What I learnt spending 20 hours with Akkai Padmashali.

For those that know her, Akkai Padmashali is associated with being fearless, inspirational and a leader of the people. Everywhere she goes, smartphones come out and people line up for photos. Everywhere she speaks, smarphones are tucked away and you can hear a pin drop in the room. Everyone she meets, Akkai leaves a lasting impression on people’s lives.

Akkai’s life is one which 20 hours of conversation can’t do justice to. Nor can any movie or any book. She has experienced life from the deepest of troughs and the steepest of peaks. She has climbed impossible mountains, inspiring many along the way through her story, one of courage and grit for a better tomorrow.

So when I got the opportunity to spend time with Akkai, interviewing her as a part of the Ashoka Fellowship Process, I knew that this was going to be a special journey for myself and my wider team. If you speak to anyone in my team, they would easily say that your takings from Akkai are unique and personal. These are mine:

  1. Akkai showed me that circumstances can be changed — regardless of how dark the tunnel ahead of you is.

When you grow up a boy but wanting to be a girl, you already have an unfortunate amount of obstacles ahead of you. Add the reality of growing up in India, a country with strong cultural norms and traditions and you have the setting for Akkai’s story. Akkai grew up struggling to be accepted for who she knew she was, chastised, bullied and abused for wanting to be a girl. She was coined ‘mentally ill’ for playing with dolls and she was physically abused when taking her to a spiritual healer didn’t help change her.

Left behind and outcasted by her friends, family, school and government, Akkai attempted suicide twice at the age of 12/13. Surviving this ordeal, Akkai pushed forward, living life minute by minute. Every minute was survival for her. To fit in, to be accepted, to dream and to hold on to the little hope she had. Sometimes holding on is a critical, revolutionary moment in one’s life. For Akkai this is definitely the case, kicking off a fight that would shape her to become one of India’s leading activists and Social Entrepreneurs for Sexual Minorities.

Her ordeal with mental health, sexual abuse and violence continued all through her teenage years. She had to discontinue her studies in 10th grade because of the abuse she was getting from her peers and teachers. While this was the end of her formal education, it wasn’t the end of her learning. Akkai single handedly learnt the many languages she speaks today, single handedly learnt the laws that continue to leave behind sexual minorities in India and she continues to single handedly learn from everyone she meets.

During the darkest of hours, working as a sex worker (facing abuse among many other things), just to feel part of a community that accepted her, Akkai kept on going. She didn’t see a light ahead, but she kept on fighting. I used to think luck played a big role in your circumstances changing — but for Akkai a lot of it was her own determination. She was determined to learn, she was determined for change.

Akkai now is one of the most well known public figures in Karnataka, breaking historic barriers between the Transgender Community and the mainstream. She is working towards recreating the narrative so that all human beings, regardless of who they are, where they are from and how they feel, have their basic human rights met.

The Story of Akkai Padmashali — Chai with Lakshmi

2. Akkai showed me the importance of us — and not me.

Akkai’s approach to her work in one which brings together a diversity in voices and experiences. When she has consultations with Members of Parliament, she always takes with her other members of her community who have varied experiences of living. She takes with her members of communities outside her own so that representation is as inclusive and fair as possible. Akkai see’s the importance of creating a faceless community of representation and leaders as this is the only way for convergence. Akkai taught me that you can win all the accolades as possible and be invited to as many high level meetings as possible but none of it means anything without a platform for others to voice their thoughts.

Being around Akkai showed me the importance of distributive leadership. A strong leader is important but many leaders is non negotiable. She showed me that as an Individual, I have a unique and worthy perspective but so does each and every single one of us. Akkai continues to shape her organisation Ondede around diversity and inclusivity which ultimately leads to convergence.

3. Akkai reminded me that being authentic means you will take a hit.

Bob Goff once said that ‘I used to be afraid that if I was authentic I would would take a hit, but now I know that being real does mean I will take a hit’. Akkai reminded me of this many times over during our time together. Akkai taught me that being real often does not mean that you deserve to take a hit but means you very well may.

Her life story is one in which she has had to fight for acceptance. Fight to be free and express herself the only way she knew she could, as a girl. Akkai took many hits and still does to the day but one thing she does not compromise is being true to herself. She taught me the importance of not lying to yourself and showing your unique beauty to the world. Akkai knows that she will always be questioned regardless of how pure her intentions or actions are. She reminded me that this is part and parcel of living but others words and actions are not reflective of how we really are but how we really are to them. She learnt this tough lesson through her physical abuse and mental scars set upon her.

Like Bob Goff, Akkai doesn’t set upon to fix people, she just wants to be with them. She sits with the very people and organizations that have discriminated against her for so long, eager to learn and listen. She chooses the difficult way forward but to her the only way forward, convergence.

Akkai Padmashali is the Co-Founder of Ondede (Convergence in Kannada).