In a village about 12 hours away from Kathmandu, Nepal, lived a young boy. This was a village where there were no dreams, aspirations or looking for answers. But for him, questions were burdening his mind like never before, questions that he dare not ask out aloud: why do I feel like a girl? Why do I talk like a girl? His only dream was to understand who he was. In his own way to answer these questions, he would refuse to wear shorts—his first act of rebellion. Years of struggle, determination and hard work later, this boy accepted himself and donned a new identity—Anjali Lama—who today is India’s first transgender model. From refusing to wear a piece of cloth, to carefully articulating her day’s style, fashion is what helped Anjali find her identity and be comfortable in it. This is her story, a view of how life was off the runway.
Born a boy and youngest of 5 brothers and 2 sisters, Anjali grew up to be closer to her mother and sisters, with most of the friends from school being girls. Young children are unforgiving, and for Anjali, growing up as a transgender meant going through years of mental agony and teasing, which made the good student fail her 12th grade examination. Growing up with a confused identity was a constant struggle, with herself, her family and society. Despite that, she still had hope. “That’s why I am still here,” says Anjali.
With early signs of determination shining through, Anjali decided to appear for reexamination when she failed and chose to study at college as well. Lacking the financial capital, she left the village to work in the city and support her own education. With a minimal salary of Rs. 500 and continued teasing, life was still challenging. “Life isn’t easy,” she says. “We are not always served with what we expect.” In college, the boys would ask her to go to the girl’s washroom instead of the boys’ and at work, she was asked to leave multiple times because of customer complaints on her feminine behaviour.
Today, all i wish, is a normal life for a transgender, who does not have to go through discrimination
She then found moral support in the form of Mamta Khan, the transgender mummy. She walked into Anjali’s life introducing her to the Community Centre in 2005 where for the first time, Anjali accepted her identity, and immediately started living like a girl. A new identity demanded a new name, and she wanted hers to be Sonali, after Sonali Bendre, the Bollywood actress. But Mamta Khan suggested Anjali. When she whispered it under her breath, she too liked the sound of it. With that, she left her past behind with the new identity of Anjali.
While she found a new family at the community centre, she lost one. When news spread like wildfire back home of her new identity, her brother called her asking about it. “Is this true?” he asked. Without missing a beat, Anjali replied, “Yes.” A few minutes passed in silence, after which followed words that shut doors of a family. “Never come back,” her brother said. “There is no place for you here.”
Even then, Anjali would continue speaking with her mother on the phone who would encourage her and support her to keep moving ahead. During festivals when people would be celebrating, Anjali’s mother would call her crying, asking her to come back home and make the family a complete whole. “But during festivals,” Anjali says, “none of transgenders went to celebrate with our families. We would all just be lonely and sitting in our rooms.”
One day while she was working at a restaurant, a customer complimented her on her height. ‘You look like a model,’ he had said. “I never asked him what it meant,” Anjali says. Back at the community centre too, her friends had always complimented her lean body and great height. It was only a little later when they were watching fashion TV at a friend’s place that Anjali learnt who a model is. All the compliments that she had gotten suddenly made sense. In 2007, she participated in her first beauty pageant held by the community centre, but didn’t win. But the bug of fashion had bit her, and she was not going to let it leave soon. She may have lost in the pageant but she won experience and understood that there was art behind walking, talking, and grooming.
The years that followed were an uphill battle. When in 2009, Anjali and her friend were selected to be on the cover page of a magazine interested in covering their interview, it briefly felt that the stars had finally aligned. Even after making herself go through training and numerous auditions, it only resulted in a few offers here and a couple of interviews there. “I soon realized,” Anjali says, “that it was because of my identity.” While the next few years continued jobless, her mother was her constant support. “If our mothers had not given us birth, none of us would have been here,” Anjali says. Her mother is her strength, who supported her in the toughest of times, reminding her to stay positive. She was the constant voice in her head that made Anjlai Lama believe in who she was and helped her differ from just another person in the crowd.
As supportive as her Mother was, the struggles too were adamant. Auditioning for Nepal Fashion week thrice, Anjali only saw rejection. She then started looking for other options, which is when India came into the picture. Adamant to be selected in the Lakme Fashion Week, Anjali walked into the city of Mumbai, only to be rejected again. But when she went back home, she couldn’t let go of her passion; it reflected everywhere, on the billboards, television, Facebook and most importantly, in the mirror.
She gave Mumbai another shot, when one her friends offered her a place to stay. Fighting with agony, rejections, wait and depression, she decided to put her energy into intensive research. YouTube offered a great deal of learning where she saw how models in Fashion Week talk, walk and dress up, and practiced before the auditions for the same. Finally, out of 200 girls, she made it to the top 5 and made a name in India’s fashion industry as the first transgender model. News channels back at Nepal could not stop gushing about her success, and Anjali realized that in 18 years of history of Lakme Fashion Week, no transgender model had auditioned. After the fashion week, Inega, one of India’s top modelling agencies signed a one-year contract with her. “I got calls and messages from the U.S, U.K, Italy, Germany congratulating me,” Anjali excitedly recalls. “I had never imagined to be that famous. But I knew it was my hard work and courage finally paying off.”
From being something Anjali had never heard of as a career, fashion was where she ultimately found a space to proudly celebrate her identity, which gave her community a proud association.
Sometimes, Struggles & difficulty are what leads us to happiness. What is more important is to remember where you have gone, and then to make amends & move forward in life
A pinch of luck, and an arduous nine-year journey of hard work later, Anjali’s view from her modeling ramp is a beautiful one. Life has been a battle for her which ends with a different kind of celebration: shutter sounds and flashes of the camera, and people lining up to take interviews, but most importantly, an acceptance of one’s own self.
You can write to Anjali – firstname.lastname@example.org
Ashna Karia, Siddharth Kaneria, Vaishnavi Rathoree