When Manisha walks into her rented room, crestfallen at having earned little money at work, her children rush to the door and cluster around, welcoming her with hugs. “When I feel their arms around me, my worries just melt away,” she says.
Manisha, a transgender woman who goes by only one name, is not their biological mother. She has taken in eight abandoned children over the years and now, aged 35, looks after six, two having recently left to get married.
The family share a love Manisha never experienced as a child. “My parents saw that I was somehow different and kept me locked up. Relatives would visit and I would be locked up so they wouldn’t see me. They were scared I would shame them and that society would ostracise them,” she says.
Speaking over the phone – the sounds of chickens and of her youngest charge, seven-month-old Tuneja, in the background – discussing her childhood makes Manisha cry. At school, the boys told her to go and play with the girls. But the girls also shunned her. In her neighbourhood in Chhattisgarh state, no other child would play with her.
“Play indoors,” was her mother’s response when Manisha complained. Her father ignored her. When she was aged about five, they dumped her on the street. For years, she survived on scraps. As she grew older, she donated blood, washed dishes and cleaned homes to earn money.
“It was a life of no love, only hardship. Once I had a high temperature and was very hungry, I was told I could have some food if I cleaned the whole house. Sometimes I slept outdoors. I never knew when I was going to have any food,” she says.
One day, someone in the community told her where her brother – her only sibling as far as she knows – lived. Prompted by an obscure desire to re-connect with someone from her past, Manisha went to try and visit.
My parents saw that I was somehow different and kept me locked up ... They were scared I would shame them
“He didn’t even let me go inside. He told me to move off quickly. He said his children would never be able to get married if anyone heard I was related to them,” she says.
Trans people in India usually migrate to towns, but Manisha lives in Pakhanjur, a village. Local people are poor, which means she is only able to earn very little from a traditional occupation for trans people – singing and dancing at weddings or celebrations for the birth of a boy.
But this has not stopped her taking in seven girls and one boy: Rubel, Sharmeen, Chompa, Bistee, Rakhi, Tania, Megha and baby Tuneja – whose mother begged Manisha to take her as she was unable to feed her.
Most of the children were abandoned. One survived a poisoning by her mother. Another had been injured and beaten.
“I cannot bear to see another child suffer as I did. I want to be a mother and father to any child who needs parents and love. I want to give what I never had,” she says.
Like many in India, the pandemic has brought a new level of impoverishment to Manisha, and feeding so many children is a struggle.
Covid-19 has forced many Indians to cut non-essential spending. Weddings have been scaled back as guest numbers are limited. For the trans community, often threadbare earnings have shrunk even further. The government gives out free rice, sugar and potatoes, but they don’t go far.
Space is also at a premium. Home for Manisha is one room where she and the children all live and sleep. “Landlords don’t usually give rooms to trans people. Least of all with so many children. They think we will wreck the place and bring the tone down. This is the only place I could find,” she says.
Housing is one of many areas in which India’s estimated two million trans people face discrimination. A study by Humsafar Trust in 2018 found that almost 60% of trans people in three cities – Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai – had suffered violence.
However some success stories in India stand out: a transgender college principal, a lawyer, a TV anchor, a police officer, a naval officer, a mayor, activists. But most of those examples are of people who enjoyed an education, which Manisha lacks.
Four of the children attend the local government school and are doing well. They don’t seem to be bullied over their unorthodox family. Since no one knows their own birthday, Manisha has assigned them random dates and gets each one a cake on the big day, something she herself has never had.
“My dream is to set up an orphanage so that I can take in any child that needs love. As long as I have strength and life, I want to take in children and give them the love every child needs,” she says.