First person narratives have captivated readers since the 3rd century, when St. Augustine wrote his “Confessions.” These narratives promise a glimpse into the individual experience that is so different from our own. And in the case of gender and sexual minorities, they become important in expanding our understanding of ‘identity,’ something that is as complex as it is diverse.
Telling the truth about yourself isn’t the easiest. But it’s the most important way in which ‘the self’ is made real. And that’s what a reader can look forward to in Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s new book “Red Lipstick – The Men in my Life.” It’s a bold, no-holds-barred look at the private life of a public figure, Laxmi, who is a dancer and an actress, and one of the country’s most prominent trans activists. Her autobiography “Me Hijra Me Laxmi,” was published in Marathi in 2012, and then translated into Gujarati, English and Hindi last year. Now, “Red Lipstick” follows with the tell-all stories that perhaps didn’t find mention in her earlier autobiography – stories about the men in her life.
“‘Red Lipstick’ is personal. Very personal I must say. And, unapologetically intimate,” Laxmi tells us over email. “I know I am truthful to myself and I am sharing myself with the world through this book.”
Assisting her in this project is writer and editor Pooja Pande, who, through a series of meetings, interviews and conversations with Laxmi, put together the book (with some very interesting cover art) by writing as Laxmi. “I imagined a wiser-older Laxmi, who I see as the main narrator of ‘Red Lipstick,’ so I could also write as Laxmi the fearless activist; Laxmi the girlfriend-wife; Laxmi as Raju. And as me, or someone like me, who sees Laxmi in the churning, and can recount it from afar, with empathy.”
Pande explains to us how observing, absorbing and immersing herself in her subject was a huge part of her process. “I was re-reading Laxmi’s first book, so I knew the facts of her life like the back of my hand, and I stayed away from doing any obvious research such as reading memoirs of other transgender individuals.”
The book narrates how Laxmi’s father, her school friend, her partner, activists and others have impacted Laxmi’s life. There’s an entire section of ‘monologues’ by some of these men, including Laxmi’s own self prior to transitioning. “I felt that I wouldn’t have done the book justice if I hadn’t included the man in Laxmi’s life who lives inside her, Raju,” says Pande, who spent many a fitful nights before sudden inspiration drove her to write as Raju. This section also includes Manvendra Singh Gohil (India’s first openly gay prince). Gohil narrates an incident where his elderly music guru “had nursed a bad opinion of Hijras all his life” until he met Laxmi.
“The men in her life were but a lens for the reader to view Laxmi herself,” says Pande. “I think the Laxmi we’ve all known thus far – the super-cool, super-strong, fiery activist – is the celebrity Laxmi. I hope that this book presents Laxmi the person over and above Laxmi the personality.”
And it certainly does so, with its moving accounts of Laxmi’s vulnerabilities and her own evolution. In one instance, she talks about her own very negative response towards Kris, a trans man she met in Amsterdam. And in another, she does some rather stereotypical saas-bahu things, by telling her daughter-in- law to ‘cover up’ her body.
“I had just heard about Female-to-Male Trans men, and hadn’t met somebody like him,” explains Laxmi. “It was a mix of surprise and anxiety when I first met him. Even now in India we find it so difficult to come across Trans men because not many have come forward openly. It was the same when I advised my daughter in law.”
These two interactions may seem surprising coming from Laxmi, who has challenged the norm so often in her own life. But breaking stereotypes in an on-going process. And for Laxmi it’s important to lay it all out: “Going through those memories was refreshing and made me look at myself in a new light. It has helped me grow as a person.”
As Pande says, it’s Laxmi-the-person who really takes centre-stage in this book, and her journey as a member of the Hijra community is therefore of much importance. Laxmi explains the origins of the word to us – “The word Hijra is derived from ‘Hijr,’ which means a journey to find one’s true self – and I went through this whole process of self-discovery to self-recognition and fighting for my gender identity.”
Laxmi prefers ‘Hijra’ over ‘Trans’ and there’s a reason for it. “The word ‘trans’ is inadequate in every sense and especially in the Indian context. Here the Kinnars and Hijras have been part of our history and ancient text like ‘Ramayana,’ ‘Mahabharata,’ and others. The Hijra or the Kinnar community follow the ‘Guru Chela’ Parampara and have certain rules, rituals and customs.” And none of this can be described by the western equivalent “trans.”
But East or West, the issues faced by trans people are much the same. In the USA, there is currently a debate on the Bathroom Bill, which would prohibit trans people from using any washroom other than the one marked for the gender assigned to them at birth. Laxmi weighs in on this: “Just opening a loo for them is not enough. You need to sensitise people about transgender communities and advocate for their issues. The USA should come up with a Transgender Welfare Board and a rights bill like India.”
But even with our country’s recent anti-discrimination policies, trans people are still denied access to spaces. Laxmi has personally experienced this discrimination back in 2010, when, as the book tells us, she was made to leave a dinner at the Bombay Gymkhana. Says Laxmi, “I had taken it up with the Maharashtra Human Rights Court and the Management were summoned. The case is still in the court and waiting for judgement.”
Establishments – especially those that cater to a select class of people – will exercise their “right to reserve admission,” as it is so artfully called. Pande explains the reasons behind this: “The prejudices in our society against any kind of expression – in terms of sexuality or self-identity – that does not conform to that one imagination of heterosexuality, stem back to the time of the Raj when the British were laying down the laws of the land in ways that were acceptable to them. Unfortunately, the drive to formulate a unified code meant that there was a certain foregoing of plurality and what we now like to call diversity, which was traditionally embedded in our cultural fabric.”
There is a force with which the gender-binary is maintained, and Pande calls this “collateral damage from the colonial era.”
And Laxmi corroborates: “The Kinnar and Hijra community were very much respected in ancient India. We were very mainstream, nobody questioned our sexuality and we had much more respect and dignity. With the advent of the British era and western culture, sex became taboo and we too became taboo. We were criminalised under various acts like the Tribal Law act, or Section 377, curbing us and our prosperity.”
So “Red Lipstick” also tries to approach this history, and culture of discrimination. And chooses to do so in an interesting way, by using religious elements. Take the dedication, for instance (which Pande told us she’s very proud of). It reads:
“Vishnu is Mohini and Mohini Vishnu. This book is dedicated to our gods and goddesses… Because they get it.”
The section and chapter titles (one of them invoking “The Creator, The Preserver, and The Destroyer” of the Hindu trinity) too follow this theme. “Laxmi is well-versed in the Shastras and can quote you a shloka about pretty much anything,” says Pande, who finds these elements rather reaffirming.
But doesn’t creating an aura of divinity around a marginalized group diminish or detract from the discrimination they face?
Pande explains: “While I can see the space for that point of view and even agree with it to an extent, I do feel that sometimes, we don’t place enough importance on how the majority of India processes and grapples with what the critics – largely the intelligentsia – would term ‘issues’. It could be true that placing identities on pedestals evades the discrimination, but have we found other, let alone more effective ways, of tackling the discrimination? If we’re so certain about rejecting a language or a kind of imagining that has a hold over the majority of India, then we must find a better replacement.”
“Red Lipstick” is then deliberately infused with religious imagery, in the hope that they will be relatable and easily approachable by a much larger readership than, say, only an academically oriented section of our society.
Pande goes on: “My attempt is to hark back to a time – not necessarily a historical point in time, but in the timeline of the Indian imagination – when we knew better. When we were ‘inclusive’ in a way that we didn’t need to scream and shout about to get brownie points on diversity.”
And this is really where this book does something so characteristic of life-writing. It mixes together the personal and the political, the private and the public. Pande tells us: “‘Red Lipstick’ aims to be part of the ongoing narrative around gender and sexuality, in terms of real-time developments such as the Transgender Bill and the status of Sec 377. But, while it could be an ‘important book,’ it shouldn’t just remain an ‘important book.'”
For those who read it then, it should become a question and an idea, urging them to challenge those historic, cultural or even religious practices that exclude and erase certain identities, and what it would mean for India to truly live up to its “unity in diversity.” Meanwhile we have someone battling on boldly for rights, namely Laxmi, wearing her trademark Red Lipstick.