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Transwoman, trailblazer

The biography of India's first transgender principal is an eye-opener on queer Indian history

A Gift Of Goddess Lakshmi, A Candid Biography Of India’s First Transgender Principal: By Manobi Bandyopadhyay with Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey, Penguin Random House India, 184 pages, Rs399.
A Gift Of Goddess Lakshmi, A Candid Biography Of India’s First Transgender Principal: By Manobi Bandyopadhyay with Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey, Penguin Random House India, 184 pages, Rs399.

In June 2015, Manobi Bandyopadhyay hit the headlines for becoming the first transgender principal of any educational institution in the country. In Nadia district, about 100km north of Kolkata, Bandyopadhyay, then 50, took charge of the government-aided Krishnagar Women’s College. The state was lauded for its progressiveness. After all, Bandyopadhyay was also the first transgender person to become a professor—she underwent her transition while still teaching—and the first to receive her doctorate.

A year before she became principal, the Supreme Court had delivered a landmark verdict that granted transgender persons third-gender status, if they wished to adopt it, and directed governments to ensure that the community was given equal opportunities after centuries of neglect and discrimination. Bandyopadhyay is now on the Transgender Development Board of West Bengal.

The news certainly catapulted Bandyopadhyay—born Somnath, the youngest of three siblings, in 1964—to national fame. However, as this biography, narrated by Bandyopadhyay to journalist Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey, reveals, Bandyopadhyay was already a trailblazer, and very much in the public eye. It’s hard not to be when one is transgender.

The overthrowing of gender norms never goes unnoticed, and Bandyopadhyay’s socially anomalous position was only cemented by her excellence in academics. She chose not to join any hijra gharana, lived with her family, despite their inability to actively support her, and survived exploitative relationships and social censure from colleagues.

Bandyopadhyay’s biography offers a complicated story on many levels. It is an eye-opener about queer Indian history—from the mid-1990s onwards, Bandyopadhyay published a magazine titled Abomanob (sub-human), which addressed transgender issues. These magazines were in Bengali, but the fact that there were already conversations taking place about transgenderism puts paid to a commonly encountered notion that millennials are the first to break gender and sexuality norms. We learn that sections of Bihar’s society are more relaxed towards homosexuality through the story of Jagadish, Bandyopadhyay’s friend, who makes an empowered choice to earn a living through sex work. The sections of the biography that describe Jagadish bring out the nuances in Bandyopadhyay’s heteronormative outlook towards sex and marriage.

The biography is also a compendium of the harassment and discrimination that shape a transgender person’s life. For instance, she talks about her fight with the state’s higher education department, which withheld her promotion because the name on her academic certificates (this was pre-transition) didn’t match with the name on her PhD certificate. She also refers to the number of homes she had to shift owing to trouble with neighbours, or the community. Bandyopadhyay also encountered taunts in liberal spaces, such as Jadavpur University (JU), where she studied in the 1980s. “The fact that the JU community was a little more polished did not mean that it was not divided into just two sexes, as was the case elsewhere in the world," she writes.

At the same time, it is also necessary to critically examine the narrator’s own prejudices and assumptions. For example, while describing one of her more serious relationships, she extols the domestic gender role women must perform. “Though I was not yet married to him, I had already started looking after his general well-being, and asked him to stop cooking," she writes. This may well be what she wanted, but it is equally the propagation of a stereotype that continues to oppress women globally.

In December, Bandyopadhyay was in the news again. She had resigned from the college citing non-cooperation from the staff and a section of students. This biography puts her claim in context.

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