The biography of an Indian transgender is an essential read though understandably, not an easy one. This is even more so when it is candid. A lot of what we fear does actually play out in this book. A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi, the biography of Manobi Bandyopadhyay, as told to journalist Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey should be read for this very reason.
The author’s note, an emotional appeal to the readers, sets the tone for the rest of the book. Born on September 23,1964 as Somnath Bandyopadhyay, Manobi’s childhood was loaded with premonitions of her lifelong struggle with identity. Well-wishers referring to the family’s increasing prosperity and commenting, at her birth, that “This is a boy Lakshmi!” was an early instance. From being raped by her cousin in class V to being physically assaulted by boys at school, her adolescence was anything but easy.
After she moved from her hometown Naihati’s Rishi Bankim Chandra College to Jadavpur University to study Bengali literature, Manobi’s worldview expanded under the tutelage of Shankha Ghosh and Pabitra Sarkar and in the company of her equally intellectually stimulating fellow students. Theatre, dance and writing provided a creative outlet to her constant state of physical and mental unrest. The book is a raw account of her personal relationships and her family’s longstanding denial of her trans identity. The many trials of her romantic engagements and her consistent longing for a deeper connection makes the reader marvel at her hopeful character.
During her Jadavpur days, Manobi became closely acquainted with another transgender Jagadish (Juhi), a public performer. Despite their intimate friendship, the contrast in their lives and understanding highlighted the difference that education and socialisation make in an individual’s life. Jagadish succumbed to AIDS due to a reckless sexual lifestyle.
After her first stint at lecturing at Jhargram and her subsequent enrolment in a PhD programme, she started Abomanob (meaning subhuman) – India’s first transgender magazine – which served as a gateway of dialogue between the community and the rest of society. The magazine touched on topics like health, hygiene, living conditions, language, sex, interviews, castration, conventions, stigma and of course, the way forward. This created a space for transgendered people in the public sphere. “Till then, hijras belonged to a community that clapped and begged at traffic signals or extorted money when new-borns were brought from the hospital. The fact that there could be a whole magazine dedicated to their cause so they could fight for their rights was unthinkable.”
From an early age, Manobi was clear that she wanted a sex-change operation and that she did not want to be bracketed as homosexual. Her wishes began to take shape in 1999 when she began hormone treatment. She went under the scalpel in 2003. The years in between were just as tumultuous as any other.
Her appointment in 2015 as the principal of the Krishnagar Women’s College helped vindicate her stand against all those who thought she didn’t deserve social standing. Her ability to extend a compassionate understanding to even those who are inconsiderate is profoundly touching. No amount of sneers, giggles, taunts or lack of empathy discouraged her from making her place in the world. It seems like she never grew tired of making the first move and offering warmth and respect to people, of being civil to the most uncouth, of having to prove herself as capable.
India’s first transgender principal, Manobi’s tale asserts that merit is the only equalising factor in an unequal fight. Now well known for her achievements, she often wonders at how education has created a marked difference between the trajectory of her own life and that of other transgenders.
Aishwarya Gupta is an independent journalist.