The aroma of the delicious mutton biryani enticed the guests who had gathered for Joseph’s daughter’s wedding in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. One of them enquired which catering service was managing the feast and pat came the reply, “Catering ellam kedayaath, ith vanth namma Madhana akkavoda biryani (This isn’t from a catering service, it’s our Madhana’s biryani).”
‘Madhana Biryani’ is more like a brand name for Coimbatoreans when it comes to flavoursome non-vegetarian feasts for big events and functions. The talented hands behind the biryani belong to G Madhana, lovingly called Madhana amma, a trans woman who struggled for years to receive the respect she deserves.
Born into a low-income family in Thanjavur, Madhana studied till class 5 and ran away from her home at the age of 18, realising that her family was not going to understand and accept her as a girl. “I acknowledged my identity right in my childhood but I didn’t know how to make others understand it. This was around 45 years ago and unlike now, nobody knew who a trans person was. They only knew to mock and humiliate us based on our physique and mannerisms,” says Madhana to The Better India.
When she reached Pollachi she stayed in a house as a cook for nine years. “It was a Muslim family and they were experts in preparing non-vegetarian food. I learned cooking from them and used to cook for up to 100 people back then,” she reminisces. Later, Madhana reached Coimbatore, where she built a biryani empire of her own.
“In the trans community, there is a practice of adopting younger trans people and teaching them whatever skills we know. Based on our age, we will be their amma (mother) or patti (grandmother) or even periya patti (great grandmother). When I started the biryani business, a few trans women joined me as helpers. Slowly, the number increased and after five years of training, they went ahead to start their own ventures. At least 10 of them are now top caterers in Coimbatore,” says the 68-year-old with pride.
But the journey was extremely hard for her and the fellow trans women she adopted. They had no money, to begin with, no house to cook in and people never trusted them. “People looked at us with disgust,” she recalls. “It took at least 10 years to find our ground in this field and since then, there has been no looking back. People started relishing my food and came back for its taste. Soon, from small orders and covering modest events with 100 or 200 people, we expanded to cooking for almost 10,000 people. The team got bigger, we made money and built a house.”
She remembers how people at wedding venues used to stare at and mock her. Now, the uncomfortable stares have turned into words of appreciation. Madhana says she filled their bellies with tasty biryani so that it became impossible to deride her or her “children”.
She opines that even though time has passed and society is more aware of the LQBTQIA+ community, there still exist people who can’t accept them as they are. “Even today trans people are not employed or given places to stay. I have five trans women in my house who help me with the work, with similar stories. In fact, every trans person I have met to date has the same story to share. Their stories might not be as tragic, but that doesn’t mean all of us are living our best lives,” she shares.
She finds this as the reason why trans women are forced to get into sex work. “They are left with no option. I was and am trying to help fellow women to get skilled in a field so that they can lead a respectful life,” she adds.
Shenbaga, one of Madhana’s adopted daughters who now runs a catering business of her own, says, “I was born and brought up in Kerala and studied till class 7. I came out as a trans woman at the age of 17. But my family couldn’t accept it. So, I ran away from home at the age of 18 and did many part-time jobs in Coimbatore. When I was working in a textile mill, a fellow trans woman introduced me to Madhana amma and she is the one who advised that we need to have a regular income to survive. I joined her team at the age of 24 and in six years I started my own catering business.”
Now an ageing Madhana amma sends her team of trans women to manage events. “Sometimes people ask me to accompany the team. But I generally just take the orders and pass on the work to the others. Also, we take bulk orders only as individual orders now seem impractical,” says the biryani chef.
Although Madhana majorly cooks biryani and all major chicken and mutton items, she loves to cook fish recipes. “Even during the event after cooking kilos of biryani in a traditional firewood stove, most of us sit back and have just plain rice with salad. At home, we eat fish delicacies just as we did as kids,” she gushes.
Madhana amma’s top-rated dish is the mutton biryani. The average price of one kilogram of the biryani is Rs 150. She says that in a world where people are being differentiated based on their gender, sexuality, religion, and caste among other things, she is trying to unite people through her delectable biryani.
Looking at her successful children, 10 of them in the catering business and five working as her helpers, she now says that there is no dream left unfulfilled. “There is absolutely nothing more that I wish for. I have yearned for the acceptance and respect of my family and today I have that. I visit them often and they invite me to all the functions. I’ve worked so hard all these years that there is no bigger joy than this. Thousands of people have savoured my food and have appreciated my work. What more can I ask for? I am content in all terms.”
Edited by Yoshita Rao