A fleeting glimpse

This is the English translation of an earlier post. I am breaking away from my self-imposed rule to write in English this time. This post demands a wider readership than what my Bangla blog would have been able to muster. Pardon my limited command over the English language, though.

Pradipta RayPradipta Ray is known for many things. He is an artist, excelling in animation and graphic design. He is a part time faculty at the prestigious National Institute of Design (NID) Ahmedabad. He is a film maker. He has made several short feature films, and dreams of directing a full length feature in the near future. Calling it a dream would be a misnomer. Preparations are on in full steam for this project. He has appeared in a few mainstream Hindi movies, most notably “Gangs of Wasseypur 2”.

However, he has another identity. An identity which makes him not so welcome to a large section of our conservative Indian society. Even to some sections of the so called liberal elite class. She is a transgender. To quote her, she is a woman, trapped in a man’s body.

Pradipta with Anurag Kashyap

With Anurag Kashyap

I came to know Pradipta very recently, quite by chance. The company that Aditi works for, has a large LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) support group. One of its main objectives is to encourage homosexuals and transgenders to come out in the open. To come to terms with their identity. Not just LGBTs, straight people also actively participate in this group. Aditi is a member too. Every year, the month of November is celebrated as “Pride Month”. They organise seminars, panel discussions, awareness campaigns and the like. Some prominent people of alternate sexuality – people who are professionally accomplished, or who are deeply involved in the LGBT rights movement – are invited as guest speakers. Aditi happened to be a part of the organizing committee for this year’s event.

We were wondering whom to invite. It so happens that one of our close friends is a documentary filmmaker. He lives in Mumbai. Because of his profession, he gets to meet and interact with a lot of people from different walks of society. We asked him if he could suggest someone as a guest speaker. He proposed Pradipta’s name. Aditi contacted Pradipta. She graciously agreed. The arrangements were made over phone and email. Then one fine morning in November, Pradipta landed in Bangalore. After the daylong events at Aditi’s office, we sat down for a nice warm chat at our place, late in the evening.

With Aditi, at our adda

With Aditi, at our adda

Ever since we contacted Pradipta for the event, I wanted to post an interview with her on this blog. Again, Pradipta graciously consented. Trouble was, I have never interviewed anyone before. During the course of the interview, it so happened that our conversation digressed quite a bit from the path I had in mind. It transformed into a purebred Bengali “adda” (something all Bengalis will swear by!). Luckily, I had recorded a major part of this adda. Posting some selected portions of it here. I have tried to maintain the question answer format. But the questions and answers are not necessarily in chronological order. Pradipta has reviewed this herself, so I guess there aren’t too many mistakes or misquotes. So, here goes!

Me: How would you define a transgender, in your own words?

Pradipta: You will hear several definitions from different quarters. In my personal view, a transgender is someone who biologically belongs to one sex, but emotionally identifies himself or herself with the opposite sex. For example, a person born as a man, but mentally and emotionally considers herself as a woman. A transsexual is someone who has undergone a sex change surgery. A transgender need not necessarily be a transsexual. A person can identify with the opposite sex even without a sex change surgery.

Me: Male transgenders are more common. At least, we get to see and hear about them more often. However, it is hard to find a female transgender. At least, I don’t know of any. What do you think could be the cause for this? Is it biological, or social?

Pradipta: You see, the phrase “getting to see” is more nuanced than what you think. When a man becomes a transgender, it is easy to notice. She wears women’s clothes, walks and talks like a woman. That attracts attention. It is easy to spot her even in a crowd. See that man over there? Oh! He is wearing a skirt! In case of girls, dress is no longer a differentiator. Girls wear shirts, T-shirts, jeans, sports shoes – things which were once considered as male-only clothing. They cut their hair short. Nobody notices a girl with short hair, wearing a shirt. So, how do you decide whether she is a transgender just by looking at her?

On the other hand, men are, for whatever reasons, societal or otherwise, more bold. I say that I am a woman, but can I ever truly become a woman? Ever since childhood, I have enjoyed a lot of freedoms which a  girl would never have the privilege of. Our society imposes invisible boundaries on women. A girl may have to think twice before saying something which I can say openly, without hesitation. When I was young, the maximum punishment that I got from my parents for returning home late was a mild admonition. But a girl returning late at night from school? Impossible!

On top of that, in our society, a girl is hardly ever safe. Society still frowns on single women, even though she may be professionally accomplished. Now, if the girl openly declares that I am different, I am not like other women, and for that reason is partly ostracised in society, her safety becomes a big concern. Anyone and everyone will think of taking a chance with her. Maybe thats one of the reasons why women transgenders do not come out in the open very easily.

Me: Do you know any female transgenders?

Pradipta: Yes, I do. My close friend Shreya. Let me digress for a moment here. Shreya was born into a conservative Gujarati family. They follow all sorts of religious rituals. His mother spends an hour and a half each morning praying to their family deity. Even in your wildest dreams, you wouldn’t imagine them to be anything other than rigid conservatives. But the love and affection that I have got from Shreya’s mother is something I couldn’t even begin to describe! One of my students from NID requested me to attend his convocation ceremony as a parent or guardian, since no one from his family could make it. I agreed, but I told him that since you consider me to be like your mother, I will go dressed as a mother.

So on the day of the convocation, I visited Shreya’s place in Ahmedabad, to borrow a sari from his mother. She pointed me to her wardrobe and said, take whichever you like. It so happened that a neighbour, an elderly lady, was also present there at that time. Purposely, I took a long time to dress up, so that the neighbour doesn’t see me in a sari. Shreya’s parents may not have a problem with me since their own daughter is also a transgender. But I could hardly assume the same about the neighbour. She might get the shock of her life to see a spectacle like me, dressed in a  sari and all. I waited till she left, and then came out of the bedroom. We had a nice chat – me, Shreya and his parents. We clicked a few snaps. I then stepped out. While I was waiting for the elevator, Shreya’s mother knocked at the neighbour’s door. She came out. Shreya’s mother pointed at me and said, – see, how nice she looks in a sari? Far from getting a shock, the neighbour was delighted to see me. None of these two elderly ladies belong to the so called English educated liberal class. In fact, the liberal class would consider them as backwards, conservatives. I shared the same thought, which prompted me not to come out in front of her. But to see her delight was like an eye opener for me.

Conversely, that same day, I got a cold shoulder from some of the so called liberal elites at the convocation ceremony. Many of my colleagues were trying their level best not to come face to face with me, clad in a sari. And we consider these very people as the cream of society. Intellectuals, thinkers, vocal speakers, liberals.

Me: Would you like to talk about your own life? How did you first come out in the open? How did your family and friends react to it?

Pradipta: Let me tell you a few stories from my childhood. I have been to many schools. After two or three school changes, I landed up at the Cathedral Mission High School in Kolkata. This particular school was not very renowned for its academic excellence. On top of that, it was a Christian missionary school, for boys only. Very strict, very conservative. But, the amount of support I received from the teachers at this school, is truly unbelievable. In my class, there were four transgenders, including me (that also is slightly out of the ordinary). We used to come to school dressed up in all sorts of gaudy makeup. Blue and golden eyeshadows, and what not. We imitated the Hindi film heroines of the seventies and eighties. It was an appalling sight. But we used to do it, partly as a mark of our rebellion and partly to have fun. Now I shudder to think of it, but in those days it was all fun. Teachers obviously saw us, and we weren’t too secretive either. But, believe it or not, the teachers never pulled us up for our dress and makeup. Yes, we got punishments, we got detentions, but never for our “difference”. In fact, the other boys were afraid to bully us, fearing that if they harassed us, they might be thrown out of school! The teachers treated us like four girls trapped in a boys only school, and protected us like that.

When we used to go out for overnight excursions from school, the four of us were always allotted a separate room. The teachers used to keep an eye out – so that the other boys don’t get too near. We probably wanted the boys to drop in at night. But the teachers never forgot their duty. I don’t believe I have would have received the same love and support in any other school. Those five years helped me become more confident about myself, to become what I am today. Support at home alone wouldn’t have been enough.

A while ago there was a reunion at our school. One of my three friends is now known as Ranjita Sinha. She an activist, you will see her quite often in the television channels of Kolkata. She went to school. The teachers were more than happy to address her by her new name. One of our Bengali teachers said, Baba amar mamoni hoye gachhe! (Roughly, my darling boy is now my darling girl!). Probably a poor joke. May not even be very politically correct. But the said teacher had every right to say that. Because, he and his colleagues had taken care of us like parents for a major part of our childhood. Ranjita posted on Facebook, – my teachers have lovingly accepted my new identity. This is the happiest day of my life!

Me: When did you first realise that you were different from the other boys?

Pradipta: I can’t exactly recall that now. Even as a small kid, I was good at painting. In a Bengali family, if someone takes an interest in art, no matter how good he or she is, everyone gets to know about it. For my supposed prowess in the arts, whenever a cousin sister got married, I was called upon to help dress up the bride. I used to like the whole process of bridal makeup. Used to stare at it, wide eyed. When the groom arrived, dressed in a dhoti and a shawl, I used to think that one day I will also have to dress up in the same way. Somewhere, something didn’t seem right about the whole idea. There was something in it which I found repulsive. I never liked the idea of being topless. The very thought that one day, probably one of the most important days of my life, I will have to come out in public practically topless filled me with horror. Then somehow one day I started identifying myself with the bride, not the groom. But I can’t recall exactly when that was.

At some point of time, I questioned myself. Why am I like this? The other boys never want to be a bride. Why me? Am I different from others? Am I alone? But when I met my three friends in school, when we could identify with each other, when our thoughts and experiences matched, I realised that I was not alone. I consider this as a good fortune.

Me: How did you get into films?

Pradipta: I used to watch a lot of films since childhood. Never liked the Bengali movies then. Black and white films, showing a middle class family with their middle class crises. Or, worse still, depicting a rural family, steeped in poverty. On the other hand, Hindi films were colourful, both literally and figuratively. They had nice big houses, big cars. The heroes were smart, the heroines beautifully made up. Lots of songs, dances. The thought then was that if I ever make a film, it will be like this. Raj Kapoor used to be my idol.

Kashish-Mumbai International Queer Film Festival। Programming Director সাগর গুপ্তর সঙ্গে।

Kashish-Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. With Programming Director Sagar Gupta.

Since I was good at painting, after finishing high school I joined the Government College of Art and Craft, in Kolkata. My arts teacher insisted that I go to the Art College. After six years in the Art College, the question was, what next? Art College teaches you how to wield a brush. It teaches you the various techniques of painting. But it teaches you very little theory. Without theoretical training, its hard to be a good artist. We decided that I will go to NID. It was my mother’s dream. But what should I study at NID? Apart from being an artist, I also had this dream of directing films one day. So I took up animation. That was a bridge between painting and film making, so to say.

Les Femme Fatale Pradipta :-)

Les Femme Fatale Pradipta 🙂

In the meanwhile, my childhood view about films has changed a lot. When I was a kid, Pather Panchali never inspired me. In fact, I found it stifling. But now I have learned to understand the greats like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. Just as Raj Kapoor is a pillar of filmdom, so are Ray and Ghatak. They made films much greater than what Kapoor could dream of, with far far less money. So, if I now want to make films, it can’t possibly be in the mould of the Kapoors or the Bhansalis! The child has grown up. She has learned to look at the world from a different view point.

After NID, I came to Mumbai with a diploma in animation, and took up a job as an animation artist. Started doing well for myself. At some point, I left the job and took up freelancing. Things were going fine. If you leave out the recession years (2008-09), business was good. The dream to direct films somehow got lost in this cycle. But the recession was a blessing in disguise. I hardly had any work in those days. One day something happened, which changed everything. A friend held a mirror to my face, so to say. He said, – you have been living in Mumbai for 4 years now. But have you forgotten the dream which led you here in the first place? What happened to that dream? Are you going to spend the rest of your life free lancing? I woke up with a jolt.

Manhattan Short Film Festival, Mumbai, October 2014.

Manhattan Short Film Festival, Mumbai, October 2014.

I was nearly broke at that time, so I have to admit that I wasn’t too pleased to hear those words of wisdom from my friend. But within a few days, the bug bit me. And it bit me hard. Once business picked up, I started saving up for my film making venture. After a while, my first short film came out – Raat Baaki. After that I spent a year thinking about what to do next. Then came Eidi. Ever since, I have been working on the script of my third short film. Its almost over now. Just some finishing touches remaining.

Me: Would you like to say something about your new project? What’s the name of the film?

Pradipta: I have based it on the post Godhra riots of 2002. Haven’t finalised the name yet.

Me: Tell me a little bit about the relationships that build up in the LGBT community. Are these relations strong enough to withstand the test of time? Or, do they break easily?

Pradipta: Just like other relationships, some of them last long while some others fall apart.

Me: What’s the primary reason for some of them falling apart? Is it societal pressure, or do they break down on their own?

Pradipta: Societal pressure is always a factor, but may not be the only reason. Think about it – society at large doesn’t recognize the relationships that we build up within the LGBT community. So, society in general doesn’t care whether they survive on or not. A relationship which has the stamp of approval from the society is not so easy to break. Even to break it formally, you need society’s nod. For example, if a married man sleeps with his sister in law, his wife can demand justice from the society, from the state. The crime here is not just adultery. There is this added crime of breaking the trust of a brother-in-law-sister-in-law relationship. The man cannot simply say that I look at her just as another woman, not as my sister-in-law.

In the LGBT community, on the other hand, trust is the sole basis of all relationships. We think that even if the society doesn’t recognize our relationship, we do. We believe that we love each other, that we are married, or will be married. But, even if this relationship breaks, who really cares? Only the people involved. The broader society couldn’t care less. If tomorrow I just disown the relationship, no one will know or care. But temptations abound even within the LGBT community. Maybe more than what exists within the mainstream society. So, keeping the relationship strong demands a lot of commitment from the people involved. We need some amount of discipline to preserve something which is never formally accepted. Sometimes, we can’t do that. So dreams break, relationships fall apart.

I think that time has come for the LGBT community to think about this more deeply. Activists will shy away from admitting this. But we know how relevant this is in the context of our community. To know oneself, to understand what one wants, is important. I don’t think we are seriously thinking about this yet.

My straight friends mingle with me freely (unless of course they are of the conservative upright type). But the rounds who are still closeted, are hesitant to be seen in public with me. They fear that if someone sees them in my company, their own identity will be revealed. But the fact is that things simply don’t work that way. People look at me, they laugh (or cringe), but then they forget about it. They don’t have the time to sit and analyze who all are my friends, what is their identity. My closeted friends don’t get this. That’s why I say, we need to reform ourselves as well. If we reform ourselves, one day we will find that society has also transformed. But till we don’t reform ourselves, there’s no point in playing the victim to the society, the state.

Me: But what about Section 377?

Pradipta: A lot of people have fallen prey to Section 377. Especially those who haven’t come out in the open. Many a times, police lure them through internet chatrooms. Once they meet up, the policeman will typically take out his badge and ask for money. This is completely illegal, but there’s no redressal. For, if this becomes public, the gay man’s identity will also be revealed, and then Section 377 comes into the picture.  So, more often than not, the poor fellow will pay up. These petty extortion cases was pretty common earlier. Times of India carried an article about this sometime ago.

The landmark judgment of the Delhi High Court on Section 377 came as a big relief. People were no longer afraid, and so the number of these extortions came down drastically. Now, after the Supreme Court judgment, the thing has started again. But a lot of things have changed in the few years intervening the two judgments. A lot of people have come out in the open. Support groups have sprung up all over the country. They help people come out clean. But who can help someone who is not ready to help himself? I have to think that I am perfectly normal. So is my sexual preference. Unless and until I truly believe this, I will never be able to come out in the open. I will think twice before revealing my sexual identity to someone. I may think, – that person is not all that close to me. He is just a colleague. Does he really need to know? Then one day you find that there is practically nobody you can freely reveal yourself to! But if your beliefs are strong, you should come out in the open. If someone gets to know about you and starts hating you, does it really make sense to have that person as a friend? A friend is one who accepts you no matter who or what you are. Its far better to have a few good friends than a hundred false ones.

Again, let me digress a bit. A few LGBT themed films portray the community as a victim. They harp on the hardships we face. But somehow I do not like the idea of always playing the victim card. We have been the victim for a long time. Not any more. I have decided to be free about my sexuality. If I have to face a few untoward situations because of that, then so be it. But play the victim? Never.

Me: One last question. Ever since my childhood, I have always been made to believe that gays are dangerous. In college, we used to steer clear of the few boys who were openly gay. We were afraid to bump into them alone. How much of this perception is true?

Pradipta: I would say half way. Gays who have come out in the open are probably not very aggressive. But ones who are still closeted can sometimes be aggressive. They tire of keeping themselves hidden all the time. Once in a while, desperation gets the better of them. At that point, they become dangerous for others. This is obviously not true for everyone. But it does describe the mental state of quite a few. Stereotypes only tell you half the truth, though.

A few last words …

Pradipta left for Mumbai the next day, early in the morning. But even in this short time, she helped us look at the world from a different view point. Thanks, Pradipta!


One thought on “A fleeting glimpse

  1. This was an interesting read. I loved the very matter-of-fact treatment. And the interview was great! I loved the section on challenging our own stereotypes about liberal/conservative, and about victim hood.

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