THE DIMLY LIT CORRIDORS of the Arcot Hotel are rank with the smell of sweat, cigarettes and stale beer. The hallways ring with loud chatter, raucous laughter and the occasional scream. The summer heat is sweltering. Half-open doors reveal grungy rooms crowded with large women in various stages of undress. Pink petticoats, padded bras, hair extensions, sequined saris, miniskirts—some on, some off. Out in the passageways, a few men hang about, hungrily eyeing the women who stride out of the rooms. One grabs at Kalki as she walks past, dressed in a modest salwaar-kameez, her glossy hair pulled back in a ponytail. She turns and speaks to him softly before she gently extricates herself and moves on. The man suddenly seems reduced, almost bashful. The hunter looks hunted. But this isn’t surprising. For Kalki Subramaniam isn’t quite who she seems. Out here, all definitions, all identities, are fluid. The only certainty is that in this packed hotel I’m the only naturally born woman. The rest are aravanis, kothis and panthis (transgenders, feminine homosexuals and their seemingly straight male clients).
The Arcot sits on PJN Road, just off National Highway 45 in Villupuram—a dusty town in Tamil Nadu about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Chennai. Though it’s an important trading centre for agricultural goods like paddy, groundnut, sugarcane and coconut, on most days Villupuram is just another sleepy Indian town. But tonight is the night before the annual Koovagam village temple festival, where thousands of aravanis from across south and central India have gathered for the celebrations. Despite the nearly unbearable heat, the town pulses with activity. Hotels are packed, alcohol flows freely at local bars and large crowds descend on transgender beauty pageants hosted by an aravani rights group.
“This is basically a weeklong sex-fest,” explains Kalki, who identifies herself as a ‘transwoman.’ We’re shooed out of our spot on the tiny hotel room veranda by an aravani dragging an eager young man along with her, so we sit indoors with four other aravanis—all Kalki’s friends—while the two get it on outside. Apart from me, no one seems discomfited. For most aravanis, sex is work. It’s about money and putting food on the table. There’s no embarrassment attached to it. And on this particular occasion, sex ties in neatly with Koovagam festival lore.