It is more than 15 years since Aida Banaji was dubbed, ‘India’s most famous transsexual’ in the 1996 documentary, A Mermaid Called Aida, by avant-garde filmmaker Riyad Vinci Wadia. It was a notional declaration, much in the same vein as Ashok Row Kavi was anointed ‘India’s only gay man’ by a media eager to create totems for an emerging sub-culture they understood little about. Within Mumbai’s close-knit queer community, a few worn and scratched VCDs of the film are still to be found in circulation, and at screenings organised by gay groups sporadically, it is quite the festival favourite. Watching the film projected on the rough-hewn walls of the dank out-houses loaned for these once clandestine soirées, is like being transported to another age. The moving pictures flicker in and out of focus, as if rendered via an old bioscope. The poor quality of the VCD means that frames are skipped from time to time, till finally the disc grinds to a halt just as we arrive at the point of intermission. Will she transform into a woman? The question remains unanswered.
Even so, the film draws out a lot of Aida’s irrepressibility, as she talks of the journey towards her actualization as a woman. There is an emotional nakedness on display and the social prejudices that transsexuals face on an almost daily basis are laid out quite matter-of-factly. In many ways, Wadia’s untimely death in 2003, when he was just 36, took away his cinema (which includes Bomgay, arguably India’s first bonafide gay film), although echoes survive outside the mainstream. Banaji, a fluttery, whimsical creature who lit up the Bombay club scene with her divaesque flamboyance, becomes less of a tragic type, and more of a real flesh-and-blood individual, even as she talks about the most mundane daily rituals that keep her occupied, or as she recounts stories of her great love affairs that always seem to end on a downbeat note, but never at the cost of her spirit.
Times have changed. Mermaids are now everywhere, eager to forsake their amphibious tails, and acquire a woman’s body to match the woman’s soul they were born with. Sometimes, like in the fairytale, it could be for the love of a prince. Recently, 21-year-old Bidhan Barua moved the Bombay High Court successfully for permission to carry out a sex change operation that ‘her’ parents were insistently road-blocking, ostensibly to marry a flight lieutenant in the Indian Air Force. In reality, her reasons probably run a lot deeper than that. While Banaji came from a privileged ‘old money’ background, and travelled abroad for the surgery, Barua has worked odd jobs since high school to raise the money that the procedure would cost in Indian hospitals (anything from two to three lakhs), where the medical technology is now available finally. While still out of reach for many, access to these procedures have increased manifold in the country. Which is why transsexuals are more visible than ever before and can no more be considered just a blight on the horizon.
Transsexualism is the condition where a person’s assigned sex at birth conflicts with their psychological gender, and the struggle to overcome this so-called gender dysphoria consumes the person completely. There is the widely held notion that sex change is carried out on a whim or a fancy. This is simply not true. Psychological gender is something that involves a person’s whole identity — it is something innate, and emphatically not a matter of choice. Before finally accepting themselves as women despite the glaring physical evidence to the contrary, both Banaji and Barua would have undergone periods of severe self-loathing, living a lie in order to fit in with people’s perceptions of who they were. Sometimes conforming to society’s standards, when it is clearly at loggerheads with your own sense of self, can be suffocating. The emotional toll can be devastating. Depression, a complete mental breakdown, or even suicide is imminent. Transsexuals cannot understand why an alignment of body and spirit, which is a given for almost everyone else, has been denied to them. Information is now no more thin on the ground, thanks to the ready access to knowledge the Internet provides. This explains the tenacity of youngsters like Barua who are so eager to wrest control of their lives, so hungry to claim their rightful bodies.
Even as more stories of these transformations are being covered in the mainstream media and on television, it is rather disconcerting that pre-conceived notions about transsexuals still persist. In a recent incident, where a post-operative transsexual woman made the cover of a national weekly, the photographer insisted in styling her in such a way that her ‘inner man’ (his words) peered out. Clearly the struggle she had undergone to discard that very veneer of masculinity wasn’t considered meaningful enough by the photographer looking for manufactured ‘edge’. Another transsexual model, who wanted a standard-issue fashion portfolio shot for herself, found the photographer repeatedly trying to queer the pitch by placing male babies in the frame, ostensibly to show where she ‘came from’. Having spent almost a lifetime being taken only at face value when she had the body of a man, she found the people would now constantly try to look beyond her apparent womanhood for a glimpse of the gender identity that she had left behind. And this, even though modern male-to-female sex reassignment surgery or vaginoplasty results in perfectly functional female genitalia, and is accompanied by hormone therapy that is powerfully feminizing. The transition is irrevocable and complete.
When the procedure is complete, and a bruised woman lies on the hospital bed, waiting to look at herself for the first time, her mental condition is certainly still very precarious. The butterfly, like the mermaid, is a potent symbol of a kind of metamorphosis that is cathartic even in itself. Sometimes, you don’t wake up to miraculously find yourself converted into the most beautiful woman in the world. Although, figuratively, that may still be the case. Sometimes, the superficial allure of the success stories the media drums up, sets up impossible standards of beauty. After all, our conditioning decrees that desirability is an important aspect of womanhood. Where tell-tale traces of your past can still be seen on your visage, the name-calling and sniggering will continue. It is a cruel world out there. Where the transformation is more absolute, and you can simply ‘pass’ as just another woman, the lack of compassion in urban courtship rears its head. Most women continue to find solace with their friends within the gay community, who welcome them with open arms, but are unable to take physical responsibility for their sexual desires. Even liberal and educated contemporary straight men, while taken in completely by a woman's personality find it difficult to accept that she may once have been a man when the fact presents itself. While the surgery may have evened things out, it will never quite be a level playing field. People will celebrate you for your courage, ordain you as the poster-girl for overcoming the greatest odds. But your romantic aspirations and your need to be just one of the others, may continue to be nipped in the bud.
It isn’t all gloom and doom. After all, there is more to life than finding a significant other. Even if Barua doesn’t get to marry her paramour, she will have stepped out into the open and given herself a chance at a life that will be eons more fulfilling, than when she was caged in a body that was not her own. Those are the chances that transsexuals hinge their existence upon. Happiness lies in the details, and some details wield more power than others. Some details are arrived at with great difficulty. Nonetheless, the journey has to be undertaken — it is the only way to experience the unremitting truth of your true gender.
The writer writes on Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) issues.