In Kolkata, smashing the sex barrier

How the city is leading the way in bringing transgender people into the mainstream


The Ardhanarishvara idol at Joy Mitra Street, Kolkata, which depicted both Shiva and Durga. Photographs: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
The Ardhanarishvara idol at Joy Mitra Street, Kolkata, which depicted both Shiva and Durga. Photographs: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

In 1995, a year after her father’s untimely death, China Pal took over the family’s eight-decade-old idol-making business. This was unheard of. Kumartuli, the north Kolkata colony of around 600 artisans, had never had a woman idol-maker. Shaping clay into idols was considered a man’s job, and Pal was immediately under siege. Fellow artisans were openly hostile and even stopped her from displaying finished idols outside her shop.

Pal braved it out, and how she did it is another story. But 20 years later, and a few weeks before Durga Puja, her shack-like studio was crammed with idols in various stages of completion.

One stood out. Way past her usual deadline for accepting projects, she has been approached by a group of transgender people and Hijras to take up their Puja assignment. The group wanted their Durga to be represented in the form of Ardhanarishvara—an androgynous god, a combination of Shiva and his consort Parvati, worshipped in some parts of India as “the half woman lord”.

“I don’t want to call the group by any name since for me they are like any other customer,” Pal, 44, says. “They behaved extremely well with me and seem to be a happy lot. I realize that there are all kinds of people in this world and everybody deserves the blessing of the gods.”

To Pal’s left stood the half-finished idol of Ardhanarishvara, divided exactly down the middle, with the left half representing Shiva and the right, Parvati, another name for Durga—with a half-moustache and a breast among distinctive man-woman features.

This is the first time Pal has created an idol of Ardhanarishvara. She even managed to include Durga’s children—Saraswati, Lakshmi, Ganesh, Kartik—within her signature ek chala (single frame) frieze. “See, with both the parents, Shiva and Parvati, present, don’t they look like a complete, happy family?” she gushed.

This idol was for the first Puja organized for the transgender community, in north Kolkata’s Joy Mitra Street. It was put together by The Pratyay Gender Trust, an organization of Kothi, Hijra and other gender non-conforming people.

It’s perhaps the latest indicator that West Bengal has been moving steadily to break the glass ceiling between the transgender and mainstream communities and establish the former’s rights as third-gender citizens.

In March, the state government set up the West Bengal transgender development board. The state minister for women’s development, social welfare and child welfare, Shashi Panja, who helms the board, says: “We are looking at complete development of the transgender community in Bengal. It is a wrong kind of approach to be welfare-oriented, merciful and patronizing towards them.”

The West Bengal initiative came 11 months after a landmark 15 April 2014 Supreme Court order that allowed the transgender population to be recognized through a third gender category in official documents. The apex court directed the Union and state governments to include transgendered people in all welfare programmes for the poor, including healthcare, education and jobs, to overcome centuries of social, economic and political isolation. The judgement also spoke of a transgender’s inalienable right to marry and parent a child.

The verdict went to the core of the gender issue—science has long known that the biology of gender is tricky. Gender, it has become increasingly clear, is dependent on an individual’s self-identification; the apex court ruling recognized this.

While Hijras, Jogappas, Aravanis and other such socio-cultural communities are identified as transgender in India, this gender identity category also includes transwomen, who do not belong to these communities, and transmen—people who are born female but do not identify as a woman. Sexual reassignment surgeries are not a necessary criteria for being identified as a transgender, although many do opt for one.

Sitting in her 10th-floor office at Salt Lake’s Bikash Bhavan, Panja is visibly perturbed by the photograph of an acid attack victim. “I will do everything possible to track down the attackers. This is the world we live in,” she mutters.

With an official population of 30,349 (a conservative figure, according to Panja), the world of the transgender community in West Bengal has been fraught with similar risks, social discrimination and stigma. Speaking at length, the minister charts out the government’s plans: employing transgender people as part of Kolkata Police’s civic police volunteer force; making special transgender wards functional at government hospitals; setting up medical infrastructure for inexpensive and safe sex reassignment surgery (SRS) at state-run hospitals; establishing separate public toilets; creating district cells of the board and a helpline for transgenders.

While the police are reportedly considering the civic police plan, a separate ward has been established at the RG Kar Medical College and Hospital, and SRS machines have been acquired—Panja is an alumnus of the hospital. The Kolkata municipal corporation included three transgender members of the board in the jury of celebrities and eminent Kolkata personalities which judged the best Durga Puja for an award instituted by the state government. “Transgender people are part of our society and it is important to know how they look at Durga Puja. The Kolkata corporation and the state government want to encourage their integration and rehabilitation,” says corporation mayor Sovan Chatterjee on phone.

Earlier this year, the Presidency and Jadavpur universities included a separate section for third-gender candidates in admission forms. In May, Manobi Bandopadhyay became the first transgender college principal in the country when she took charge of the Krishnagar Women’s College in West Bengal. These developments have given a coat of academic accomplishment to the movement for transgender rights in India.

Manobi Bandopadhyay (left).
Manobi Bandopadhyay (left).
Some members of the transgender community in Kolkata contend that proposals like the inclusion of community representatives as lowly paid civic police volunteers are unlikely to create an impact, given that transgender people may prefer better income options. Panja admits the element of “tokenism” in the initiatives but says: “Establishing one pay-and-use toilet may just be a token, but at least we would have made a start. But it is more important to continue to hammer into the minds of people that the transgender community is there and should not be misbehaved with. We have to slowly make a difference.”

In the Bengali novel Holde Golap (The Yellow Rose), published this January, author Swapnamoy Chakraborty dwells on the divide between the socially accepted male-female genders and the ostracized transgender.

His chronicling of the transphobia running through contemporary Kolkata society—which won him the prestigious Ananda Puraskar—isn’t at a distant remove from French author Dominique Lapierre’s narration of the prejudices confronting Kolkata’s Hijra community in his 1985 novel, The City Of Joy. Lapierre describes the funeral scene of a Hijra shunned and vilified thus: “Then the four Hijras bared their feet and began to beat the corpse with their sandals ‘to prevent our sister from being reincarnated as eunuch in her next life.’”

While a woman in shirt and trousers is an acceptable sight these days, hackles are raised when a man wears conventional women’s clothes like skirts, salwar or sari, Chakraborty writes. Painstakingly researched and graphically written, Holde Golap has garnered a positive response from readers but is also a resounding slap across the face of mainstream society, says Subhankar Dey of Dey’s Publishing.

Today fashion is the most visible element of the transgender identity at malls, in public transport and at traffic intersections—the womanly clothes, bangles and red lipsticks offset by the greenish tinge of regularly shaved cheeks and masculine frame. Seen together, they reflect both the confusion and the crystallization of identities of women trapped in a man’s body, or vice versa for the transman, increasingly asserting their physical presence and expression in public.

Anindya Hajra, 37, director of the Pratyay Gender Trust which organized India’s first transgender Durga Puja, is someone who has participated in and witnessed the twists and turns in Kolkata’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement over the past decade as the “transgender” word gained currency.

An LGBT parade in 2012. Photo: Ramkrishna Samanta/Hindustan Times
An LGBT parade in 2012. Photo: Ramkrishna Samanta/Hindustan Times
When we meet, a dupatta is the only suggestion of her gender expression; Hajra is otherwise comfortable in T-shirts and trousers with sneakers, a style code that has come to be accepted as gender neutral. She voices her fears about how the trans identity in Kolkata—otherwise fluid and accepting of gender variants—is gradually getting codified to what one wears.

“Wearing a sari or salwar 24x7 is becoming the new determinant of transgender identity, unlike earlier, when it was more open and inclusive,” says Hajra. “While I agree with the social integration and awareness-creating politics of Bengal’s transgender development board, I hope it doesn’t rigidly define transpeople through their dressing or the certificate issued by the Hijra guru. We wouldn’t want a censor board over our heads,” she adds.

The fact that she wasn’t “gender-conforming” was clear to Hajra in her adolescent years. Even when she was studying at Jadavpur University in 1997, Hajra was meeting people of her ilk every Tuesday at a house in south Kolkata’s Dhakuria and getting acquainted with a widespread network of gender-variant people from across Bengal. This was the genesis of Pratyay.

The movement itself goes back further. 1978 saw an annual newsletter, Gay Scene, being published from Kolkata. It lasted two years. By 1990, Fun Club, Kolkata’s first gay group, had come into being. It too lasted just two years. In 1991, Pravartak, a cyclostyled newsletter, was started, while Counsel Club, a support group for sexual minorities, was set up in 1993. It lasted around nine years.

In 1998, one of those present at the Dhakuria gatherings, Somnath Bandopadhyay (who went on to rechristen herself Manobi Bandopadhyay after a sex change operation in 2003), started editing a literary magazine called Abomanob (Subhuman) Patrika. Out of circulation for years, the Abomanob Patrika was revived recently by Bandopadhyay as an annual issue.

When it was first published, says Hajra, Abomanob had significantly higher production standards than their own Pratyay Patrika, which was brought out the same year. In 1999, Hajra and others participated in a watershed moment in the history of India’s LGBT movement, organizing India’s and South Asia’s first gay pride march, starting from Park Circus Maidan—nine years before similar marches were organized in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru.

But if Kolkata has been tolerant towards the growing queer movement, wholehearted acceptance hasn’t been easily forthcoming.

Ranjita Sinha, transgender development board member and executive director of the Kolkata-based Association of Transgender/Hijra in Bengal (ATHB), illustrates this with the example of how long it took them to register the organization’s name with government authorities. “While other transgender groups have regular names, our organization was continuously refused a registration number since we had transgender and Hijra in our name. It took a lot of toil to finally get it done. We have also been denied hiring of government auditoriums, maybe because the authorities were wary of the turnout. There has been stigmatization in every step we took,” says Sinha. On 30 April 2008, a transgender named Kundan, unable to cope with the pressure and torture at home and in society, committed suicide. Since then, the ATHB has been observing the day as Transgender Day.

At her tastefully appointed home in Gokhale Road, Sinha sits under a framed photograph of her Australia-based husband and her. In an embroidered salwar-kameez, with long flowing hair, Sinha’s closely shaved face lights up when she smiles. “We have come some way but have a long way to go before being socially accepted,” Sinha says.

Days before they organized the Durga Puja at Joy Mitra Street, a group of transgender people and Hijras had gathered at a house adjacent to the Puja venue. One of the topics up for discussion was assuaging the sentiments of some members of the co-organizers, the local club Udyami Yubak Brinda, which has organized the Puja for 26 years. The involvement of the transgender community in its 27th year had not gone down well with some club members and para (neighbourhood) people. “We faced a lot of hostility,” says Bhanu Naskar, a transgender person at whose house the meeting took place.

A Durga Puja organizing committee meeting with transgender members in north Kolkata.
A Durga Puja organizing committee meeting with transgender members in north Kolkata.
Associated with Pratyay, Naskar, along with others, had been scouting for a Durga Puja venue for a couple of months, encountering transphobic behaviour and prejudice, till the local club agreed to the association.

“When we heard that the transgender people were looking for a public venue to organize a Durga Puja, we came forward since they are humans too and have a right to worship,” says Ghanashyam Shaw of the Udyami club. For a society to move ahead, Shaw adds, some people have to step forward.

A name that comes up often, and is deferentially remembered in Bengal’s transgender discourse, is that of the late Bengali film-maker, Rituparno Ghosh, who died in 2013 at the age of 49.

In transgender circles, Ghosh is as much admired for his cinematic oeuvre as for his personal daring. Towards the end of his 19 feature films career, Ghosh was moving away from women-centric heterosexual dramas and towards stories that explored alternative gender and sexuality binaries. In his social life, he was increasingly seen as the proud, cross-dressing film-maker who wore salwar, dupatta and ornaments during public appearances and preferred to speak on behalf of the transgender community and sexual minorities.

Prior to the release of the Kaushik Ganguly-directed Bengali film, Aarekti Premer Golpo, in 2010, Ghosh spoke to me. In Aarekti Premer Golpo, Ghosh acted as a gay film-maker shooting a documentary film on the real-life transgender character, Chapol Bhaduri. Once famous as Chapol Rani, Bhaduri had reigned over the jatra stage in Bengal for many decades, starting from the 1950s, as a man essaying female characters.

Despite Bhaduri’s fame as an “actress”, Ghosh felt the jatra artiste was a social outcast and was sexually discriminated against. “Our society is in a process of evolution and there are many questions coming from it. Somebody has to brave those questions if we have to proceed any further as a society with independent ideas. One has to confront those questions gracefully,” Ghosh had said.

*****

On 8 October, in the closed-door environment of Lady Brabourne College in Kolkata, questions from the women-only assembly of students and teachers flew thick and fast. This was part of a seven-day workshop on the “Politics Of Gender: Family, Community And The State”, and most questions were directed at the moderator, the transgender college principal Bandopadhyay.

Born the son of a factory worker, the story of Bandopadhyay’s early life was rife with instances of physical and mental abuse as Somnath—as she was known before her sex change—aspired to assert her feminine orientation. As Bandopadhyay, who completed her PhD on the role of transgenders in Bengal, answered questions with elan, reciting and singing Rabindranath Tagore songs, her presence there in a pink silk sari and coiffure decorated with a pink plastic flower was an amazing fightback.

After the workshop, as we waited for Bandopadhyay for a photo shoot, a senior teacher of the college rushed in angrily. Her anger was directed at us for letting Abhijit—a Pratyay volunteer who had befriended us the previous evening and identified himself as gay—accompany us into the girls’ college. She lashed out publicly at Abhijit for being “a nuisance” and for walking into the canteen uninvited and helping himself to some food. “It is people like you who give the transgenders a bad name,” the teacher vented. Our photo shoot was cancelled.

Yet, the episode of a man who volunteered at a transgender rights organization and walked into the canteen at a girls’ college is representative somewhat of the blurring and compartmentalization of gender identities within the volatile transgender space. I could not but feel a spot of sympathy for the guy who went looking for food.

Obviously, much remains to be done. For one, there seems to have been an increase over the past year in the number of transgenders and Hijras begging at traffic signals. While the Hijra community has traditionally earned by blessing newborns, singing and dancing at festivals and on passenger trains, and through sex work, their increased visibility as urban street beggars, Hajra contends, could be because gated housing complexes now keep them out. Manorama Kinnor, a Hijra member of Pratyay, says Hijras getting replaced by girls performing the bawdy launda dance at festivals in Bihar, could be another reason.

At the Science City intersection in Kolkata, I met one such beggar. In a typically hoarse voice, she said her name was Zeenat. In the strong afternoon sun, Zeenat was wearing a bright purple salwar-kameez and pink rouge on her cheeks. She had no time to answer my questions, but expressed a worry aggressively.

Kolkata’s biggest flyover, linking the city’s east to its centre, was set to be inaugurated two days later, on 8 October. We stood under one of its giant tentacles. “Now, all the cars will fly over my head. Will they let me stand on the flyover to beg?” she asked. “How will I eat?”

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