at them, rhesus monkeys seem to consider humans more a distraction than a threat. A couple of years ago, Delhi’s deputy mayor S.S. Bajwa died when he fell from the terrace of his home after a gang of particularly ferocious rhesus monkeys attacked him.

The only means to avert such tragic encounters appears to be securing the services of a langur monkey. And this is precisely the solution employed by British High Commissioner in India. I don’t make a habit of visiting the High Commission but a few years ago I found myself relaxing on the ample lawn of the residence when I noticed a short man approaching me. Strolling alongside him was a monkey tied to a leash. As the man got closer, I realised that his companion was almost the same height as he was. This monkey was very different from the small rhesus variety that I had seen menacing my neighbourhood. Instead of the ubiquitous limp and incessant scratching that seem to be the curse of all rhesus monkeys, this creature walked with an elegant gait and wore a beautiful grey fur coat that appeared entirely fitting given the opulent surroundings.

As this langour monkey lunched on the leaves of a nearby bush, I ventured a stroke and asked it’s owner what had brought the two of them to the High Commission. The man explained that he and his langur were employed to take a daily stroll around the gardens so as to ward off a local gang of rhesus monkeys. Apparently the mere sight of a langur is enough to deter the most determined rhesus monkey.

The simple logic of this strategy appealed to me at the time. Only later did I come to understand that this approach might actually be the cause of my own neighbourhood’s monkey problem. Writing about the langur-strategy employed by the British High Commission and many of Delhi’s government institutions too, Iqbal Malik of the environmentalist group the Vatavaran Trust insists,

It was amply clear that the langurs were forcing the rhesus to disperse and move to newer localities. This led to monkeys visiting places where they had not been found earlier.

So, while the British High Commissioner is able to enjoy afternoon tea sans-monkey on the lawn of his residence, it may be those of us living in less salubrious areas of town who are paying the price of his privilege.

A group of langur monkeys gather beneath the canopy of a banyan tree
in Ranthambore National Park. Rajasthan, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2008

The two photographs in this post were taken eighteen months ago while I worked on a story about tigers for the recently folded National Geographic Adventure magazine. My most memorable encounter with langur monkeys on that occasion was beneath the canopy of a huge banyan tree in Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan. A group of about thirty langurs of various sizes had gathered there to play, groom and, I suppose, just catch up. It was a privilege to witness such an idilic scene and I was completely captivated by these sociable creatures, their behavior so reminiscent of humans.

Written by Tom Pietrasik

April 4, 2010 at 6:06 pm