A little over four years ago, I landed at Manabi Banerjee’s doorstep – armed with an idea of a person I was sure she was going to be. Between me and Banerjee, who has now become the first transgender college principal in India, stood a pile of stereotypes. Clinging steadfastly on to my new-found sympathy – yes, sympathy was what it was at best – for fringe sexual groups, I plonked down on one corner of Banerjee’s simple four-poster bed, crafting one tragic opening sentence after another in my head for an article. From the faded green walls of her room bruised with giant damp patches to the tiny window keeping sunlight away, the room was redolent with the possibility of a tragedy. At least in my head it was.
Then Banerjee wafted into the room – her hair twisted into an unruly pile on the top of her head, a slight hint of kohl in her eyes and a amused smile as she spotted the photographer accompanying me, a childhood acquaintance. Then she flopped down on the bed right across me, looked into my eyes, and asked, “So, what do you want to ask me? Details of my sex life?”
Taken aback, I remember scribbling gibberish furiously on my note pad, realising with deep embarrassment that Manabi Banerjee was not the weepy, tragic potboiler heroine I had fatuously imagined her to be. With one question, Banerjee struck at the wall of stereotypes and voyeuristic curiosity about alternative sexualities that most average Indians lug around maybe all their lives. Banerjee had known struggles, ones that many of us can’t even imagine embracing, but in a two-hour long conversation, she came across as a decisive yet vulnerable, empathetic yet reasonably critical woman who knows better than making her sexual identity into a tragedy that had befallen her.
Her appointment as the principal of Krishnanagar Women’s College in West Bengal by the College Service Commission will be hailed all over the country as a triumph of liberalism. In reality, it will be a deeply personal victory, one that Banerjee had pursued doggedly over the years, swallowing every slight that came her way with determination.
When her phone rings today, someone else picks up. She is busy in a meeting I am told. Soon after, Banerjee calls back. When I ask her how it feels, she says dismissively, “I have lost my ability to feel pleased with professional achievements. When it comes to my personal life, I am glad I am still the same person. But I have been at war for so long, that a professional achievement like this doesn’t affect me too much. Yes, people are celebrating it. I don’t feel like doing it myself.
People who have known Banerjee will tell you, she takes rejections and victories with a slight pinch of salt. Banerjee was born as Somnath, to a traditional middle class Bengali family in Naihati, in the suburbs of Kolkata. She had added with a laugh that she was the kind of boy most Bengali parents are proud of – industrious at school and a topper. But then there was the fight within – between the body she was in and the body she wanted to have. And after years of ‘conforming’, in 2003, Banerjee went in for a sex change surgery.
Half amused, half irritated, she narrated how her staff would sneak up with queries about which toilet she would like to use. Back then, Banerjee was a Bengali professor at a co-educational college in Jhargram, in West Midnapore district in West Bengal. “I was always effeminate. So, when I was an effeminate man, it seemed that a majority of the people I knew wanted to dismiss me as a ‘girl’. The moment they saw me in a woman’s body, they suddenly woke up to the gender I was born with and insisted I was a man, of course a grossly aberrant one,” she laughed. As an example, she mentioned a stubborn cashier in the college, who would firmly call her ‘sir’ even when she turned up in a saree and make-up.
Banerjee, who now runs a school for transgenders in Bengal, had recollected how people found it perfectly normal to ask her to explain the actions of other transgenders who they had encountered. She narrated the story of women in her train compartment who used to ask her with great disapproval why eunuchs trouble and harass people for money. “It was almost as if I was responsible for their actions,” she said. But Banerjee didn’t quiver with anger and turn away. “But you know, a lot of these people don’t know about us, have been always asked to treat the ‘other’ with suspicion. So I thought, I should at least help them understand,” she quipped. One day, Banerjee asked one of the women bubbling with curious questions, why do so many other women work as pickpockets in trains and buses. “How would I know? Am I a pickpocket?”, the women had responded with great incredulity. To which Banerjee said, “So, did I harass you? How can I say why some eunuchs have harassed you some time?” The woman shut up.
The first step to truly accommodate alternative sexualities in a hetero-normative society, would be to stop treating people with alternative sexuality as a homogeneous mass, indistinguishable from each other. “Unless you treat a person as an individual, you are not respecting him or her. It becomes easy to understand sexual minorities if people develop the basic intelligence to treat people as individuals, with peculiar choices and talents,” she had said.
Banerjee’s co-passenger’s hasty stereotyping, honestly, is symptomatic of the response of a greater section of the Indian society to the sexual ‘other’. As Banerjee takes up charge as the head of a mainstream college in a small Indian town, she will be dealing a blow to that cloud of ignorant stereotypes. Transgenders as beggars, hecklers, sex workers for people with ‘perverse’ tastes – that’s how India knows them. It’s as if the thought of seeing them them in any other place but the one designated by a society aligned to heterosexuality, is unacceptable to many of us. It’s this mass rejection of their individuality that render so many of them unfit for any kind of employment, turning them to a life of abuse. While Banerjee had always been a professor, taking up a position of leadership in a traditional social space, will be one small step towards prodding the society to not pigeonhole sexual minorities. We can hope that the sentinels of other professional institutions are listening.