South Asia Seminar: Making a World with a Word: Language, Intimacy, and Ethicality among Thirunangai Transgender Women in Chennai, India

Aniruddhan Vasudevan, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin

The Tamil word ‘Thirunangai’ is currently the most preferred and widely used identity label among transgender women in Chennai. Free of pejorative meanings, indexing linguistic and cultural specificity, eschewing religious connotations, and commanding juridical recognition, ‘Thirunangai’ has had a remarkable uptake as a label of collective self-representation over just the past decade. One of the many pejorative Tamil words that predates such positive linguistic assertion of Tamil trans women’s identity is ‘pottai.’ At once misogynist, transphobic, and homophobic in its wider social uses, the word ‘pottai’ figures in many trans and queer self-narratives as a term of abuse but also occasionally as one of endearment in intragroup contexts.

While several other earlier terms have fallen out of circulation, ‘pottai’ is still used by members of the thirunangai community in ways that rely heavily on contexts of use for its meaning and felicity. In addition to being a term of everyday mutual reference and endearment among thirunangais, the word ‘pottai’ also serves to include within its referential ambit a wider range of feminine comportments than the ones circumscribed by thirunangai identity. However, as I hope to demonstrate in this talk through a series of ethnographic encounters, ‘pottai’ does more than just the work of gendering. It indexes moral personhood; it says something about the kinds of good life one can aspire for; it hints at certain horizons of freedom vis-à-vis normative desires; and it carries the performative force to facilitate new intimacies, expanding the field of relationality and relatability beyond the boundaries of identity. Through a careful attention to the contextual and ethical valences of the word ‘pottai,’ this talk will explore forms of sociality and intimacy that are considered meaningful in the thirunangai lifeworld. The talk will also touch upon a figure that illuminates from the background the work the word ‘pottai’ does: saamippottai, the thirunangai who is devoted to a deity, usually a goddess.

Dates: 
Thursday, January 9, 2020 - 5:00pm
Foster 103