Twenty-six-year-old Rajani was sitting with her mother Yashoda at the porch of her house in Dinajpur's Manab Palli. Both were engaged in an animated discussion. Rajani had run away from home when she was only 10. The two had much to catch up on.
Rajani's decision to leave home came from the need to escape the social stigma and prejudice reserved by many for members of the transgender community.
Over the years, she had gotten detached from her family, not seeing them for years.
But ever since Rajani found refuge and a place to stay in Manab Palli – an area especially made for members of the transgender community located in Bangibecha, adjacent to Dinajpur city – her life has changed.
Speaking of the lack of acceptance by society, Rajani said, "I had to leave my family, school and community when I was a student of class five. No one in the family contacted me after that. But now they keep in touch. My mother often comes to visit me and stays with me sometimes."
The work for shelter houses in Manab Palli began in the fiscal 2011-12. The first residents arrived on 16 August 2012.
The residential project on around three hectares of land consists of 25 barracks, each with five rooms, a verandah, two toilets and one tube well. The shelter houses were built using funds from the Ashrayan-2 project, run by the Prime Minister's Office.
The community here, numbering 80 people, is now thriving and its members have found work, an improved life and most importantly - basic dignity.
"I often come to visit my daughter here. Her father is dead. If he were alive, he would come too. Rajani is my child. I cannot live without seeing her. Now no one says anything bad about Rajani," Yashoda said.
The project model doesn't just focus on providing homes. Livelihood is another consideration. The residents in Manab Palli have been given training on different work, including handicrafts, cattle rearing, fishing, driving, tailoring and running beauty salons.
Many of the residents also grow their own vegetables, while some rear cows, goats and chickens.
In addition to the training, residents are also given jobs, alongside rice under gratuitous relief and test relief programmes.
Ten years since it began, the project has drastically changed the living standard of the community's people.
"All this has become possible because of Whip Iqbalur Rahim," Rajani said.
The people's champion
Manab Palli was built at the initiative of Iqbalur, a member of parliament from the Dinajpur-3 constituency and also the parliament whip.
In conversation with The Business Standard, Iqbalur Rahim, said his motivation was to assimilate members of the transgender community into mainstream society.
"When I first heard the life story of a transgender person, I realised that it was our responsibility to ensure dignity for all humans. And so I came up with the project idea. Now I feel happy knowing that they are able to reunite with their families. Society no longer looks down upon them. They have also been given various livelihood training," he said.
Iqbalur's work has not gone unnoticed. In 2017, he received an award from the World Leadership Federation in the social innovator category for his contributions to the lives of transgenders.
The deeds of the units had been handed over to the residents, so each resident was now a permanent owner of their unit, he said.
Iqbalur also said that transgender people were neglected not only by their families but also by society. Their lives weren't easy, he said, adding, "So the Manab Palli has been built to rehabilitate them."
From the start, Iqbalur has been very involved with the work and the lives of the people he is working for.
Meneka Ahmed Bappi, another resident of Manab Palli, said, " We were given different types of training after settling in Manab Palli. I took training in beauty salons. Whip Iqbalur Rahim asked me to search for a suitable place where I could set up a beauty parlour. He said he would cooperate with me as much as possible.
"During Eid festivals, he helped us financially. He also sits and talks with people like us and takes us to different places. It is mainly because of his behaviour towards us that we are now respected in the society."
Bappi said, "Growing up, I could not understand the physical changes I was going through. The people of my area would always talk about me. Social prejudice was evident not only against me, but also my family. I was forced to cut my hair three times when I just wanted it to grow. I was compelled to leave home."
Nowadays, Bappi is comfortable in her skin and often visits her parents' home in Sardarpara area of Dinajpur city.
Another resident, Anis, was given a job at the Dinajpur M Abdur Rahim Medical College Hospital by Iqbalur.
"I now have a job. Many thought that transgender people would never be able to get jobs. The only way of making a living for us was by begging. But now we do not have to do that anymore. People's behaviour towards us has also changed for the better," Anis said.