“The world wanted me to be in a circus but I have defied them all” - Professor Manabi Bandopadhyay
[Editor’s note: A lot has happened since the first time we published this article. June 2015 marked a milestone in the struggle for equality and recognition of India’s LGBTQI community, but as of December 2016, Manabi Bandopadhyay resigned from her position as Principal. Reports quote her stating she was forced to take the decision due to non-cooperation from the institutions staff, only furthering society’s continuing prejudice against a community that has been struggling for far too long.]
It looks like we’ll have to eat our own words and we’ve never been happier to do so. Just two days ago, inspired by Bangladesh’s initiative to recruit transgenders into their police force, we questioned India’s ability to take the next step post official recognition of third genders and truly assimilate the community into the day-to-day fabric of society. Something that might ensure their ability to live a life of dignity and honour, afforded with the same opportunities as everybody else. However, June 9 marks the day India’s, and probably the world’s first ever transgender will become a principal of a government college.
Meet the local celebrity that is Professor Manabi Bandopadhyay. Currently an associate professor in Bengali at Vivekanand Satobarshiki Mahavidyalay, the academicians inherent popularity with both her students and peers is ensuring that very few are against this appointment, if at all. Both state Education Minister, Partha Chatterjee, and Technical Education Minister, Ujjal Biswas (also a chairman of the college governing body) stood firmly by the College Service Commission’s choice. While Chatterjee maintained that “they are aware of our open mind and am happy with this decision,” Biswas went a step further to admit that they were “in need of a principal with a strong personality to run the college smoothly.” Personality, unsurprisingly, isn’t something anybody who knows Manabi or her story thinks she’s lacking in, and she carries herself with an ease that both befits her easy confidence and belies her many past struggles.
While fully accepting our own tendency to jump on the ‘quick news’ bandwagon, we scoured forums like Zagria (Essays on trans, intersex, cis and other persons and topics from a trans perspective) to understand her position better within the context of Indian society to present readers with a fuller picture. This is (part of) her story.
The progressive attitudes she’s experiencing today are a far cry from what the now-lauded professor has had to withstand in the face of undergoing a sex change operation. Born Somnath Banerjee in 1966, the professor has endured torture and physical intimidation to reach where she is today. An only son with two sisters she insisted on learning dance like other Indian girls her age and was even advised to forget about being a woman by a psychiatrist or end up killing herself. Instead, she threw herself into academics and worked hard to earn a doctorate to become a professor of Bengali literature at Jhargram college. For a little while, she attempted to find balance between her true gender identity and the one society forced upon her by living as a woman at home but remaining a man in public. By 2003, he had saved up enough money to undergo gender affirmation surgery for 5 lakh rupees after multiple counselling sessions and post this, she was able to live comfortably in her own skin, finally accepting her gender identity and herself, even if her colleagues didn’t. Forced to move out of the professor’s quarters, she was called a hijra and accused of child abuse until she approached the West Bengal Human Rights Commission and they served a show-cause notice to the college. She’s even suffered being brutally beaten up by a group of eunuchs when she “said things they were not ready to hear.”
When she underwent alleged abuse at the hands of her ex-partner Abhijit Pahari, who also lived in with her, she fought the Calcutta High Court tooth and nail and her public prosecutor even argued that the consensual nature of the relationship could be contested. Though Manabi was now 40 years old, she had only been a woman for three making her a minor. The result? Abhijit’s anticipatory bail application was rejected at the time.
Unsurprisingly then, the “able administrator” visited the college early Tuesday morning completely unbothered by the obvious excitement on campus. She was accompanied by her adopted son Debashish Manabiputro and another transgender friend Jyoti Samanta. In her own statement she mentioned that it’s her father who drove her to consider, and finally accept this post. “It is not the post that I sought after. My 92-year-old father lives in Naihati. I took up this offer because I knew it will help me stay close by and look after him. My new colleagues had seen me on television but I had only heard their voices. I wanted to meet them personally before joining,” she told TOI. Her son, however, seemed more exuberant. Beaming, he informed news reporters that “Maa wanted to pay a surprise visit so we tagged along.” It’s particularly heart-warming to hear her son’s comment because in a 2009 interview with the Guardian, Manabi spoke about her deep yearning to be a mother but consoled herself by reminding herself that she came from a land where the greatest Mother, Mother Teresa herself had never had a baby.
Her friend Jyoti too, considers her an inspiration. “Today, people back home have accepted my identity. I have even portrayed my own fate in a play that dealt with the plight of transgenders. Manabidi’s news is a great boost for me. I am taking her help to undergo sex realignment.”
Considering Manabi has started a group for Bengal’s transsexuals, written a best-selling novel on Eunuchs titled ‘Endless Bondage’ and continued to look after both her parents well into their old age, even when they could never accept her for who she was entirely, amidst all her other incredible fights for dignity, we’re assured that Jyoti is far from the only one deeply inspired by this woman’s strength.
Her appointment, when juxtaposed against the struggles of her own life forces us to ask more pertinent questions. While celebrating her triumph is inevitable, just as we did our first transgender mayor or the NALSA verdict, what does it all mean in a country that still criminalises homosexuality? Can an official appointment like this truly help dispel the prejudiced notions in the minds of so many citizens, some who still believe that struggles with gender identity can be chalked up to mental illness? We can only hope so but Manabi sums up the necessity for individuality and a strength of spirit in such confusing times best in a conversation with Guardian Journalist. “I am fighting and I will keep at it. Nothing happens in India for the good of anybody who chooses to be different. You can pass laws but you cannot change the people. It’s a fact that man is free but everywhere he is in chains. I agree with that. It has taken a lot, but I have cut loose somehow.”
For now, we can toast the life and undoubtedly growing credentials of Manabi Bandopadhyay, but not without acknowledging the long road we have ahead when it comes assimilating and accepting trans people into everyday society in India.