By Anonymous for Cake:
A while back, when I was toying with the idea of coming out to my parents (I still haven’t, by the way), I was testing out how I would do so—thinking of what I’d tell them, practicing it in front of the mirror, and so on. In my long-drawn process of trying to come up with how I’d break the news about my sexuality, a single dilemma remained constant—of how I’d communicate it in the language I speak (i.e, Bangla). Like a lot of middle-class Indian millennials, I’ve had an English-medium education, while my parents, a Bengali-medium one. Hence, I almost exclusively converse in Bengali with my family. However, in talking about my sexuality, when I started racking through all of my extensive Bangla vocabulary to come up with a word that would aptly describe being ‘pansexual’ (or even bisexual), I was stumped.
The question arose—does Indian linguistics allow for queer identities? And even when it does, is it really able to encompass the whole spectrum of queer and gender nonconforming identities that are out there?
Even before I even knew anything about gender or queer politics, I was always struck by how unnecessarily gendered Hindi is as a language. The ‘pul ling’ and ‘stri ling’ (i.e the male/female binary) dominates even the most trivial of words, the most inanimate of objects, and that makes pronouns extremely rigid. Bangla, on the other hand (which, as mentioned earlier, is my mother tongue and the first language I learnt), is a contradiction, and is wonderfully gender-neutral, especially when it comes to pronouns. In Bangla, there is no equivalent to a ‘he’ or ‘she’—and instead we say ‘shey’ or ‘o’, both pronouns applied completely regardless of gender.
But despite these two languages being so different in their applications of the ‘ling’, one thing remains common—a lack of a vocabulary to talk about queerness. What we have is a vague, generalized word for same-sex attraction—‘samalaingik’ in Hindi and ‘shomokaami’ in Bangla and that’s about it.
Rigid binaries are a western import, and Indian history is full of ambiguous identities. So it’s ironic that while Western culture and languages have clearly laid out their demarcation of identities and have put names to a whole spectrum of queer and non-conforming gender expression and sexual orientation, our Indian vocabularies have hardly allowed for the same. And, though unsettling, there is a historical, social and deep-rooted patriarchal context to this.
Indian society—regardless of class or social and cultural background—largely considers discussions about sexuality a taboo. We hardly talk about sex—especially not in the vernacular—and hence, our vocabulary abounds in euphemisms. Thus, it’s not a surprise that when it comes to queer identities—identities that defy the traditional ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’ or ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, we fall back on the same, often bigoted euphemisms that our parents (and their parents before them) teach us and perpetuate. And it is these euphemisms, shrouded in their sense of forbiddenness and scandal—that often turn into slurs, into an unconscious ‘othering’ of queer identities. “Sharmaji ka ladka ‘woh’ hain.” “O ektu onnyo rokom.” This ‘woh’ and ‘onnyo rokom’ (different) are elusive categories—not because you don’t want to say the word, but because you have been conditioned so deeply to use such euphemisms that you no longer know how to.
My first encounter with a trans woman was when I was seven. My aunt had just given birth, and a group of Hijra women—as tradition goes—came to ‘bless’ the baby, performing rituals, singing songs and dancing in a way that had me mesmerized. However, as I looked on in childlike fascination, I found the adults around me look at them with apprehension—trepidation, even. Later, while talking about the incident, these adults used the word ‘hijra’ like it was an insult, an anomaly. It didn’t just stop there—the people around me continued to use the word as a slur, with brows furrowed and noses scrunched, when they saw any trans woman on the street.
Another word that kept recurring—and shockingly, is a common one in colloquial Bengali vocabulary—is ‘meyechhele’ (which literally translates to ‘girl-boy’)—and was thrown around as a casual slur to any man who did not adhere to the strict bounds of traditional masculinity. Whether that be the wonderfully gender-nonconforming Rituparno Ghosh (someone that the bigoted middle class Bengali always puzzled over, because on the one hand they would love and appreciate his films, but continue to deride the man for his blatant disregard of gender norms) or a teenage boy who was a little too skinny or a little too clumsy. ‘Chhakka’ was reserved for cruder tongues, or larger threats to the gender binary. Calling someone a ‘meyechhele’ implies that they are some kind of an aberration—because they defy the binary.
The Bengali vocabulary—much like the Bengali public—still doesn’t know how to reconcile trans identities. When Naihati-dweller Manabi Bandopadhyay became India’s first transgender principal, the Bengali public was further confounded. I personally know many who misgendered her, who used these two slurs for her. What many didn’t, and still don’t, understand is that every transgender identity is not ‘hijra’—that hijras are a whole different cultural community altogether.
But sadly, there is no other Bangla word for it. And even if there was, it’s usage has been eclipsed by slurs that are so common that they are legitimized, and skewed, bigoted terminology.
I come back, here, to my original dilemma—about how to put my queer identity into (Bangla) words. I did some more digging, consulted a few English-to-Bengali dictionaries, and (unsurprisingly) came up with no appropriate phrase to describe pansexuality. I did, however, stumble upon the loose terminology for ‘queer’, ‘bichitro’ (‘vichitr’ in Hindi).
This is ironic, because the other contexts and meanings in which bichitro is applied and used is to describe something vivid, something versatile, something with multiple facets (but also, something confounding). Bangla might use ‘bichitro’ to refer to queer people, but what it lacks, what is decidedly not ‘bichitro,’ is how the language itself does not allow for such variety. When I do come out to my parents, I will still have no one word to tie my identity to—and while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that because hey, sexuality is a spectrum and labels aren’t always good; it still frustrates me how the language does not even allow for a sexual orientation which might be beyond the confines of ‘bichitro’ or ‘shomokaami.’
I know that I am perhaps not alone in this dilemma—that many queer Indians who converse largely in their respective vernacular languages might also find it difficult to put a name to their queer identity in their mother tongue. A culture of silence has spawned this, and continues to spawn this. So, for us to come out of our closets, we first need the (non-Western) language to do so.