LOST AND FOUND IN TRANSLATIONTweet
It was a humid day in Kumaratuli. The sort of humidity that weighs on you like silence where it not for a kachh kachh here, a chhap chhap there and a steady tap tapping of hands finding fingers in clay.
We skirt casts of strewn limbs looking for a metaphor in the mud. And Rajoshri gifts it to us, with the quiet assurance of a historian. "Actually, it’s very interesting to see that when they build idols for worship, the genitalia is built last. Until the very end, we won’t know if it is a male idol or female idol. The gender is assigned last. Similarly, when we are in the womb, our genitalia are formed last."
Roughly a year ago, Nirantar’s intrepid Sexuality team approached us with an idea. They said that they’ve been talking to schools and colleges, and nobody has any formal record or testimonies that tell us what it’s like stay in an Indian school if you identify as anything other than male or female. But they had an informal collection of fragmented memory - from friends, colleagues, mentors, lovers, strangers on the metro.
All of which said exactly one thing; documentation of any other gender experience doesn’t exist because the Indian education system, as a faithful reflection of its society, only understands gender as a binary. The rest of the spectrum is buried very, very deep. They asked us whether we would want to film some of these memories, so they can take it to the people who make the rules, pass the bills, draft school curricula – and persuade them to acknowledge the existence of transgendered people, in a legally binding way. We did. During the course of which, we understood, for the first time, the tyranny of hetero-normative behavior.
There were long train journeys that seemed too short to fully understand the full mechanism of burial. Rituparna and Tanmay, our Nirantar guides and compatriots, asked us to look at our own past, our deeply codified behavior, because that would be the only way we’d be able to listen. And we sat across Sunil, about a week later, wishing we could be as vulnerable, as open, as he is. The sun took a last shy breath in overcast Bengaluru, and he lit another cigarette.
"Society has built two boxes, and everyone has to fit into it. People who don’t fit into any of these boxes, turn into minorities. When people ask that question, are you a woman or a man, I say that I am whatever you want me to be. I don’t have a problem." Sunil works as a Queer activist and is video documenting oral narratives of finding oneself across the gender spectrum in India. He left home 14 years ago, and has never returned. "With what emotion do I remember my childhood?" he thinks aloud, lighting another cigarette. "… I think it is loneliness. Or a silence; like nothing to say. There was no point talking to anybody, and even if there was, who to talk to? My life, it seems, has been quite silent. When I was at home, nobody knew if I was there or not."
We were prepared, somewhat, to listen to stories of trauma. But we didn’t understand the trauma of invisibility. Where every thought, every desire you ever had was made to disappear, often through violence, and almost always along with your identity.
"My mother had a silver jewelry set, which I loved very much…." smiles Rajoshri, "…And if I saw a nice necklace, I’d buy it. I wouldn’t be able to wear it, but I’d buy it. I’d tell my sister that I have bought it for her but I wouldn’t give it to her. I’d keep it with me. Then a few days later my sister would come to me and ask, you said that necklace is for me, where is it?! But I wouldn’t be able to give it. I wouldn’t be able to wear it either, but I couldn’t give it away."
Rajoshri laughs easily at himself, at a world that made him choose. He carries with him a wry amusement and warmth of the wise, something that made him start Swikriti in Kolkata, a space for 'acceptance’, literally. "You can use many terms: LGBTQ, anything from A to Z…. Basically, by 'people like us’ I mean those who are not within this gender stereotype. Those who are much more fluid, who can think of themselves from outside the box. I don’t think I belong to a box because biologically I’m a male but, sometimes, I don’t feel like or identify as a male."
Rups, says Rups, is a temporary name, a transition name if you will, to commemorate the most important transition of his life. "I’ve never felt like a woman," he says, with a confidence of someone who has said it before, often to himself. "In Class IX and X when there were these get-togethers, I was always asked that why do you live like this? Dress like this? So, I used to say, because I feel like this. But nobody took me seriously. They used to laugh and say that listen, you’re talking rubbish. You will just have to live like a girl. And then I said, see, one day I will become a man and show you. Not to prove it to them, but for myself. And that day will definitely come."
Rups took us to a stormy Juhu beach where we ate wind-swept golas discussing how Rups thought Salman Khan was a perfect man. And how one had to look for role-models wherever one could find them. It was a matter of survival. "I had a trans friend who tried to commit suicide at home. And I said to myself, that no, I won’t do that. That’s a wrong step. After that my life has finished… So, I thought if I finish my education, get a job, I can then become a man. Stand on my own two feet. Without anybody’s help. So, I knew I had to just focus on my goal, not pay attention to anybody’s taunts…."
We were prepared, somewhat, to understand the daily violence middle-class values wrecked, but we hadn’t calculated the massive human cost of keeping a hetero-normative society with a limited vision of love and family running. "I still think…each time the phone rings late night…that it’s one more. One more of us has committed suicide," says Sunil. It was a rare day, during the making of this film, where we didn’t hear of another disappearance, another death. People don’t just become invisible, you know, they are made to vanish.
"Other boys forced me to suck their penis each time I would go to the toilet…" said Debu. She stuck it out. Finished her Masters in History from a university in Kolkata. She did it by leading a dual life, at least one of which was for herself. She said she’s like us to interview in that one. "I have to change myself for society. Because we don’t really have a place for ourselves in the world. And there is no support if I want to be who I am, wear woman’s clothes, and work at a job. Become independent. But everywhere I go, they say, 'be strong, stand up like a man, behave like a man’." Debu teaches Mathematics and History to her neighbourhood kids, and has been to one job interview after another looking for something more permanent. "…If I dress up like this and go somewhere, I won’t get a job interview. Because I tried, and what they say is that you have to follow another line. You are eunuchs, you have to dance at weddings and childbirths. That’s your life. It doesn’t matter how much you study. That is what you’ll have to do."
Sunil and his partner-in-thought Sumathi thought of something. They said they’ll go to every NGO in Bengaluru and ask them to include just one transgender person in their hiring policy. Just one. They heard a no from each one of them. We asked our friends. Do you have any transgendered person in your office? No? How about your school? Your college? Do you remember? Nobody really did. We looked at hiring policies of major multinationals. They are all LGBT-friendly. We asked them if they had any LGBTQ representation in their India offices. They said no.
"See, people say people say 'dropout’ no? It’s pushing out. Because you don’t drop out. You are pushed out," says Rituparna. "Because of the systems, regulations, curriculum, they’ve left school. And then, the big question is, now what? Where do they go? Has anybody thought about it? Do people who work with employability, considered the employability scenario of trans people who are pushed out of school?"
We travelled India, searching for footprints systematically wiped out. Each story altered us; how we understood our bodies, how we understood our world. We kept thinking we were in a warzone, where an erased history tries to show itself in valiant bursts, for those who are looking, for those who know how limited, how dangerous our worldview is. Rajoshri took us to Shobhabazaar Rajbari, a massive royal courtyard that marks the oldest Durga Puja in Kolkata, where the kotis come each year to celebrate. "When you look at this place you realize so much history has happened here. But we are also part of history, no? Our movement is also a part of history," he said, looking straight into the sun. This, then, is a small piece of Indian history. Hope it encourages us all to change our textbooks.
Bioscope: Non-Binary Conversations on Gender and Education is a 40-minute documentary that looks at the transgender experience within and outside the Indian education system. Produced by Nirantar, Centre of Gender and Education. Directed by Samreen Farooqui and Shabani Hassanwalia, Founders at Hit and Run Films and for more please visit www.hitandrunfilms.wordpress.com