Dressed in a purple nightgown, Shivagami combs her husband Srinivas’ hair. He smiled, revealing the remaining teeth and pink gums, and adjusts his veshti, which has a matching purple zari at the bottom.
The couple, at their room at RMD Pain and Palliative Care Trust in Maduravoyal, has been married since 1977. “I take care of him as if he is a child,” said 71-year-old Shivagami. “I brush his hair in the morning. I help him bathe and use the washroom. He’s bedridden, you see, and he can’t do anything by himself. I even feed him, though lately, he prefers to try and eat by himself using a spoon,” she said.
The 76-year-old was admitted to the not-for-profit charity centre a year ago. Srinivas currently has prostate cancer, a secondary effect of which was spinal and liver cancer. Due to the malignancy, there was a spillage in the brain, which left him paralysed on his right side. Shivagami was admitted alongside him due to a severe lung infection and a spike in her blood sugar levels due to diabetes.
“Both of them were in a terrible state when they were admitted here. Due to their health condition, their electrolyte levels were low, and they were admitted in a semi-coma state. Shivagami used to cry and ask why God had brought such misfortune to her. They were really devastated,” recalled Dr Republica Shridhar, founder of RMD Trust.
But from that moment to now, they have made great strides – Shivagami is no longer bedridden, and Srinivas’ condition is now stable. Though no small part of that is credited to the medical and palliative care offered to them for free, the staff at RMD agree it is their love that has healed them.
Srinivas, who is non-verbal, points to his wife, holds up his hand in an L shape and blows into the juncture between the thumb and pointer finger. “We had an arranged marriage. He used to then take a train from Perungalathur to work. I used to take the same train to go to college. However, his brother told him that the astrologer has predicted big problems for us if he saw me before marriage, and he used to avoid me then,” recalled Shivagami. Srinivas used to work as a typist, Shivagami as a middle school teacher.
After the treatment at the Trust made Shivagami walk, she started pleading that she be allowed to go out with her husband. Most recently, they visited the park together and spent the evening there. Shivagami also goes out every month to collect their pension cheques.
“When paati goes to collect pension, thatha cries for her so much. He’ll cry until she comes back,” said Ramani, the nurse who attends to the couple. “He wants her by his side always. Even if she goes to the kitchen for just ten minutes, he’ll start calling out for her.”
“I know he gets very upset if I am not here. So I try to go and come back as soon as I can,” said Shivagami. She then turned towards her husband, and asked: “What if I left to my in-laws’ house, and stayed there? What will you do then?”
A panicked look crossed Srinivas’ face, and he shook his head agitatedly.
“Nothing will happen to you if I leave. Ramani is here for you,” said Shivagami. Srinivas shook his hand and then stuck out his tongue like a cartoon character.
“He said he’ll die if I’m not there. Okay, okay, we were only joking,” said Shivagami.
On her way back from Saidapet, Shivagami explained that she always buys her husband some bondas and bhajis. “When we got married, what I loved about him was that he would eat very well. He liked my food a lot. He also used to tell me to sit with him and eat and was very insistent about it. He especially likes bonda, bhajji, and vada,” said Shivagami.
When asked what he loves about his wife, Srinivas shook his head as if to say he didn’t like anything about her. He then gestured to say, “I want to hit her sometimes.”
“If that’s how you want to treat me, then maybe I should go to live with my in-laws,” huffed Shivagami, upset.
The panicked look crossed Srinivas’ face once again, and he gestured to say, “Hitting is bad. Don’t hit your wife... And you can’t leave me.”
Although Shivagami has made a full recovery, Dr Republica said she would not separate them.
“Palliative care is about holistic care. And mental health comes as part of it. We counsel our patients, especially elders, who have a deep feeling of loneliness because their children are usually too busy for them. They reveal all this in their counselling, and it is important that they know they will not be alone,” she said.
They live for each other, she said. “Interestingly, if they were separated, Srinivas might be fine. But Shivagami’s health would deteriorate faster than his. She cannot exist without caring for him,” said Dr Republica.
Preethisha found her Prem on FB
When she was 15 years old, Preethisha dreamed of finding someone who would be able to care for her and love her for the rest of her life. The kind of love that was understated but would hold strong and true.
When she was 16, Preethisha came out as transgender to her parents. What followed was a life of difficulty and suffering, according to the 30-year-old. “At that time, there wasn’t any awareness about transgender issues and the facilities now, like an ID card or ration card, were also not there. I dropped out of school and completed it only after a lot of difficulties. From food to society, there were problems at every step,” she said.
Having abandoned her dreams about finding love, Preethisha shifted her focus onto survival. Finding a secure job was an issue, and so she took up theatre and began working in cinema as well.
In a report published by the UN Development Programme, India titled Hijra/Transgender Women in India: HIV, Human Rights and Social Exclusion, it was stated that the mental health issues of trans people in India have not been researched into. However, the report read, “They face several issues such as...fear of relationships or loss of relationships.”
All this while, Preethisha had been in touch with Premkumar, a transman, on Facebook. Once he moved to Chennai from Erode five years back, their friendship only strengthened. “We were friends from the start. Once, I messaged him and told him that there are issues with a transwoman dating a man, or a transman dating a woman and that our situation will be much worse. He responded by saying that no matter the situation, we would have to fight. We fell in love in one week, and got married a month later,” she said.
Though the couple got married in 2018, they are yet to get a certificate attesting the same. However, they consider themselves to be husband and wife.
In the mornings, Preethisha prepares breakfast and lunch. However, when she comes home at night, Premkumar makes her dinner, and they settle down for the evening with a movie. “I love the fact that although he is a little stubborn, he eventually listens to what I’m trying to say,” she said.
Premkumar explained that he loves his wife due to her personal struggle and growth. “My wife is older than me by a year, but she is much more mature. I like the fact that she works very hard in whatever she does. Her perseverance is something I admire, and that she constantly pushes me to be a better person,” said the 29-year-old.
As they are both trans people, they understand each other’s struggles and support each other through it. According to Premkumar, people at their workplace, as well as their neighbours, have accepted them. “It’s like any other marriage. We do have our fights, but we stay by each other and take care of each other,” he said.
Society is always curious about the relationship between two people, said Preethisha. They are particularly interested in the LGBTQ relationships, particularly carnal relations, and comment on it a lot when they’ve no right to, she said, adding what happens between a couple is not society’s concern.
“Due to the hardship I had to suffer, I thought my body became too old and too weary to love someone. I’m also in my thirties, so I assumed I would not have this at all. But now, with Prem, I do, and it is just as wonderful as I imagined it to be,” she said.
Neither Malar’s disability nor Palani’s caste put them off
It was at the age of four that P Malar contracted polio, which rendered her immobile. She uses a wheelchair for transport, but said she “can do a little more than that”.
Her family, said the 43-year-old, had turned down several marriage proposals for her. “They felt that since I’m a disabled person, I won’t need things like marriage. When I can barely move around and do things, they weren’t sure if a man would accept me as I am,” she said.
At this time, Malar took the assistance of Palani R, an auto driver, to take her from home to work and back. “We fell in love then. He’s very direct with his words. He told me, ‘I am not educated. I earn very little money. Knowing all this, will you still be with me?’ I said yes, and we got married in 2014,” said Malar.
According to Palani, Malar’s strength and determination were what attracted him to her, as well as her strong personality and desire to live a good life. However, the initial days were difficult, said Malar.
“My family did not accept our marriage as he is from a different caste. My grandmother was the only one who supported us. She raised me — my mother had passed away when I was young — and she told others at home that my happiness matters more than caste or anything else. She’s passed away now, though,” said Malar.
Due to her disability, Malar cannot move very much, and therefore cannot assist with household chores. This is where Palani proves his worth – he not only runs the household along with his job but even helps Malar use the washroom.
“He is everything for me. I never thought I would get this kind of love. Everyone wants that – a partner who will not only cherish you for who you are but will support you and raise you up. I owe everything in my life to him. My life was a sad one before meeting him. Now, it is something I am proud of,” she said.
These days Malar and Palani work as an artist and welder respectively, and whenever they get time off they like to spend their evenings together. Due to her disability, Malar cannot go outside very much, but she said Palani often helps her into his auto and they go for long drives across the city together.
“People think persons with disability shouldn’t have romance. That is not the case. Everyone wants to have companionship for their life, and people with disability are no different. Love is a part of human life, and it lifts people’s mood and makes them better. Isn’t that something we deserve?” she asked.