Journey of the Heroine

From taking the first pill that’s going to change Ali to ‘her’ to where she is now -this is the story of a brave woman who has fought against odds for the most basic right of being a woman: Identity.’

International Women’s Day is held in March each year to celebrate the achievements and contribution of women and girls. The theme in 2021 is “#Choose to challenge”. #BackToTheFuture #Equalitytalks2021 #iwd2021.

‘From taking the first pill that’s going to change Ali to ‘her’ to where she is now -this is the story of a brave woman who has fought against all odds for the most basic right of being a woman: Identity.’

The heroine in my story is just like water, flowing through the circle of life in search of some answers to shape her future. As we celebrate International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, I want to know what it is exactly to be a ‘woman’, and why cisgender is the only acknowledged condition in society. Identity is powerful and a basic right of every woman – cisgender or not.

Today I feel privileged to write about a brave woman who has fought for this right. Her story is titled Astitva/ Identity, and Rosemary Johns is the co-writer (known as R. Johns) with Alison. Rosemary calls Alison a heroine, and the play is a heroine’s journey.

It is one of the seven plays to receive a full staged reading at the Women Playwrights International Festival in Montreal in June 2022. This is Alison Murphy’s story.

Alison was born as Ali to Malayalam (Kerala) parents in Pakistan. Like many of us, it took just one decision by our ancestors to decide our backdrop – and it was no different for Alison. During the partition, her grandparents chose to cross the border to Pakistan and call Karachi their home.

Ali always thought that he was different. Often scoring some nasty sarcasm from siblings would make Ali whimper in a corner, abandoned and crying to be loved by the voice of the little girl suppressed within him. As I write this, images of both Ali as a child and the partition come floating in front of me as if through an old National Geographic magazine, then quickly dissolving to the day I first met Alison.

From left: Rosemary, Alison & Nandita

Either by karma or destiny, three years ago, I met her at a hair salon called Deus Hair Design in Sydney Road, Brunswick. It was a rainy day, and it was just the two of us with the hairdresser, Marie. As Marie introduced me to Alison, we exchanged a hello and that was that. But what she was about to ask me would change everything for us as strangers. “Did you recognise me?”

She was not asking if I knew her from somewhere. What she meant was her gender. I was quite surprised by her forwardness. She sensed the white elephant hovering under the white light of the salon. Or it could just have been my ignorant face? I was thankful to her for saving me from falling to my own accidental judgemental grace.

I realised then that no matter how modern, educated or aware we are, we live in a conditioned society and no matter how hard we try to resist it fogging our judgement, we are human. It was that brief introduction to her journey that would motivate me to pitch about her to my editor at G’day India and The Indian Weekly.

Alison migrated to Australia in 1996, completed a Diploma in Textiles at RMIT and has just finished her Diploma in Makeup and Media at the Academy of Makeup in South Yarra.

Three years since I last met her in 2018 (and now past our latest lockdown), I am sitting in a café in Carlton with Alison (now 46) and Rosemary Johns. I met Rosemary Johns in 2018 with Alison when they both came to my book launch for Rosemary’s Retribution. I knew then the universe was cooking up a story for us. The café is empty and we find a quiet spot, knowing that between the three of us there will be tears.

Rosemary’s work has been a recipient of the Australian Government’s Anzac Centenary Arts and Culture Fund with As Told By The Boys Who Fed Me Apples (supported by Auspicious Arts, Big West Festival 2015. Rosemary was nominated for an AWGIE in Community and Youth Theatre for this script by the Australian Writers Guild.

In 2018 she was shortlisted for the BBC International Playwriting Radio award with Fire in the Head. Rosemary has been nurtured as a playwright by La Mama, with such works as At the Centre of Light presented at WPI 8 Mumbai through skills and development grant from the Australia Council for the Arts.

While we order coffee, I ask Alison and Rosemary how they met. They both smile and say in chorus, “While moonlighting at the [National Gallery of Victoria].” Rosemary was a security subcontractor at the NGV taking security guards through acting workshops (like how to deal with difficult patrons). But it was a series of events that brought them together.

When they first met, Ali had already started the journey to bring out the Alison in him. It included a number of trips to the psychiatrist, because at the time one had to gain a psychiatrist’s approval before having that transition. In the play we witness: Ali taking the first pill, her several suicide attempts, educating herself in English, facing sexism, racism and homelessness – and going alone to Thailand for her confirmation surgery.

Faint trepidation crossed my heart. I see Rosemary’s eyes cloudy with tears and her voice wrapped with love towards Alison. I turn to Alison and I see the pain that has touched Rosemary.

Alison continues with how she fled from her own culture, family and the political instability of Pakistan – and in between all of this, she was struggling to suppress the woman. The only family Alison recognises is Rosemary and I can see how beautiful their friendship is.
I think as much as Alison is Rosemary’s internal monologue, she is also the voice of reason for Alison to write her story.

It took Rosemary five years as a cisgender woman to be educated by Alison on how to portray and visualise the emotional struggles of transition. Together, they created the play of Alison’s journey of transformation.

Alison tells me the saddest part was when people confused her with gays and drag queens; that was another prejudice she had to go through.

I ask Rosemary about Astitva and the emotions behind the play, and she tells me briefly that it’s non-linear, going back to the past with Alison’s experiences as a child – including a couple of horrific incidents, family tribulations and sibling hatred, and needing to suppress the woman in her. It continues with going to the psychiatrist, the first pill and the confirmation surgery in Thailand, which rested Ali forever and gave birth to Alison. This immersive play is about the birth of the woman.

Rosemary tells me there’s a musician and five culturally diverse actors playing multiple parts. These actors will be playing the Anglo part as well. She wants Indian and Pakistani actors. She has a famous Iraqi actor already on board and I have already raised my hand as well.

In a previous life as Ali, Alison performed as a solo singer (religious and patriotic songs) at high school functions at St Lawrence’s School, Karachi. Alison, now a makeup artist, has worked as a makeup assistant for Miss Blossom Callahan at La Mama in 2017 and was the makeup artist for Tchekov at the House of Special Purpose in 2019. She was the assistant makeup artist on the photoshoot for GMAR magazine in 2019 and again assisted with makeup on the photoshoot for LGBTQI Immigrants – Queer Refugees at Docklands Cotton Mills for a gallery exhibition in 2020.

I ask her why this profession, and she speaks to me with those beautiful dark eyes: “Makeup makes you pretty; so, you want the woman in you to be perfect.” Her message to all the future parents and parents who have children like her is just to give them love unconditionally.
I can only think of Rumi at this point: “The wound is the place is where the light enters you.”

By Nandita Chakraborty