By Ankita Mukhopadhyay for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Manabi Bandhopadhyay created history in India by becoming the first transgender principal of a college in West Bengal in 2015. Her list of achievements doesn’t end just here. She is also the first transgender person to receive a PhD, and was an Associate Professor in Bengali at Vivekananda Satobarshiki Mahavidyalaya before becoming the principal. I met Manabi this year at Samanvay, the Indian Languages Festival, where she was on a panel discussion on the topic, “Gender and Sexuality: Images in Transition”. We had a candid discussion where she expressed her views on why she became a professor, how she wanted to be a writer, why she doesn’t like to associate herself with the transgender ‘community’, and more.
While Manabi is not the kind of a person to mince words, and is extremely vocal about her views, what is important to note is that even after the Supreme Court has ruled to protect the rights of trans people, millions of them across the country continue to face social stigma and are isolated from the rest of the population. Section 377 still doesn’t talk about the rights of trans people and is continually responsible for taking away their rights. Manabi believes that she has not struggled as many other trans people, but her views are probably in isolation. Below is the interview I conducted with her, as it is, translated to English from the Bengali:
Ankita Mukhopadhyay (AM): You are the first transgender person in India to have been awarded a PhD degree. Post that, you have broken many barriers, be it being a single parent, or becoming the first transgender principal of Krishnanagar Women’s College. Along the way did you face any kind of discrimination? How hard was the road ahead for you?
Manabi Bandhopadhyay (MB): As there is a saying, once you reach the top of the Himalayas, the fact that you have reached your goal takes so much supremacy, that you stop thinking about the obstacles that you encountered in the path. Now that I am here, I feel as if everything happened easily, and nothing seems to be difficult in the future. I believe my struggles have been the same as many others, I do not like glorifying myself, neither do I believe that I am the only person with problems in the world. I do recognise my achievement, yes, but I also believe that achieving success through immense struggle has a different ananda (excitement) to it all together (smiles).
AM: Did you feel that your struggles were more as compared to your colleagues?
MB: This comparison can be endless. How much every person is in distress or is struggling is difficult for just one individual to fathom. As I said, I don’t like to view myself in a glorified light. There are many people with more dukkho (sadness) in their life, as compared to me. Many people don’t have two legs or hands. There are bigger struggles in life, I don’t believe mine is the only one. Life is much bigger, and simpler.
AM: What motivated you to become an educator? Is there someone who inspired you to enter the profession?
MB: I never wanted to become an educator. In fact, when I became a teacher, I realised I shouldn’t be one. Daily teaching was just moonlighting for me, more of a ‘chalta hai‘ attitude. I wanted to remain in the creative world, I wanted to write. But I come from a very middle-class family, where not earning wasn’t an option for me. Life in the creative field is hard, there is very little money I could have earned by becoming a writer. Gradually, I think my ability to be creative sort of disappeared in this quagmire of work and earning money.
AM: Do you still write?
MB: Yes, I still do. But I am not just a writer. I also sing, dance, I am also an artist, I was also an actor. I was into many things, but somehow my job takes up most of my time now. If you aren’t from a strong financial background, it is difficult to follow your passion. That’s what happened with me, at least.
AM: You were a lecturer in Bengali before you became the Principal of Krishnanagar Women’s College. Did you also impart lessons in gender and sexuality in the classroom?
MB: Firstly, my PhD thesis itself was on the third gender in Bengali literature and society. So yes, I do engage in these questions often in the classroom and outside. The syllabus doesn’t restrict anyone. If you take a look at any literary work, it always has an element of gender to it. Be it Ramayana, which was Sita’s anguish, or the Mahabharata, which was Draupadi’s cry. Gender and the cry of a woman is always a linked aspect of literature.
AM: Do you think it’s difficult for members of the transgender community to get a job or reach the position you have reached?
MB: No, not at all. The West Bengal government provides equal opportunities to transgenders. But the problem is that the moment they ‘come out’, they immediately join a community. If they want to ‘come out’ and achieve something on their own, there isn’t any problem or barrier! In my time, there were more problems, but now I don’t see any. Family acceptance isn’t a factor in their development. Not at all. Yes, families are upset when one comes out as transgender, they are hurt initially. Family members always think that, “Oh, he/she is transgender, means they are a ‘hijra’. They will misbehave, they will be a nuisance, give abuses”. If the person decides to not take this route and comes out in a dignified manner with the characteristics of the gender they choose, it will help break stereotypes. I don’t see how families can have a problem with that.
I know many transgenders who are receiving an education in Kolkata, in fact, I personally know two people who have changed their sex and are now studying in college. What we need to understand is that when one sets out to do something, they can’t really be an example from the beginning itself. You set an example eventually. Now people look at me and take me as an example, but that’s not because of an ‘andolan‘, it’s because of the work I did in my life. The Himalayas didn’t rise up to set an ‘example’, they rose up because of tectonic plate movements.
AM: So you don’t believe in associating yourself with the ‘transgender’ community?
MB: By community, what I actually mean is “group”. “I am part of this group, that group”, is something I don’t believe in. That way, even women can one day get up and say, I belong to one particular group, all women belong to that particular group. But we can’t club all women under such a heading, can we? I don’t like being stuck in such a vortex. This type of bonding binds you in a community, from which it is difficult to get out of. For example, a napit (barber’s) son doesn’t have to be a barber. If he becomes a Professor of Economics, he anyways gets out of the community.
This does not mean in any way that I am against the LGBT movement. My name does get dragged many times into the movement, even though I am directly not a part of it, and I am not against that. It’s only because of these kinds of andolans that we have awareness about the rights of the LGBT community. But on a personal level, my own struggles took up all my time, I could never sit and think about joining a ‘group’ to voice my opinion. I never had time to do any ‘shauk‘ ki mazdoori (to follow my passion).
AM: Since you don’t identify yourself as within the transgender ‘community’, can it be said that you identify yourself as a woman?
MB: I am a woman. This whole debate about cleansing or purging a person from their ‘intersex’ or ‘transgender’ identity is baseless. In my mind, I think of myself as a woman, no one can ever ‘purge’ that from me. We have many double standards in our society. Once, a transgender friend of mine commented on a girl on her dressing sense. I told her, when you can do ‘anal sex’, then what is wrong with her wearing a short dress? I know my language will make people flinch. But what I wish to convey is that if we can talk about a penis on a transgender’s body, we should also not be ashamed by the term, ‘vagina’.
AM: What are your thoughts on the new policy unveiled by the Government of Kerala where they have enforced constitutional rights for transgenders? Do you think this model should be applied to all Indian states?
MB: Why just Kerala, even West Bengal has policies for transgenders. In fact, there is a Transgender development board there for welfare, something which even the Kerala government doesn’t have. We now have id’s for Transgenders – all these systems have come into place after the Trinamool Congress came into power. For a large part of my success, I am thankful to Mamata Banerjee. She is the one who has created opportunities for me. I got justice under her government, a lot of my benefits were stopped before she came to power. She made sure I got them back.