Two years ago, at the age of 38, Reena Rai reached the lowest point in her life. She and her husband were both out of work, their once-flourishing businesses had failed, they had a growing daughter to fend for, and then Reena’s best friend passed away.
“Everyone says there is a purpose to life. But if I was to die today, what would have been the purpose of my life? Why did I live at all?” she mused, seeped in the dark despair that wracks a seeking spirit before light dawns.
Born and raised for 25 years in the alleys of Old Delhi, Reena had lost her father at the age of nine. Her mother, though illiterate, brought up four children with positive energy and courage, while running the family’s dry-cleaning shop singlehandedly.
After graduating and arming herself with a diploma in public relations, Reena ran a successful business of industrial food catering for almost a decade. Things looked good for a while. Happily married, Reena and her husband bought a house and a car.
But then misfortune came raining down in a thunderstorm of personal and professional loss.
That’s when Reena met Vippy. “I’d actually met her a few years earlier, when she was a boy. She got back in touch with me when she found out I had lost my best friend. She knew I was suffering from depression.”
Vippy could relate. She had been undergoing sex-change surgery and had been isolated from her family. She had contemplated suicide. “No one understood her. So she sought me out. I’d never judged or pitied her. On the contrary, I told her she was brave to speak out her truth, instead of stifling her true nature, getting married, and ruining someone else’s life,” recalls Reena. It was the beginning of a life-changing friendship.
Almost instantly, Reena noticed the way people looked at her or passed remarks when she and Vippy were just hanging around at a café. “People think a transwoman can only be a prostitute, though Vippy had a job working in a salon in Karol Bagh,” says Reena.
The two of them attended an event for the hijra community organized by an NGO. Sitting in the audience, Reena was struck by the problems the community faced. Their parents would throw them out; they were forced to leave school due to bullying. They would be raped or forced into prostitution.
“Their lot cannot change unless straight people change their biased mindsets,” thought Reena. Suddenly she got the answer to her question: “What is the purpose of my life?”
A few months later, she launched India’s first beauty pageant for transwomen, Miss Transqueen.
Her idea was met with skepticism. Venues refused to host the event. Sponsors feared tarnishing their image by associating with transgender persons. Politicians advised her to “do something normal”. Reena replied: “They are normal to me.”
The greatest pushback came from the transgender community itself; they suspected her motives and accused her of “using them”. Even so, a decent number of participants turned up at the audition held at an NGO’s auditorium. Finally, after much struggle, they got a venue for the final event in Gurgaon. And so, on August 27, 2018, Reena created history.
“We got a huge response; global media picked up the story and it was all over the news,” she narrates. “That’s when inclusion started. The same people who had turned us away earlier now began calling me and my girls to judge other pageants and speak at events.”
But the event drained her finances; Reena couldn’t even pay her daughter’s school fees that year. “I felt bad that my family had to suffer for my junoon (obsession), but they supported me. Even my 10-year-old daughter encouraged me. She had understood the concept of choice and identity, and was in fact creating awareness in her school about the third gender,” Reena says, her eyes misting with pride.
Her big break came when The Lalit Hospitality Group began taking interest in skilling and hiring her contestants. They began running five-month training programmes for the LGBTQ community, absorbing many of them in the hotel chain. They even offered their Mumbai property as a venue for Miss Transqueen 2018, an offer Reena lapped up as she wanted to introduce her contestants to film industry. “They can be anything they want to be. Why does a cis-woman have to play a transwoman in Sacred Games? Why can’t a transwoman do the job?”
Job offers have been pouring in for “Reena’s girls”. International beauty pageants have been reaching out to invite them to participate in events abroad. They’ve been hired by reputed companies across India who are keen to expand their diversity portfolio. “The most significant part is that their parents are calling them back home,” says Reena. “Their main problem is acceptance. Now that they have that, they can focus on achievements.”
Reena is now launching a sensitization programme called Parivartan in schools, and has already announced her next pageant for transmen. “Let us not underestimate the third gender. They are more powerful than the rest of us; they have something god-gifted. They are the manifestation of ardhnareshwar – the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies. All they need is an opportunity. They have been suppressed so long, that when they are given a chance, they bounce back up harder, like a spring.”
Last month, Reena celebrated her 40th birthday. Her contestants came over home with a cake to celebrate it with her. “Two years ago, I wondered what my purpose was,” Reena says. “Now I know.”