“In class eight, I realised I was not a boy. I started wearing my mother’s saris,” recalls Maahi, who was born Hamza in Delhi to a property dealer father and a homemaker mother.
The youngest sibling with two older brothers and two sisters in a traditional Muslim family, the little Hamza’s antics in dressing up as a girl were initially laughed at and labeled “cute”.
“But later these things made my family very angry,” the 23-year-old Maahi admits, seated in the coffee shop of the Lalit hotel in Delhi, where she works as a PR executive for the hotel’s popular nightclub Kitty Su.
She has lined her eyes with kohl, giving them a stylish cat-eye effect, and wears carefully applied bright red lipstick. Her clothing has the nonchalant trendiness of someone who devours Instagram and spends a lot of time with the who’s who of Delhi society.
Her colleagues of four years, who knew her first as Hamza, often have to correct themselves and refer to her with her new name, Maahi Suri, which she began using for work about a year ago after starting hormone therapy and then her sex-change operation in September 2017.
“I was a bit of a hunk even as a boy,” she says, smiling coyly. As a girl, of course, she is gorgeous.
Maahi’s adolescence was traumatic, especially after her father died when she was just 10 years old. “I missed him a lot. My family used to lock me up at home when they found out that I was wearing girls’ clothes secretly,” she says. She studied in a government school close to home.
“Maahi was actually my pet name in class 10,” she shares, “given to me by my boyfriend.” Her relationship lasted eight long years, all through the time that Maahi did her graduation through correspondence while working in event management. In 2014, she applied for a job at the Lalit hotel.
After two years of battling her inner demons and family conflict, Maahi went into chronic depression and decided to quit her job. When she went to speak to the hotel owner, Keshav Suri, however, he convinced her to share the real reason for her resignation.
“He offered me complete mental, emotional and financial support,” says Maahi, who is shy by nature. “He said, ‘Wear girls’ clothes to work if you want.’ He even financed my move out of my house and into my own apartment.”
Maahi consulted a doctor who suggested she start hormone therapy. Her family watched, horrified, as she grew breasts and let her hair grow longer. “They were worried I’d get into sex work. But with the constant support of my mentor and boss, they gradually realised this is who I am and there is nothing wrong with it. My mother has accepted it, and my sisters meet me now and then,” she says. She is now applying to do her MBA.
Maahi still wants a more feminine pitch to her voice, but, after her sex-change operation, she is very happy with her new body. “I wear business suits and saris to work, and short dresses for parties. Oh, I take a long time to get ready for parties,” she blushes, her smile suggesting that dressing up in women’s clothes is one of life’s greatest pleasures for her.
But while she found resolution for her gender identity, her relationship was destined for doom. A couple of years ago, her boyfriend broke up with her – “His family married him to someone else,” Maahi says, flatly.
It is part of a transgender person’s life that she appears to have accepted stoically. “People from my community call me kinnar, but here, at work, I am just as accepted as everyone. I don’t think I’d ever get this kind of job anywhere else.”
Maahi’s story is an example of how workplaces that actively foster diversity can impact social equality and individual freedom. “This is our fight – to change mindsets,” says Keshav Suri, executive director of the Lalit Suri Hospitality group, who has been an outlier in the Indian hospitality sector and follows UN guidelines when it comes to employment of LGBTQ persons and those with disabilities.
Launching Kitty Su – an openly gay nightclub with events such as drag nights – in a place like India 10 years ago was a risk, he admits – which paid off. “Change in the country comes from its entrepreneurs,” says the striking 33-year-old, who has earned several tourism awards for his brand for being disabled-friendly, and takes his role as a spokesperson for the marginalized very seriously.
All employees at his 14 hotels go through sensitization programmes on dealing with LGBTQ and disabled colleagues, including acid-attack victims, and all levels of management have a balanced male-female staff ratio. Kitty Su also hosts fashion shows featuring those from the transgender community.
One such show, featuring garments by top fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, was held last month. Maahi, with her tall lanky proportions and model-like gait, walked the ramp as well.
Dressed in a floor-length anarkali, with a confident small smile on her face, she looked every bit of Maya Angelou’s ‘phenomenal woman’ as she sashayed down the runway:
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman