"Ordinary people in duniya (world) – what did they know about what it takes to live the life of a hijra?"
This is how Anjum, a transgender woman, separated the world of transgender people from that of others in the famous novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy.
While critics called it a masterpiece, Anjum's story moved readers' hearts. They empathised with her and most importantly, saw the world through her lenses.
But are we ready to do the same with the very real non-fictional characters around us?
If not the same, the story of Hochemin Islam, a transgender nurse is somewhat similar. She is a nationally registered nurse who attended the first coronavirus patient at Square Hospital in the capital. Soon after that, she was diagnosed with the virus.
After she recovered, she resumed her duty as a nurse.
Of course, it was not an easy journey to become a nurse, embracing her gender identity. She herself fought for a long time with that, but in her words, nothing was more "liberating" than finally "accepting and expressing yourself the way you are."
"People advised me to join a non-governmental organisation when I completed my studies. This is what we usually do. I also thought about it. Then I realised it was high time we joined the regular job sectors to normalise trans peoples' presence in the mainstream," she said.
After a pause, she continued, "Besides, nursing is an art that we were taught and mastered in nursing college. I did not want to lose the opportunity to explore it."
When she returned to duty after recovering from coronavirus infection, she was appointed in the coronavirus intensive care unit (ICU). There, she even fed patients with her own hands when most people feared their presence.
Did her gender identity become a barrier to her life and career? In a brief conversation with The Business Standard, she opened up about different issues and the story of her life.
The story of becoming a nurse
Born in a male body, Hochemin realised since childhood that she was not what she looked like. She was ridiculed as a "half lady" (men whose behaviour has similarities with that of women) as her behaviour reflected her inner self.
She was disappointed with how she was treated by society and aspired to be a judge one day to take on such discriminations. With that in mind, she endured each and every taunt and carried on with her education.
But her father suddenly died after her Higher School Secondary examination. Though she got the opportunity to enrol both at Jahangirnagar University and Jagannath University, financial crisis became an obstacle.
So she enrolled at the nearby Thengamara Mohila Sabuj Sangha (TMSS) Nursing College. In the nursing college, she registered as a male but the authority was well aware of her identity and supportive of her.
However, she had to hide her identity from others in fear of getting excluded from society.
In fact, she feels that the environment is so hostile to trans people that it leaves almost no scope for the community to receive education or join the formal job sector. This is why they end up adopting the hijra culture, collecting money from people on buses, trains, in traffic signals and shops.
"It is a taboo in our society to be a transgender. When I realised I was a transgender, I do not know why I despised myself initially. During my days in the nursing college, I realised it was time to accept the reality. So I confronted my family about who I was," she said.
"They thought it was some kind of disease and could be cured with proper treatment."
In nursing college, her classmates bullied her on a regular basis, and so did her neighbours. Passers-bys teased her and harassed her on roads. She assumed it was because she lived in a small town and people there were conservative.
So she decided to come to Dhaka after she completed her education. She expected things to be different in the capital.
Things were not different in Dhaka either and she had to join her workplace registering as a male nurse.
"A handicapped person does not get excluded but transgender people do. The idea of co-existing with them is unfamiliar in our society," she said.
Her experience at her workplace was interesting. While on duty, she wore the hospital uniform. Patients got confused about her gender identity, but they did not bother about it much.
When she took off her uniform, it triggered curiosity among her colleagues. Not everyone of them was welcoming. After facing a few unpleasant incidents, she went to her boss, Mary Mridha, nurse manager of the cardiac Operation Theatre and ICU, and admitted to being a transgender.
This time, she was surprised as her boss said she had no issues with her gender as long as she knew her work. In addition, she became incredibly supportive of her.
When she was assured of her financial security, she publicly acknowledged her transgender identity.
Thorns along the way
Financial security is first and foremost for anyone. When Hochemin was struggling financially because of her gender identity, she went to a few gender activists for suggestion and help.
From her experience, she felt that gender activists working for gender equity and empowerment tend to exclude some people or fail to include all transgender people in their discussion.
"Sometimes they treat transgender people as a project. The project earns them name and fame, which is of no use to our community. The only way to help the community is to include trans people's voice in the conversation," she said.
"When appointing transgender people, organisations and companies fear that it may tarnish their image. They think about how other employers will react to that."
She thinks without including them, the neglect and indifference towards the community will not go away.
"Countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan acknowledge trans people in the mainstream. Why cannot we do it?"
She feels that organisations like Brac and Aarong should start appointing trans people, be it in smaller positions like guards or salespeople, and set an example.
How patients in hospital accepted her identity
Hochemin feels that patients on the death bed are least bothered about a nurse's gender identity, and all they care about is receiving care and treatment.
Some confused patients ask her if they should address her as "bhaiya" or "apu". She does not mind being called either.
"If anything, I have received unconditional love and gratitude from my patients," she said.
In her opinion, a lot of people are sceptical about transgender people because they confuse them with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movement, which is something totally different.
This correspondent reminded her that the government had acknowledged hijars as the third gender and asked how she felt about it.
"Hijra is not a gender. It is a culture that most transgender people adopt. So, other than identifying hijras as the third gender, policymakers should add a box for the third gender or simply for transgender people," she said.