Sunaina is at her favourite hangout, sipping coffee at McDonald’s, located inside Mumbai’s Hub mall in Goregaon. She is dressed in black pants and a casual, waist length brown coloured top with floral print, with her waist-length hair tied up neatly. There is the discreet glimmer of golden studs on her ears, and her make-up is minimal: red lipstick and eye-liner.
Relaxed, sinking into the couch, wearing a big smile, Sunaina looked happy chatting about her coffee fixation, the crowd and life in general. Till July last year, she was Sunil, not Sunaina (names changed), a 25-year-old man, who had for years struggled to accept his male body, and who grew to embrace the woman within him with the help of his family, friends and colleagues. Seven months ago, he underwent a sex reassignment surgery. And, today, she would like to share her story.
“I always felt like a girl, even as a child. Every time I watched a movie, I could identify myself with the heroine. But people like me learn to hide their femininity and feelings quite well. So, apparently, I was a ‘normal’ child,” she says.
Sunaina grew up in a town in central India, the child of an engineer father and a homemaker mother. She remembers always carrying within her the awareness that she did not belong with the boys. “The other children treated me as a boy, but I preferred playing with girls. Unfortunately, grown-ups consider that okay only as long as you are a small child. The constant inner conflict made things difficult for me and, as I grew up, I began to dread social interactions,” she says.
Unsurprisingly, she was a shy child, not given to scampering off to fields and playgrounds, but who was happiest at home with her books, or chatting with her parents, whom she considered her closest friends. “I would meet a few of my friends regularly and play cricket with them, but I preferred staying home with my parents. I would feel uncomfortable in any gathering, among new faces. I had a few close friends, but I never confided in them. After all, I hadn’t even told my parents and they mattered the most,” she says. As a 13-year-old adolescent, when her confusion was most stark, she came across an article on sex change and realised that “changing into a woman was surgically possible”. But it was hardly a possibility she admitted to herself.
To quell her confusions, Sunaina turned to studies, focussing her energies on what came naturally to her. She did well in the board exams and went on to clear the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in 2007. “It was a proud moment for my parents,” she says. Her turmoil had not subsided, but she resolved ever more to repress those questions. “I knew too much was at stake ― the reputation of my parents, their dream of seeing their only child, their “son” graduate from an IIT and continuing the family tradition (my father was a former student of IIT-Banaras Hindu University) seemed so critical that I had decided I would never let this secret out,” she says.
In the testosterone-fuelled campus of an engineering college, she was distinctly uncomfortable. “A favourite pastime among students and friends at IIT is bullying and teasing each other and one is not supposed to take it personally. But I found it extremely hard to not take it personally, I would feel very bad. Hence, I withdrew into my studies. When we didn’t have
classes, I would prefer staying in my hostel room, reading or gaming. My state of mind made it impossible for me to make friends,” says Sunaina.
In her first year at IIT Bombay, Sunaina came across an article on gender identity disorder, a recognised medical condition in which individuals have extreme discomfort with the sex assigned to them naturally at birth and, instead, they mentally and psychologically identify themselves with the opposite sex. But even after four years of extensive online research on sex change, gender disorder and the pros and cons of such surgeries, she was undecided. The tipping point came in January 2012. It was her last year at IIT, and she had found a job with an IT firm during placement interviews. But she was still unhappy. “I was acting like a man. But no one knew that I was a girl inside. Five years at IIT had changed my priorities. When I had entered the campus, I was a girl trapped inside a male body, trying hard to live up to social expectations. But after years of living and interacting with the people here, I knew that I should rather strive to be happy. I knew that I had to make the transition and let people know,” she says.
The hardest part was yet to come. Being an only child, Sunaina knew that she couldn’t just pick up the phone and tell her parents the truth about herself. She went home in March 2012 and gave her parents volumes to read about gender identity disorder. “I told them I needed help with my MTech project. Back in Mumbai, I started getting in touch with doctors and psychiatrists. Exactly a month later, my mother asked me if I had the disorder. I said yes,” she says.
Sunaina’s parents showed not a sign of dismay. Her mother’s sole concern was about the complications that could result from a sex reassignment surgery. Her father told her that they were with her. “From that time onwards, my mother would call me and say I have bought nice clothes for you. You can wear them after you become a girl. The tough journey suddenly felt easier,” she says.
Her parents, though, never had an inkling about their son’s lifelong dilemma. “Not till the moment she gave us those texts to read. Though she was not much into sports, she loved playing. She did not have many friends, but that was not something we found unnatural. We always saw her as a studious boy,” her mother says.
Once enlightened about her condition, they backed her to the hilt. “We explained to relatives and friends that the surgery was necessary to ensure that she can spend the rest of her life smoothly. She had struggled enough with her feelings. There were some who advised, shaadi karwado, phir woh normal ho jayega (get him married, things will be fine). But as parents, our decision was already taken and we were happy with it,” says her mother.
To ensure that her future would not be dogged by questions about her identity switch, Sunaina approached IIT Bombay again. She had already made a request to the board authorities to change her name and gender in the Class X and XII marksheets and certificates. She wanted to avoid the potential prejudices that could arise from having to explain her sex change to people, or show them legal documents over and over again. The IIT authorities, too, showed immense understanding, agreeing in principle to re-issue her certificates in her new name and recognise her as a woman. Says Prof Urjit Yajnik, dean of student affairs at IIT Bombay, “We have now learned that several other agencies are also moving similarly, without any hesitation. In India, people generally accept diversity readily and there should be no serious hurdle.”
The transition from a man to a woman is not an overnight process. It is a “painfully” long procedure that requires a lot of patience. A person must first undergo hormone therapy and, if possible, live as a member of the desired sex for a while. To be eligible for hormone therapy, the person needs at least two psychiatrists to certify that he or she is mentally sound, and schizophrenia, depression and transvestism have to be ruled out first. The psychiatric evaluation involved a series a questions on how Sunaina felt, when she got to know of her confusion and need for sex change, whether she is a recluse, her socio-economic condition, among other things. “The psychiatrists in Mumbai were rigorous. But I had no confusion in my mind. I was always sure about what I wanted to become. I needed to undergo the change from a man to a woman and I now had a certified doctor saying so,” Sunaina says.
The hormone therapy began in June 2012, which is when her parents came to Mumbai to stay with her. Simultaneously, she started working on her voice. “Coupled with hormone therapy and voice modulation exercises, my voice started changing, I started getting addressed as ‘ma’am’ whenever I spoke to someone over the phone and that one single word took me closer to my dreams,” she says.
A few months later, Sunaina joined the IT firm. Worried that she may lose her job if she disclosed her plans to undergo a sex reassignment surgery, she first focussed on cracking some “heavy-duty projects”. She worked hard to prove herself as a good programmer. She completed three key projects and then started emailing her bosses. “The ‘IIT’ tag helped. Luckily, they were all very supportive. But I still came to office dressed like a man,” she says. Nine months ago, having taken her seniors into confidence, she walked into office, dressed as a woman. “I am six feet tall and feel more comfortable in western outfits and I came dressed in woman’s formals ― shirt and pants. I had started growing my hair for the last two years, so that helped,” she says.
Her colleagues were initially hesitant. They would stand in a huddle, trying to figure out why their male colleague was wearing make-up or jewellery. “I didn’t pay much attention, my earlier habit of channelising my energies into work helped. A month later, people started getting comfortable and they started approaching me for work like they would with any other colleague,” she says.
Simultaneously, she emailed all her friends and peers at work and, according to her, even the college “bully” wrote back, supporting her decision. There were minor hurdles when the management of the apartment complex where she lived thought she was into drugs and, hence, the resultant “strange behaviour”. They wanted to throw her out of the building. But her parents intervened and convinced the landlord, the building’s secretary, and society members to let her stay at least till her surgery. “After my surgery, no one in my building considers me queer, no one thinks I am into drugs. I am now a ‘normal’ woman and have a renewed contract with my landlord with my new name, addressing me as ‘Ms’ instead of ‘Mr’,” she says.
While the nine-hour-long surgery took place in July 2013 and was successful, she sustained nerve damage on the foot. Throughout the recovery, her parents were beside her and the firm also allowed her to work from home. “Both my parents have been really supportive and spending time with them now is a lot more fun. I had a nice time recently cooking a special lunch for my father along with my mother. I do get a feeling that my parents are proud of their daughter,” Sunaina says.
Her only regret is that she will not be able to be a biological parent. “The doctors had given me the option of preserving my sperm, but then I would be known as the father and not the mother of a child. And though there is no medical evidence to that effect, I didn’t want this disorder to be passed onto my child. So, in future, if I get married, I would like to adopt a child,” she says.
Back at work now, Sunaina is busy travelling between Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore for a project that she is working on. Like many other single people in the city, she can spend hours watching Friends, and reading thrillers and Harry Potter. A new happiness has taken seed in her and she says it does not feel that she ever had a male body. “I am a person who likes to laugh. Till my surgery, behind every smile of mine, there was a struggle. Now it’s about time that I laughed for real. I have never had a relationship in my life, because somewhere, I always wanted to be treated as a girl. Now, that I am a woman, I am open to a new life, new relationships. I don’t have to hide anymore, I don’t feel trapped anymore. I love coding and my job. I love cooking. I am learning French and when my left foot recovers fully, I plan to learn dancing. And, for the first time this year, I will vote with my new name. I am looking forward to that,” she says.