In her memoir, A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi, Manobi Bandyopadhyay, the first transgender principal of a women’s college, writes of the harassment she faced at first teaching job in a college.
When I finally reached the college, after crossing the deep sal forests, its remoteness struck me. It was far away from the city and even from the nearest village. There was no public transport to the college and once the bus dropped you off at the nearest point, which was quite a distance away, you had to walk.
Soon I realized that though the college seemed like an innocent place in a romantic setting, it was actually quite unfriendly and definitely very different from anything I had known in the past. In an instant, it was clear to the principal, teachers and students that though my name read Somnath Bandyopadhyay, I was not ‘male’ in every sense of the word. They found me odd and made no effort to hide their surprise. My femininity was quite pronounced in my mannerisms and though I did not wear women’s clothes, my unisex attire, make-up, sunglasses and hairstyle made my sexual preference quite apparent.
While in the city, I had managed to go about my affairs unhindered within my known circle; in a rural setting, I was a complete novelty and there was shock and awe writ large on the community’s face. They stood around gaping at me as I made my way with my father to the principal’s office to formally sign in. A few people, ignoring the decorum expected within the college, started catcalling.
‘Arre dekho, dekho! Beta na beti, e ke go bote? [Look, look! Who’s this, a man or a woman?]’ The college was quite some distance from the bus stand and, as my father and I had walked that stretch, I had heard similar giggles and comments. Their tone and the rustic Bengali they spoke was very different from what we were used to in Kolkata, and the teasing sounded like the lashes of a whip to my ears. I felt very nervous. The romantic feeling that had started spreading its magical web around me on the train gradually disappeared and I knew I was trapped again. I saw teachers and students peeping from all corners and heard their gleeful laughter. Suddenly, I wanted to turn back and run away.
Soon my father became the butt of their jokes. ‘Why has this old man come with you? Are you a schoolboy…er… girl?’ a lady teacher sniggered. My father was stunned. He was used to facing insults whenever he was out with me and hence avoided it as much as he could. He had agreed to come only because this was a remote place, far away from home. But he had not bargained for this!
A short-tempered man, he asked me to leave with him. I stood there, confused and scared, not knowing what to do. Finally, my father had no choice but to leave me to my fate. Unnerved, I found myself walking into the room of the principal, Ajoy De.
I later found out that the lady who had teased my father was not a teacher but the librarian at the college; she was the leader of a political party and had two professors of English and history, Surya Sengupta* and Shashanka Kar,* as her accomplices. They too were prominent leftist party leaders and ran the college teachers’ union quite successfully. It is difficult to imagine today the terror that these political leaders unleashed on educational campuses in those days.
Surya and Chandresh were two such uncrowned kings on campus and everyone sucked up to them. They were naturally stunned by my presence and openly declared war against me, threatening to ruin my career since no hijra had the right to become a professor! The principal tried his best to stay away from their politics and was silenced by the duo and their accomplices like the librarian—let’s call her Menoka.* I later found out that she was a sadist who had scared away her husband; she boasted about this all the time, calling herself a feminist and an upholder of women’s rights.
When I met the principal, I looked him squarely in the eye and asked how safe it was for me to teach in such an atmosphere? He took his time to reply but what he said made sense. He explained that my department was in dire need of a lecturer because the only other one was pregnant and was away on leave. So, even if my colleagues didn’t, my students would welcome me with open arms. Moreover, what seemed so suffocating in that instant might ease with time as the teachers got to know me better and so, for the sake of my career, I should give it a try. I agreed gingerly but something deep inside me warned me that all was not going to go well.
Life in college was a mixed bag. While I found it exceedingly difficult to cope with the hostility of the teachers around, it was somewhat offset by the love and eagerness that I found in my students. Surya and Chandresh had managed to convince the other teachers that I was an aberration and that they collectively needed to force me out of the college. No one as lowly as a hijra should be allowed to teach in a college, share the same staffroom, toilet and facilities. Initially they thought that if they made me feel miserable, I would leave of my own volition. But when they realized that I won’t give in so easily, they got together to assault me every now and then.
They would lurk in every nook and corner and pull my hair and clothes, saying they wanted to see if my hair was real or if I was wearing a wig. Once, two of them pinned me to the wall and groped me, trying to find out what was beneath my clothes. They hissed at me and warned me to keep my mouth shut while they did this. They pressed my nipples so hard that I screamed out loud. ‘Keep shut, you hijra, don’t act smart. We will find out exactly where you stand. We will open your pants and take a look. Stand with your legs apart and let us see your size,’ Chandresh said.
Gradually things became so bad that I would avoid going up the staircase or walking down passages alone for fear that they would catch me. The way Chandresh and Surya treated me—constantly threatening to rape me—was nothing short of a hate crime. I dreaded the day when they would strip me naked to prove their point. I knew that no one would come to my rescue. One day, they caught hold of me and started hitting me in the chest with a paperweight till I was so badly bruised that I fell unconscious from the pain.
My students were my only relief. Hungry and ill-clad, they would sit in my class and patiently hear me lecture them on Tagore and his influence on contemporary literature. I realized that their level of education was very poor despite the fact that they all had passed their senior secondary exams to take admission in a college. You just cannot compare the college students in Kolkata to the ones you have to teach in a village. They are constantly fighting adversity and do not get enough time to study and reflect. As a society, we should rethink traditional higher education. Instead, if we give such students vocational training, they will be able to finally do better in life and won’t remain unemployed.
I was grateful to God that despite the torture that I had to undergo, I still got the opportunity to read and discuss the philosophy behind Tagore’s poems and songs and compare him with modern poets like Bishnu De and Samar Sen. I wanted these classes to go on and on so that I could impress upon my students why Bengali literature would be incomplete without the influence of Tagore and why modern poets like Jibanananda Das and Buddhadeb Basu, who otherwise stood out, could not wriggle out of Tagore’s shadow. I tried to explain to them how one’s understanding of Western literature opens up by reading Tagore. The West influenced him in a big way and he was able to absorb its spirit of culture and creativity and synthesize it with the essence of everything indigenous.
My biggest success was that I was able to kindle a flicker of interest in my students, who, despite coming from extremely challenged circumstances, still wanted to study so that they could fight poverty and find jobs. That urge was pure. They just needed a push and I tried to give them that push, ignoring my personal struggle against all-round hostility.
They would look at me aghast as I would explain to them that Binodini, the anti-heroine of Tagore’s Chokher Bali, was not as villainous as society made her to be, and that there was nothing great about being a doormat the way the heroine, Ashalata, portrayed herself to be. Coming from a rural background, these students were not able to believe that even loveless marriages were virtuous and a wife should take it in her stride if her husband cheats on her. Hence, Ashalata was the image of the quintessential ‘good’ woman, whereas Binodini, the young widow, had no right to any physical urges and should not have enticed Mahendra, Ashalata’s husband, into a raunchy relationship.
That Mahendra was equally to be blamed was something that had never crossed their minds. In their society, men were born with the right to philander, whereas women were born to bear the brunt of men’s fancies. And why only blame rural society? I think even our so-called urban intellectual spaces are no different. It is fashionable to say that men and women are equal, but how many actually believe and practise it?
My students would listen to me intently, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that some of them would compare their texts with the notes that they had taken in class lectures and return to me with their arguments. I was relieved that at least on this score, I was on the right track. My efforts were paying off. One of the students, Paritosh Mahato, a very poor boy and the brightest in my class, even came first in the university exam and everyone was stunned. He was a good writer and I had tutored him separately. I expected him to do well but, honestly, I too was happily surprised when he topped his batch in the university; no mean feat for a boy who couldn’t even afford two square meals a day and dreamt of a schoolteacher’s job. Suddenly all eyes were on Paritosh and on the teacher who had made this impossibility a success. The other teachers at the college even quietened down for a while, though they continued plotting behind my back.
There were a few interludes that kept me going at Jhargram despite so many difficulties. One of these were my periodic visits to Hijli College, which is part of the IIT Kharagpur campus. The college often held cultural programmes and I would give dance lessons to the students. It was during this time that I met some brilliant IIT professors who not only treated me as an equal, but also offered me their homes to spend the night. They had loving families who shared their meals with me and I wondered why the rest of the world was not as illuminated as them.
Excerpted with permission from A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi: A Candid Biography of India’s first transgender principal, Manobi Bandyopadhyay with Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey, Penguin Books.
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