As she grew up watching her grandmother, a trained Carnatic vocalist, teach music to the neighbourhood children, Akkai Padmashali, then 14, wanted to sit in too. But her grandmother would have none of it.
"She was worried learning music would 'influence' me," says Padmashali, 32. After all, she had already started getting pulled up for wearing her sister's clothes. Back then, Padmashali was a boy named Jagadeesh.
Lost and muddled about the identity he was expected to embrace, Jagadeesh had even attempted to end it all when he was 12, twice. "It was very difficult growing up with violence and unacceptance all around," says Padmashali, now a household name in Bengaluru and a sari-loving gutsy human rights activist.
Last month, when she was meeting a lawmaker in the city, Padmashali told him how she was born a boy and was undergoing long term-sex change treatment. "Why do you people go against the law of nature," he asked her rather bluntly.
"Akkai spoke to the minister very openly; she never antagonises people," says Jayana Kothari, director of city-based Centre for Law and Policy Research who was at the meeting as Padmashali's advocate. "She humourously questioned what nature was," says Kothari. By the end of the conversation, Padmashali had won the minister over.
"He said he had never known how much the transgender community has to face," says Kothari. Soon after, Padmashali and Kothari's team had reason to celebrate - they had assurance from the state government that the word "eunuch" would be removed from Section 36A of the Karnataka Police Act, 1963 in six months.
Section 36(A), titled "power to regulate eunuchs", allows police to maintain a diary of transgenders suspected of kidnapping boys or committing any unnatural offence, thus singling out the sexual minority. The amendment is a violation of the Delhi High Court's rule that keeps consenting adults out of the purview of unnatural offences. So, removal of "eunuch" from the section is only half the battle won.
The community is targeted by the police and its members live in fear of their names appearing in the black book. "That's why there is an ongoing public interest litigation in the Karnataka High Court to squash this section on the grounds that it's a threat to the fundamental rights of sexual minorities," says Kothari.
Akkai is the name Padmashali took on when she became a sex worker. Her story is not a new one, but it's one shared by many in the community. At 16, when she confided in her brother that she wanted to be a woman and he approached their parents, "they gave him a tight slap".
In the days to come, when Padmashali met transgender sex workers, she found kinship. "My parents thought I was working in a private company but I was doing sex work. I did it for four years," says Padmashali, who describes her education as "Class X-maths fail". Today, Padmashali runs Onede (Kannada for "convergence") that works with children, women and sexual minorities.
Two years ago, Padmashali, a Karnataka Rajyotsava state awardee, featured in an album called "Songs of the Caravan". "She auditioned over phone and we just went ahead with that. She's a very warm person," says Anubhav Gupta of Jeevan Trust in Delhi, which conceptualised the album featuring nine transgender women. Her choice of song: Kannada bhajan Bhagyada Laxmi.
Padmashali's fiance Midhun Raj SR is always by her side. "We don't believe in marriage, but we are in a live-in relationship for life," says Padmashali laughing as she heads for a conference on sexual minorities in Salem.
So how many conferences has she spoken at? "Oh hundreds, yaar," she says.