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Meet Noori Saleem, A Transgender Mother Defying Stereotypes & Creating A Home For HIV+...
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Meet Noori Saleem, A Transgender Mother Defying Stereotypes & Creating A Home For HIV+ Children

At 13, a young boy fled home. At 28, he became a woman. At 34, she was the third person in India to be officially recorded as HIV+. Today, Noori Saleem is a beacon of hope for and 'amma' to 200 plus children, many of whom were born with HIV and abandoned. 

As I sat waiting in her office, the cool blue wall behind the white cane chair helped soothe my nerves. The table was occupied with papers and amidst them stood a framed award, a testament to a life fraught with obstacles. 

“Selvi, Indira and Pazhani, they were three of my close friends who succumbed to AIDS. SIP stands in their memory," says Nooriji, the matriarch of SIP memorial, as she stares off into the distance, her nose ring moving rhythmically with her soft breath. 

A way out...

SIP Memorial Trust

“My mother passed away four years after giving birth to me and my father soon re-married. The lady he wedded didn’t treat me so well," she says.

"I was always known to be effeminate by people around me and boys in school would tease me, calling me ‘pretty like a woman’. I found that comforting because I liked being desired on some level but what I did not like was when friends of my father would tell him to kill me for my mannerisms,” Nooriji continues, as tears line her eyes. 

“They’d say if I weren't their child, they’d have strangled me to death. Taunts such as these pushed my father to beat me. His wife’s voiced her support as she did so. There was only so much of it that I could take.”

Nooriji ran away from home at the age of 13, leaving everything behind. The need to escape the abuse was so powerful that she preferred staying on the streets and begging at temples than staying in her hometown, Ramanathapuram. On arriving at her chosen haven, Chennai, Nooriji found a job as domestic help in a Chettiar family's home. She washed utensils and cleaned their house. This continued for three odd years.  

She was barely making ends meet until one day she came in contact with her father’s friends. Her father was severely unwell and close to taking his last breath. At first, Nooriji suspected it to be a ploy but she relented. Her heart broke upon arrival. Her father passed away within three days. The only person she could call her own was no more. 

A new home, a new city 

Noori TOI

Back home and with her father gone, Nooriji found it difficult to adjust. What made matters worse were her stepmother's secret plans to get her married off. She packed a few items of clothing and boarded the train Mumbai. But a new city posed new problems. She didn't speak its language, and it hers. And it was a matter of chance that she met her kindred spirit, Pattama, a fellow transgender who took her under her wings. 

During her six-year stint in Mumbai, life seemed a breeze compared to the times spent in the South. Along with others in the trans community, she performed at weddings, birthdays and births of children. Bread and butter came from blessing others. The gods smiled when Nooriji met a man who fell in love with her for who she was. 

“Over the years I managed to collect Rs 40,000 and it felt the time had come to return to Chennai. With my packed bags, I left with a person who loved me. In Chennai, I decided it was time for me to become a woman”, adds Nooriji.

The transition

Lying in the middle of a densely populated area, midwives were busy preparing for an operation. The moment was here: Noor Mohammed was to become Noori Saleem under the gentle gaze of Bahuchara maata. When this surgery was performed, there was no comfort of anesthesia, no relief of painkillers or hygienic surgical equipment. 

That day, after blood flowed for two hours and the operation complete, hot sesame oil was poured onto the wound. If one survives this right of passage, the newly born lady is given a green sari and blouse after 40 days of surgery.  

Tough choices

Noori TOI

“Times were difficult. Earning money was hard and with little to no choice, I joined the sex trade,” sighs Nooriji. It is not uncommon for transgenders to join this line of work since it's the only one open to them. And given that this profession is riddled with fears, it becomes imperative for them to protect themselves physically and mentally. 

A blood test on July 22, 1987, revealed she'd tested positive for HIV. She was one of the six sex workers out of a 100 to contract it. Not wanting to spread it, she left sex work. The doctor had given her just two years to live, not something someone who had just adopted two abandoned children could bear living with.

But her will to live was stronger than she realised. She met with Dr Usha Raghavan who encouraged her to join the Community Action Network as an outreach worker.

If I could not safeguard myself against HIV, it did not mean I could not help others. I would provide people with condoms and educate them on STDs and HIV/AIDS,” adding that it was a befitting reply to people who discriminated against her when she tried to get treatment. “I was not allowed to stand in the queue for men or women.”

Life today...


Nooriji has been running the SIP Memorial Trust aka South Indian Positive Network for 17 years now. Since its conception, many have come and graduated to adulthood and life, working in various walks of life. Today, it houses more than 200 children. There are quite a few children who are HIV+ and she continues to care for them. 

“If you’d meet them, you wouldn’t know they are infected. If I can maintain my zeal for life and deal with this disease so can anyone. These children are my reason to live. I want to thank God for allowing me to be their mother,” says Nooriji, now brimming with joy.

“I look forward to days my children return with their families to meet me. Their children call me grandmother! There are two wishes in my life, one that I want to return as their mother in my next birth and second that I should be able to build a permanent home for all these children. I want them to have a roof over their head and not worry about where to stay.”

So far, Noori Saleem has been managing the SIP trust by herself and is on a constant lookout for more donations so that she can cement her lifelong dream of providing permanent shelter to her kids long after she is gone. 

Illustration: Ranak Mann
 
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