“It’s been awesome. Every part of this is what I wanted; this is who I am. A boy.”
We are sitting in a popular restaurant in Indore -- Kabir Gawlani and I. The restaurant is full, despite a mid-week afternoon. Tables are huddled close to each other, and lunching families and office-goers are within earshot.
It begins to bother me a bit –over the past few weeks, the transsexuals I contacted preferred to keep their identities under wraps -- but I notice that’s not the case with Kabir. He is refreshingly candid, and exudes the effervescence of a young man in his late 20s; his trans identity is not something that weighs him down. “I know people don’t want to speak about it,” admits Kabir, the engineering graduate-turned-businessman. “I have friends, like me, who are ‘not out’ yet. They live in hiding, are afraid to talk about themselves. I also know many trans [gender] people attempt suicide because they feel suffocated. Why, I wonder? Life is not worth frittering away like that. People should believe in themselves. It’s important to have faith in yourself, talk about it, speak up, man,” he says, as he bangs his fists on the table softly to impress his point.
I notice that Kabir is immaculately dressed: he is wearing a crisp shirt in pastel blue, paired with dark blue jeans, and smart black loafers. His hair is close-cropped, his “new beard” is trimmed, nails are clipped, and his hands are smooth -- ‘not coarse like a man, is it?’ he checks with me after a handshake. Kabir wears a gold ring, which he insists has “no particular meaning”, and a tattoo on his left wrist that says ‘crazy’.
“Because I am crazy; I feel I am crazy. In the head.”
September 4, 2015. Kabir vividly remembers the day he got his first testosterone shot at a Mumbai hospital. “It was awesome. Your voice starts to change, you start getting facial hair. Things start getting real,” he tells me. Taking hormone shots, part of the Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), is the first step in the series of treatments that are required to align the body with the gender that a transperson identifies with. The shots can only be administered after the approval of a psychiatrist.
In Mumbai, Kabir was diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria -- distress caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and the sex they are assigned at birth -- in a day. That, however, may not be the case with many transpersons, who struggle to find the right doctor, and the right diagnosis.
“I have always felt like a boy. And it wasn’t hard to convince the psychiatrist; maybe he noticed my body language and the clarity I had about who I was, ” he says. Kabir also tells me that before a transperson can be administered the HRT, they are required to ‘live’ the gender they identify with for a year. A man has to live like a woman, and vice versa. In Kabir’s case, however, his psychiatrist ruled out this possibility, since he felt that this was a “straightforward”case; Kabir had already been living like a boy for many years now.
But it wasn’t that Kabir had always had this clarity; like many transmales, he went through bouts of confusion too. “I would always wonder ‘why was I not normal, why did I not like boys the way girls did, why was I not comfortable with playing in a girls’ team”. Kabir says. He recalls oen of his “toughest moments” -- every time he had to go to a girls toilet, not being able to bear to be referred as the “Head Girl” in school. “I just gave up that post because I couldn’t even stand being referred to as ‘the girl’”, he says.
Watch: How Komal became Kabir
At times, the angst was unbearable. But it would often give way to an even firmer realization that all was not right, and that Kabir was really, “a boy”.
“I liked girls, but I never thought I was lesbian. I didn’t even know that the category existed. In my mind, a boy liked a girl, and the opposite was true too. That’s it,” he says.
And so Kabir dressed like a boy, spoke like a boy and even got his hair cut like a boy. For a woman in India -- and Kabir agrees -- perhaps, it is easy to “pass” as a man. So, in the Gawlanis’ social circle, a girl who dressed in a “tomboyish” manner was acceptable. A girl who had an athletic build, was active and into sports was acceptable too. A girl who claimed she “didn’t care for marriage” and had girlfriends who were “close” was acceptable too.
But Kabir knew he was not being “true” to himself. “In Dublin, where I went for an office posting [Kabir worked for the software firm TCS], nobody cared. Although, even there, I always felt I was the centre of attention. But when I returned to Indore and joined the family business, I felt I had to do something about this. I was not comfortable in my own body. I could barely look at myself in the mirror. There were days when I felt like I had no energy, and was depressive. I knew I had to transition,” he says.
Not everyone who experiences gender dysphoria, however, wants a sex change operation, or needs one. But for many such as Kabir – as the lead protagonist in the film The Danish Girl, based on the true story of a transwoman says at a poignant moment in the film – gender affirmation surgery, is their “only hope”.
“I feel that if something bothers me and I can change it, I should change it. And what’s the big deal anyway. I am just changing a body,” he says.
The first signs of change came with the testosterone shots – the facial hair, the muscle, and even the “irregular periods stopped”. Kabir realised it was getting “real”, and after spending some time on the internet, figured that he must get surgery, even if not immediately. One of the options he considered was in Thailand, the ‘mecca’ of gender affirmation surgeries because of low costs and “social acceptance” . Many transsexuals I spoke to claimed that their first option is to go to Thailand, but increasingly, the costs and the availability of the treatment – at least for those who can afford it – have ensured that even India is a good enough option too.
Last September, Kabir also zeroed on one -- the Fortis hospital in Delhi’s Shalimar Bagh, and decided that he would go ahead with the transition surgery. “I figured that the cost of the medical transition was equal to, roughly, the price of a good car these days. So I just had to go ahead,” he says.
A little over a month later, on October 9, 2015, Kabir got his mastectomy, or the “top surgery” done. “That surgery is almost half your problem solved,” he tells me. He points to his chest and tells me that he has the marks from the surgery , but at least he doesn’t have to “wear binders” anymore, or even the loose clothing that he always preferred to hide the feminine contours of a body, one that Kabir felt never really belonged to him.
On August 12, 1987, Santosh and Asha Gawlani, who had migrated from Sindh in Pakistan about a month back, had their first child -- a daughter, who they named Komal because she was “soft like cotton”. The baby was fair and chubby, with huge, expressive eyes that appear forlorn in most pictures. “That’s only when they would make me wear frocks and girly stuff,” Kabir defends himself, as we look at old family pictures at his house in an affluent housing society in Indore.
I am shown more pictures: in at least one, the toddler has grown into a sturdy girl with hair tied neatly in two knots on top of her head. “I hated it. I hated having long hair, and would often go and get them cut short,” Kabir cringes as he recalls those days.
There are pictures of him in ‘happier’ times too – the teenager balancing herself on a stack of glasses, jumping through fire as part of an act in school. “You can tell the difference. I was the happiest when I was playing...doing boyish things. You know, I was also a national level player in the school’s roller hockey team. But I had to quit the sport because I didn’t want to play with the girls’ team.”
Adolescence brought with more angst, and the parents recall that though Kabir had many friends, their daughter was spending more time with a particular girl – “we thought he was lesbian, and we were ok with it”, his father tells me. But every now and then, the parents would gently suggest that their daughter dress in more feminine wear, and after college, the family would need to check out boys for marriage.
The last bit was just unacceptable, Kabir says. “How could I ruin someone else’s life too?”
So Kabir made it clear to his parents that he did not want to marry. The parents, by now convinced that Kabir was serious about his gender identity, about being a man, decided to support their child in “whatever made him happy”.
“The only time I cried was when he went for the surgery in October. I just felt that my child was going through so much pain to find himself,” says Asha, Kabir’s mother.
Post the chest surgery, Kabir says he felt his body needed a bit “more muscle”, and so he joined a gym in the neighbourhood. His frame is lean – the vestiges of a petite woman’s body perhaps, a reference Kabir refutes vehemently; “think of me as just a cute boy”, he insists – and often results in him being stopped by the traffic police because he looks “underage”. “They are surprised when they check my driving license because it says ‘Komal’ .”
The physical changes prompted Kabir to find a new name too. ‘Kabir ‘came incidentally: it was a name his younger brother and an aunt had suggested, and it just “felt right”.
Things were now falling in place. On January 1, 2016, Kabir decided it was time for him to announce the change to the world. In a Facebook post he wrote that day, Kabir told his friends that it was the beginning of a new life, with a new name. The change got Kabir several ‘likes’, and congratulatory messages and calls too.
“Some friends did turn away. It’s strange, though. I am still the same person. And now, I can’t imagine I was ever Komal; I feel I was always Kabir .”
There are times when Kabir feels nothing has changed. “I still do the same things; go to the same office [he has joined his family’s business of confectionary], speak with friends the same way,” he smiles.
Of course, every once in a while, the siblings might end up joking, ‘jabse bhai bana hai tabse badal gaya hai’ (Ever since you have become my brother, you have no emotion). But Kabir says he has always been a “positive”, and an “emotionally mature’ boy, and that has helped him stay strong in his transition journey.
But it’s not that in this ongoing journey, Kabir hasn’t endured losses. He recalls the time in love, and speaks of the memorable times he spent with the woman he loved. “We were just like any other couple,” he says. But as they grew older, and she -- Kabir asks me not to mention her name -- started feeling the pressure. Her parents wanted marriage, and Kabir was still unsettled about his gender identity, and unsure of when he would be undergoing surgery.
In 2013, the woman he loved got married. And Kabir was heartbroken.
“It was difficult. It still is. But no hard feelings, you know. She gave me a lot of happiness and positivity. Even the heartbreak benefitted; it gave me time and solitude to find myself, and take a decision,” he says, reflecting on the episode. By now, I figure that this is how Kabir has made sense of his life. By being “positive”. There really was no other choice, he says.
A week after this interview, Kabir had his hysterectomy (his ovaries and uterus were removed), and when he was preparing for the surgery, we spoke about the instance of a couple of transmen who have not undergone hysterectomy, so that they could bear children.
For someone who is unsure about marriage, Kabir says he is pretty sure that he wants to be a parent. “I have always wanted to be a father. And one day, I will have a child; I may adopt one,” he told me.
But parenthood is a distant dream, for now. Kabir is a young man in his late 20s. He would rather focus on “dating women”. “I like girls. I would always flirt, and they would respond too. But now, I think I am a bit cautious. What if they are not ok?” he wonders.
After all, girls can be“unpredictable”and “indecisive”, he jokes, when we discuss gender stereotypes in relationships. But Kabir feels he has a natural advantage here -- he’s been on both sides of the gender spectrum, and that experience will help him manoeuvre relationships much better.
“I appreciate women who strive to get what they want,” he tells me, when we discuss his would-be partner. “Our society is hard on women, and people can be really judgmental. What is ok for men to do, is not so for women, even in relationships. It is, after all, still a man’s world. ”