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Between Pink and Blue

Over a year after being accused of rape and of being a man,former athlete Pinki Pramanik speaks about her humiliations,and why she has agreed to a documentary on her life.

Written by Premankur Biswas | New Delhi |
December 8, 2013 11:16:27 pm

Over a year after being accused of rape and of being a man,former athlete Pinki Pramanik speaks about her humiliations,and why she has agreed to a documentary on her life.

At eight in the evening,Sealdah railway station is a mass of swirling humanity. Men,women and children clamber onto trains that will take them to their homes in the suburbs of Kolkata. At the north gate of the station,Pinki Pramanik,head travelling ticket examiner (TTE),Eastern Railway,Sealdah,scans the crowd for errant commuters. Her black coat sits smartly on her shoulders,her forehead is furrowed in concentration and her body language forbids you to mess with her. But she is quickly swallowed by the surge of people,as if a life of anonymity was always meant for her.

A few days later,in the living room of a friend’s south Kolkata residence,27-year-old Pramanik tells us with an ironic mix of humour and resignation that she always wanted to rise above anonymity. “As a child in a small village in Purulia (West Bengal),I was fascinated by television. I always wanted to be on it. But I didn’t know how. Then,I saw the Asian Games on television and followed the track and field events. I told myself,I can run,” she says with a laugh. And run she did.

As an Indian track athlete who specialised in the 400 metres and 800 metres,Pramanik was a golden girl,winning the silver at the 2006 Commonwealth Games,gold at the 2006 Asian Games,and gold at the 2005 Asian indoor Games. She won three golds at the 2006 South Asian Games. A series of injuries and an accident in 2007 halted Pramanik’s career. But it was the summer of 2012 that broke her spirit.

A female friend accused her of being a man and of raping her. Overnight,news headlines would turn an international athlete into a monstrous aberration. Following the complaint,Pinki Pramanik was treated as a “male”,handled by male police personnel and kept in a men’s prison cell for 26 days by the police authorities. More ignominy followed: an MMS clip of her undergoing a medical examination went viral. From then on,the media clamour refused her a modicum of privacy or respect. “They discussed the hair growth on her body,as well as salacious details of her medical tests openly on TV,” says Payoshni Mitra,a researcher on gender issues,who took an active part in changing the popular perception of Pramanik through interventions on TV and in newspapers. It was alleged that Pramanik had cheated the state government by “posing” as a woman athlete and collected money and rewards. This is not the first time that the “sex” of a female athlete had been questioned in the sporting arena,but never before had it become the subject matter of a criminal proceeding. Medical tests went on to state that Pramanik has an intersex variation and was incapable of penile penetration. Because of this crucial report,Pramanik,represented by the Lawyers Collective,filed a criminal revision petition in Calcutta High Court in August and asked the court to quash all charges against her.

The near-demonisation of Pramanik points to the deep discomfort society has towards people with ambiguous gender identities. “Intersex generally refers to variations in genital anatomy,but not all such conditions involve ambiguous genitalia. Some people have typical external genitals but the internal anatomy of the other sex,” says Mitra. Intersex variations are also more common than is perceived,probably why the Olympic games suspended gender verification tests in 2000. Medical science suggests that intersexuality can be easily “corrected” by surgery or hormone therapy but intersex people and activists all over the world are gradually beginning to question this. The presence of intersex people leads us to question the idea of only male and female sex,says Mitra.

Sitting by the window of her friend’s flat,Pramanik recalls those dark days,her laughter drying up. “I was in the Dum Dum correctional home for 25 days and it was my sanctuary. I didn’t want to know what was happening outside. People in the jail treated me with love and respect. They would serve me extra food,” she says. But when the MMS clip went viral,a part of her “died”. “There was this chacha who would wash my clothes and help me with other chores. He probably worked for the warden. We shared a nice rapport. The day I heard of the MMS clip,I asked him how long it would take for a person to die after hanging. He reported this to the warden and the warden ensured that I had a guard with me 24X7,” she says. For that day,Pramanik contemplated suicide seriously. She even knew how she would do it. “I had decided I would make a noose out of my shoestrings,” she says,a weary smile on her face.

Though it is evidently not easy for her to talk about the moments of complete helplessness,Pramanik agreed to collaborate on a documentary on her life,Je Jan Achche Majkhaane (Those Who Are in the Middle),with filmmaker Debolina and Mitra. The film was recently screened at DIALOGUES,an LGBT film festival in Kolkata.

The camera breaks down her reserve. Soon,she is happily posing for the photographer. She puts on a swagger as easily as the bomber jacket that she sports. She flexes her toned arms and knits her eyebrows in mock anger,and seems more like the successful woman who loved her fast bikes and the good life. “I have been lucky in a lot of ways. I have seen a lot of success and not all of that can be attributed to my talent. A girl from a village in Purulia cannot achieve the kind of success that I have achieved without the help of luck,” says Pramanik.

Born in a lower-middle-class family of five sisters and one brother in Tilakdi village,Pramanik was the naughty tomboy mothers of little girls are taught to dread. “My mother didn’t know what to do with me. I liked playing with the boys. I offended her a lot. She was always afraid for my safety,” she says. Her mother’s fears were not altogether unfounded. Pramanik reveled in being a hero,even at the risk of personal harm. “Once,I was playing with my friends in the fields and I heard a girl screaming. She was playing with a calf and it had fallen into the well. I jumped in to save it. Everybody congratulated me for my bravery,” she says. Another incident involved her saving an old woman who was trapped in a burning house. Even as she talks about her feats,it’s not arrogance that you detect in her voice and demeanour,but a mild plea. “I want people to know who I am. I am not a monster. People respected me,I brought pride to this country. But everything changed because of one reckless accusation,” she says.

The young and reckless braveheart soon found a release for her energies in sports. “I was not great in studies. I was out in the field,playing some game or the other. At a sports event for children,I was spotted by officials. They offered me a chance to participate in district-level championships in 2001,” she says. Pramanik was tempted by a dream she had no means to realise. Girls from lower middle-class families in Purulia don’t consider a career in sports. Nor do they wake up every day at 2 am and sneak out of their house. “My parents didn’t approve of me running. So I decided to practise when they were asleep. I didn’t have a watch to tell the time,so my childhood buddy,who practised with me,would walk past my house and cough. That was my signal to come out,” says Pramanik.

The family could not afford the nutritious and protein-rich diet of an athlete. “But I didn’t care about these things. I was possessed,” she says.

Her performance in the district-level competition in 2001 won her a state-level berth and a year later,she was in Kolkata. Confusing,dizzying Kolkata,a place far removed from the picture-still hills of Purulia. “When I first landed here,everything surprised and confused me. I didn’t know the customs of the city. I didn’t even know how to run with spikes,” she says. She bought a pair after saving money for months. “When I finally competed for a state-level championship,I realised my spikes had been stolen. Thankfully,someone was generous enough to lend me a pair,” she recalls. It was in the city,and in the company of fellow athletes,that she came into her own. “All my life,I had stood out like a sore thumb. I was a girl who did things boys did. People didn’t know how to pin me down. Finally,I was surrounded by people who understood me,shared my aspirations. My life as a sportsperson gave me some of my best memories and my closest friends,” says Pramanik.

Fellow athletes remember her as one of the “most talented athletes to come out of Bengal” . Pampa Chanda,national-level long distance runner,who followed Pramanik’s rise to glory,thinks her career was nipped in the bud. “She was meant for great things. She would practise like crazy and followed a strict regime. Whenever our coach wanted her to do anything,she was always ready,” says Chanda. She also believes Pramanik was too naïve for the ways of the world.

Rakhi Saha Paul,a national-level sprinter from West Bengal,who was Pramanik’s roommate at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) hostel in Kolkata from 2002 to 2006,spoke about how the allegations changed Pramanik. “When I visited her in her flat in Baguiati after the incident,she looked blankly at me and asked me if I was not scared of visiting someone with her reputation. I scolded her and told her that we are her friends and we knew her. But deep down,I knew I had no words to console her after the humiliation she had gone through,” says Rakhi.

Despite the case being in court,Pramanik harbours a dream of resuming her athletic career. “After my case is formally dismissed,I will approach SAI. I have been practising daily and I hope I will be allowed to participate in athletic events. I also hope to open a coaching centre in my village,” she says.

Pramanik is now acutely conscious about her public image. “I realised that I should share my story. It will help other people like me. Though I gave them (Debolina and Mitra) artistic freedom to make the film because I trust them,I questioned their stand. Because I know how the media has projected me so far. I fear that people like me might feel uncomfortable with themselves because of my case. I have a responsibility towards them,” she says.

When I asked what being an “intersex variation” means to her,she shrugs. “What does being a ‘male’ mean to Sachin Tendulkar? What does being a ‘female’ mean to Saina Nehwal? Do they wear it like a badge? It means nothing to me. What defines a sportsperson,or any human being,is his or her work,” she says.

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