From Somnath to Manabi

Born Somnath, the youngest son in a middle-class family in Naihati (North 24 Parganas district), Manabi Bandopadhyay underwent a sex-change operation in 2003.

New Delhi | Updated: May 27, 2015 1:24 pm
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By: Piyasree Dasgupta

Manabi Bandopadhyay’s room greets you like a palette tossed carelessly aside, its colours flowing and drying into each other. Its walls, an eroded yellow, have known struggle. Bandopadhyay settles herself on the four-poster bed and asks testily, “What do you want to know? Every detail of my love life?” Cynicism comes to Bandopadhyay, in her late 40s, a professor of Bengali literature at a college in Jhargram, West Bengal, as naturally as breathing. She spews it at the world. Born Somnath, the youngest son in a middle-class family in Naihati (North 24 Parganas district), she underwent a sex-change operation in 2003.

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“There was a time when I used to ask myself, what is wrong with me? Why is it that every bone in my body cries out to be a woman?” she asks. Decades later, Bandopadhyay gathered the courage to construct a body that her spirit agreed with.

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She needed surgeries and prolonged hormone treatment for that to happen. At the end of it, when she looked in the mirror she liked what she saw. But she braced for surprised gasps, eye rolls and stifled laughs that were to greet her anew. “I have been quite the head-turner, you know,” she says with a laugh. People in the sleepy government college she had worked in for eight years prior to her sex-change were worried about “which washroom I should be allowed to use”. “People who before threw words like ‘woman’, ‘girl’ at me as if they were insults suddenly seemed to be convinced that I was a man. And that I should behave and dress likewise,” she adds.

But acceptance came from the unlikeliest quarters. “Call it disinterest or broadmindedness, my students seemed more comfortable in my saree-and-salwar-kameez avatar. Perhaps, too, the kohl looked better on me,” she says.

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Bandopadhyay also discovered the paradoxes of social conditioning after her sex change. “All my life, I used to relate to the world like David Copperfield used to with Edward Murdstone (his cruel stepfather). In my imagination, very few people could break out of the prototype, and struggle seemed to come only my way,” she says.

She took to travelling in the women’s compartments of local trains to work. But she realised that a woman’s body did not shield her from objectification. “When I would travel in a general compartment, I drew stares. But the woman’s compartment, more than being liberating, felt like an enclosure of chickens for tomcats on the prowl!” The compartment used to, and still, draws men in hordes. “It’s just a way to reinstate a rotten social stereotype: the ascendancy of men,” she says. In her daily train journeys, however, she found a strange source of “comfort” and admiration from her fellow women passengers. Be it from the agony aunts who wanted to know about the kind of men she was dating, to complaints against transsexuals, to the routine battles the women narrated that are common to all.

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Running her hand over the border of her orange taant sari, she says suddenly, “Isn’t it a little difficult to do all the running around in a sari I prefer a salwar kameez? Previously, I used to wear a saree and sit in my room when no one was in the house.” She giggles, adding an afterthought, “Also, no woman is stranger to the feeling of invasive hands trying to run over their bodies in the anonymity of a crowd. I felt, after I physically transformed into a woman, these touches were less hesitant, as if I was ‘easy’.”

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Womanhood dragged her from a yearning to a physical battle, but one Bandopadhyay was willing to embrace. “There was a woman I met, who would change into a sari from a nurse’s uniform on the train every day, while returning home. When I asked why, she said her children and neighbours thought she had an enviable job in the city, not that of an overworked hospital staff,” she trails off, “I’m not the only one at war, I felt.”

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So the next time a pesky cashier at work decided to call her “Sir”, Bandopadhyay decided to forget, if not forgive, with a little help from poetry and a lot of perseverance.

This article first appeared in EYE on September 18, 2011; has been reproduced here.