Breaking the Vicious Circle
Humans are not always tolerant towards deviations from the accepted norms and standards of the society. Nature, on the other hand is the harbinger of diversity, which is essential for its healthy evolution.This inherent conflict between the humans and the nature constitute the fundamental predicament of life. Such conflicts are especially severe for the so called gender minorities, whose gender expressions remains on the border between male and female, the so called transgender groups or other sexual minorities. To liberate humans fromsuch rigid and brutal structures of society, it requires strongly-willed avatars, to break those structures giving space for everybody to grow and excel.
Dr. Manobi Bandyopadhyay, who liberated herself from an existential vicious circle that trapped her and transcended the personal predicaments by becoming first ever Doctor of Philosophy title among the transgender community in India. She later on became the first transgender principal of a higher education institution in India. Her life, as narrated in her biography, A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi, is an open textbook for those who want to make space for themselves and for others.
Dr. Bandyopadhyay knew the sad plight of transgender community, known as hijras in Indian context through her own life experience as a transgender. Indian hijars were branded as a group of people who clapped and begged at traffic signals or extorted money when newborns were brought from the hospital. Most of them lived away from the mainstream in parallel societies and worked as despised public performers at social events. Many of them become sex-workers and languished in slums with venereal diseases on account of their reckless sexual lifestyles. In Dr. Bandyopadhyay, they have somebody to look upon to and to emulate and get strengthened to liberate themselves from the endless bondage (Bengali:OntohinOntorinPrositovortika, the title of the bestseller work by Dr. Bandyopadhyay).
“This is a boy Lakshmi!”
Bandopadhyay was born Somnath, in a traditional middle class Bengali family in Naihati in the outskirts of Kolkata on September 23,1964 as the third child of his parents. As the first two children were female, parents were overjoyed that they finally have a boy! The well-wishers of the family greeted them and said: “This is a boy Lakshmi!” It just meant that the boy will bring prosperity to the family, Lakshmi being goddess of wealth in the Hindu tradition. However, it worked as an abracadabra, it happened as it was said! The child developed an inadequacy from within as a boy and showed tendencies that drew it closer to girl’shabits!
It was the beginning of a lifelong struggle with identity.His external appearances only hid his inner core that was feminine and the child had to suffer under this incongruence within its inner core. To add to his agony, the child who was a mere fifth standard student, was raped by his cousin. He also had to suffer regular physically assaults from other boys at school, especially due to his docile nature akin to girls. His parents also were confused. As the only male issue, they expected him to grow to maturity and to prepare for winning bread for the family.They too could not tolerate the girlish styles of the child.
Soon after finishing his school, parents took the boy to a psychiatrist in an attempt to modify his ways. Overwhelmed with emotions, the child tried to narrate what he felt within himself. But the psychiatrist just admonished him to put the past behind him and to behave.The story repeated itself. Another psychiatrist warned the parents, their conservative attitudes may drive the child to suicide.
Fighting against all odds, Bandyopadhyay continued his studies and initiated the study for Master’s degree in Bengali literature at Jadavpur University. Reflecting over the double existence, Bandyopadhyay says: “I was a woman at home but once out on the streets I had to wear trousers and shirts and behave like a man. It was tragic and humiliating, but I had no option.”On completing the master’s degree, s/he started teaching at Vivekananda Satobarshiki Mahavidyalaya in Jhargram as a lecturer. Harassment over the gender continued in the workplace too. “I couldn’t go to the toilet. My access to the women’s toilet was barred and I couldn’t use the male washroom. So I had to wait till I reached home to relieve myself,” narrates Banyopadhyay about those days. Irrespective of all humiliations, she made advances in her career and became an associate professor in the same institution.
In the meantime, s/he had made up her mind to make a change over to a fully-female styles. S/he gathered enough courage and money to undertake a sex-change operation, which was extremely costly those days. She started saving her salary for the purpose. She found herself all alone in her decision; not even the family or relatives came for help. Already in 1999, s/he began the hormone treatment in preparation for the same. In 2003, s/he went under the scalpel for the final make over. It took months of further treatment with hormones and multiple sessions of counselling to complete the metamorphosis. Finally, she could liberate herself from the male body, where she found herself trapped. Somnath became Monobi!
Bnadyopadhyay knew of the repercussions of her transformation in her workplace. She decided to work hard to establish herself in scholarship and started her works towards the research degree. In 2006, she won her PhD from Kalyani University on the thesis titled, The Third Gender in Bengali Literature. She emerged as Dr. Manobi Bandyopadhyay, presumably as the first transgender to win PhD. However, bureaucratic issues came to the fore soon as she was denied the increments associated with the doctoral degree. The argument went like this: She joined the service as a male person and won the doctoral degree as a female and with a different name! It was only in 2011, the issue got settled. In 2015, Dr. Bandyopadhyay took charge as Principal of Krishnagar Women's College as the first ever transgender principal to hold that post in India!
Dr. Bandyopadhyay’s asserted her identity and life plans all through her life against all provocations. The inadequacy she experienced within herself clearly pointed towards the male-to-female changeover she made later in the life. It was a journey with extraordinary courage and absolute sense of self-respect. Most of the time she was left alone on her way. However, she was all out to safeguard her self-respect and to redeem her body from the incompleteness it inherently incorporated. She did not allow destiny to play its cruel joke on her, rather, she was determined to change her destiny as far as it was within her reach. He did not pay attention to the snide comments poured over her over the years. No amount of sneers, giggles, taunts or lack of empathy discouraged her from making her place in the world. She also did not want herself to be branded as a homosexual. It took her decades to reconstruct her body that suited her spirit. Finally, she made that metamorphosis, a journey from Somnath to Monobi.
“In my imagination, very few people could break out of the prototype, and struggle seemed to come only my way,” says Dr.Banyopadhyay. The same intensity is seen in her resolute move to climb the academic career. She is convinced that her latest position as the Principal of a college is not a favor of the government on account of the minority status of her sexual orientation. Rather, it corresponds to the meritorious academic excellence she maintained all through her career.
Dr. Bandyppadhyay had to fight against everybody to make her life livable. It was a long and lone battle against ignorance of the society. However, it was not a blind fight. She believed that education is the key to her success in this battle of honor. She set out to excel in her studies and always came out with flying colors. Each day was for her a struggle, a lifelong struggle for autonomy! She proved herself to be a born fighter.
Loneliness was the price she had to pay for her fights, which she happily gave. Her struggle made her self-reliant and compassionate about her own people, the transgender people. To improve their lot and to redefine their space in the society, she started a magazine, Abo-manob(Bengali: Abo-manobrefers to “Sub-human”) in 1995. It was India’s first magazine for the transgender people. The editorial mix of the magazine contained aspects like health, hygiene, life style, language, sex-orientation, gender issues, interviews. Every issue of the magazine tried to show the way forward. In the course of years, the magazine tried to create a standpoint for transgendered people in the public space.
Dr. Monobi Bandyapadhyay will remain a powerful icon of justice for the sexual minorities in India and beyond in the years to come.