The Other Gender’s Road
- Official census puts transgenders’ number at around half a million
- In 2013, the SC directs transgenders to be listed as the third gender
- In 2014 Rajya Sabha passed a private members’ bill on transgenders’ rights
- Fortis Hospital and Sir Gangaram Hospital, New Delhi, get 25-30 cases a year for sex change, with more women desirous of becoming men
She is the first transgender ever in the world to be appointed principal of a college. And as Manobi Bandyopadhyay settles into the top chair at Krishnanagar Women’s College, she seems unaffected by the frisson of curious excitement around her. “Would there be so much fuss if any other woman had been appointed?” she asks. “I feel honoured, but the fact that this has attracted so much attention across the world is a reminder that it is so only because I am a transgender. People don’t see me as a woman who has qualified for the job”. That bitter truth hurts at what is possibly the proudest moment of Manobi’s life. “Like a thorn that pricks when you reach for the rose.”
Born a boy in the small town of Naihati, near Calcutta and named Somnath, Manobi says she always felt like a girl even when she was a child. “Most little boys get angry if you compare them to a girl, but I liked it. If someone scolded me and said, ‘Why are you crying like a girl?’ I would think, ‘Because I am a girl’.”
Manobi dismisses suggestions that her sexual orientation (attraction towards males) developed after she was molested by a male member of her family at the age of four, pointing out that she was always attracted to what has been traditionally considered ‘girly things’ like dolls and dresses. “As I grew up everyone said how I walked and talked like a girl.” Her peers ridiculed her; even her family insulted her.
A neighbour and contemporary in college recalls, “We would sit at roadside tea shops as youths and whenever Somnath arrived, we would catcall him like we did the other girls. Though we were making fun, he didn’t seem to mind and would say something like, ‘jahh’ (an indulgent dismissal) with a feminine wave of his hand. His hair was a little longish, though his attire was not unusual. He would wear long kurtas over jeans.... But gradually he started dressing in saris and salwar kameezes with dupattas, jewellery and make-up, especially bindi and kajal.”
Writer and academic Nabaneeta Deb Sen encouraged Somnath to address his inner conflict. Speaking to Outlook, Deb Sen says that she first noticed Somnath, then a student of Bengali literature in Calcutta’s Jadavpur University, because of the way other students taunted him. “I felt very sad. He seemed to be a bright boy. He was doing his MPhil.... He used to come and talk to me and Shonkho Ghosh, the poet and academic. We came to learn about his plight. He was a quintessential case of a woman trapped in a man’s body. But there was virtually no knowledge or awareness of this at that time (in the mid-1980s).”
Shonkho Ghosh stood by Somnath when he decided to undergo a sex-change operation. Deb Sen says, “I told him ‘You should do it if you really want to but you should be very careful and before you go under the knife, get several doctors’ opinions’. But my main advice was that your gender should not be your essential identity. You should qualify yourself with an education and pursue a career. I am glad that she has done both and has achieved what she has because she believed in herself.”
A section of the transgender community though laments now that it can sense in her what one of them calls ‘the arrogance of power’. Says Ranjita Sinha, head of the Association of Transgenders and Hijras in the state, “Suddenly, she is speaking to us like a spokesperson of the state government. During a recent television discussion she distanced herself from some of our demands, saying that now that she has been appointed by the state she has to be careful about what she says. Sadly, she is already showing signs of forgetting the cause for which she stood all these years.”
In fact, the television debate referred to by Sinha on a news channel on the issue of the advancement of the transgender community had to be called off because the exchange turned violent. “We are very proud of Manobi of course but she said to one of us, who has not undergone a sex change, ‘I am a complete woman which you cannot claim to be’. We won’t take this insult from her, as she knows the complexity of being a transgender. How can she forget everything?” asks an irate Sinha.
Indeed, does Manobi’s becoming principal have any bearing on the rest of the community, which continues to face discrimination? Will hijras be seen now in schools and colleges rather than on the streets? Manobi replies, “Hijras and transgenders are not identified at the school level. As little children both boys and girls go to school. It’s only as they reach adolescence that they start becoming aware of their sexual orientation. I had gone to school, didn’t I? My girl’s sensibility came to the fore later.”
But not everyone is convinced. Sinha points out, “Manobi comes from a privileged background; she went to school and college and now she has become principal. I too have been fortunate to have been educated. I too am a woman trapped in a male body, though I have not opted for a sex change. The problem is that there are hundreds who are in the same situation but who do not have the financial or educational opportunities Manobi and I do. Some were born with ambiguities and were given up by their parents. We are talking about their education. Will Manobi do something to help them?”
Back in Krishnanagar College, far removed from the debate, students are happy to get Manobi. “Since 2012 we have not had a principal. We are extremely happy that now we have someone to take our problems to,” says Dipa Roy, a Bengali Honours student. She says that the fact that Manobi is a transgender doesn’t bother any of her friends. “We know her. We saw her on Bigg Boss (she had appeared on the popular reality TV show). And now that we have met her we like her.”
Baijayanti Ghosh, a political science professor, says, “What does her gender have to do with anything? She is highly qualified for this post.” One student lets on that at first her parents were a little apprehensive but she convinced them and “now they are okay”.
“I don’t want to talk about my struggle. I want to focus on the future,” says Manobi. And as excited students, teachers and parents fuss around her, showering her with gifts, flowers and sweets, she tells them, “I will not only hear your problems, I will make you aware of more and point out your rights.” If the past has taught her something, it is the power and ambiguity of the future.