NAVIGATING FEMININITY THROUGH THE OTHER

A couple of months ago, I took an erratic and impulsive decision of accepting my friend Joe’s invitation to go to Nepal. This invitation and decision, both came in the wake of my personal struggle of dealing with and overcoming the horrors of being sexually molested by someone I considered a friend, some months ago. The horrors came with night-time terrors and day-time scrutiny of who I was, how I had been affected and how to navigate this sea of disdain I had slowly come to associate daily life with.

After making a short trip to Darjeeling, I returned to the city and immediately accepted my friend’s offer.

Joe is a professor in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Education at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh. He was going to stay in Nepal for a couple of months to brush up on Tibetan and excel in translations. Meanwhile, he opened his home to me, another one of his friends from Mumbai and his girlfriend from the Philippines. He had this idea of the four of us co-existing together for a brief while, focusing on our individual art and at the end of the day huddling together over wine to essentially engage in either discourses or nonsense banter- whichever the night demanded. Soon after I reached, we settled into a beautiful routine where it seemed like we had the perfect household and the perfect members to live with in peace.

Generally, Joe would be off all day attending translation classes and was not to be seen before evening. Prajna, the friend from Mumbai, a prolific woman with a wide knowledge and an impeccable taste in music and art, would mostly be off exploring places in and around Kathmandu.

That would leave Joe’s girlfriend and me spending a lot of time together, both too lazy to venture out, too poetic to not capture our thoughts into words while in bed and both too much in love with a good glass of rum- she much more than I!

Lola and I had only briefly met one evening, several months before this, during her trip to Calcutta with Joe. That evening we went to this “hip” joint called The Xrong Place, which I used to frequent once but slowly the attraction dwindled. When I had learned that Joe, Lola and a couple of other friends were drinking there, I swiftly made my way across town to give them a hug and share a drink.

In the course of that evening, what followed was unfortunate, infuriating and just a soddy reflection of the society that we are. A middle aged man kept eyeing Lola and when it became a little apparent that she may be trans, he started taking an intrusive and almost offensive interest in her- which led to Joe and the man getting into an altercation,even exchanging a few blows. The situation turned ugly when the pub people refused to evict this creepy and offensive man, rather wanting the foreigners to adjust, forgive and forget.

I’m not even going to go into the trope of the Irish man getting into bar fights scenario here, but what stayed with me from that evening was Lola’s infectious matter-of-fact dismissal of the man and his lecherous ways. It was at once both very feminine, yet had an archetypal sense of masculine power in the way she handled herself and Joe that evening. Not to mention the brief moments I could steal with her to speak of my then obsession, Nabokov’s Lolita, which I was incorporating into a play. It’s no coincidence that I met a Lola on the path of discovering another.

I knew, hence, that spending time with Lola in Nepal, would be enriching in more ways than one. If not enriching, certainly intoxicating, given her fervent love for her rum and my love for a glass of the same, every now and then!

In the afternoons, after our lazy breakfast making rituals, when we’d lay out in the balcony with a cigarette, a peg and a basket full of thoughts, I would often pose various questions to Lola, looking to her as this sister in arms, possessor of worldly knowledge of which I yearned for a taste. And she would rarely disappoint.

Everyone in that household was elder to me, except Lola who was just right. She was in her late twenties and was the closest to my age group which helped me open up without the fear of judgements with respect to my ignorance on so many things as opposed to the vast knowledge of highly accomplished people like Joe and Prajna.

She was the first trans-woman I had had the privilege of being close to and I knew this could help outline a lot of my ideas and notions regarding trans-sexuality, womanhood and the concept of transitioning itself. And thankfully, it did.

One of my earliest and the most endearing struggle I ever faced while “discovering” and charting my womanhood was my constant sense of duality. I was too sensitive and in tune with my emotions, hence too feminine, for my male friends to completely identify with my thoughts whereas I was too masculine in my day to day approach to life for my female friends to be completely understanding of my actions.

This is a phenomenon I have had the unfortunate luck of experiencing in almost all spheres of life, even today. The concept of a higher, wholesome and the most exemplary form of femininity was just an ideal- a social construct perhaps but an ideal nonetheless.

I had never had the comfort of being fully understood, until Lola, that is.

When  Lola would vaguely and sometimes in vivid details take me on a trip into her experiences of being a woman- acting, thinking and even dressing like one- I would feel like I could finally connect to that duality that exists within me without in anyway infringing on my identity of being feminine.

She once told me how back in her homeland, femininity or womanhood was largely prescribed in terms of one’s practical performances in the sphere of day to day life. It’s considered in terms of one’s performativity more often than not. Lola mentioned how her being drawn to cooking, staying home and taking care of the family was a major factor in her early moments of navigating the femininity. At the same time, a lot of her habits and traits were not considered to be the perfect depiction of the “ideal femininity” that she at one point struggled with.

For me, she is very close to my idea of femininity, perhaps because she resonates most with my internal duality which manifests itself in myriad manners.

I have reflected a lot on the phenomenon of trans-phobia and the historically rampant “Othering” and violence that has been meted out against the trans-community. A lot of people try to define it as a pathology whereas others call it plain and simple hate. And not to forget the vehement ideals of trans-womanhood itself that can be extremely bothersome and frightfully harmful.

In my conversations with Lola, I came to discover the inherent discriminations that exist between a lot of trans-women themselves. And these same discriminations are echoed more profusely within the cis-het majority, which really reflects little to no understanding, or rather a very flawed understanding of womanhood in itself.

Apparently, a lot of trans-women judge one another regarding “incomplete” transition. This in itself, I believe, defeats the whole process of accepting the identity one is attuned to irrespective of how they are born. If the concept of femininity is largely defined by our bodies then where exactly does the mind and its feelings and intuitions come in to act as a larger indicator of femininity?

I believe Trans-women are an example of how understanding femininity requires a broader perspective that defies just the rudimentary divisions of body, its organs and its relation to our mind.

When I see Lola dress up and head out, or cook for everyone or simply put on some lipstick and pose for the camera, I don’t see the social constructs of femininity within me being projected on to her in a systematic manner to help me identify her as a woman. She is as much a woman to me when she curses, is unruly, drinks like a sailor or takes charge or for that matter, how she uses the fucking bathroom!

To the trans-phobic, Othering trans-women becomes easy when their transitions are not complete because it gives them a card to call out on the disconnect between their body and their mind, relegating them to being pathological and in one single breath even perpetuate ridiculous stereotypes or notions to solidify a ground for mind-numbing hatred and singling out to oppress further within the patriarchal context.

In the face of such trying times, my only relief is in the search for the refined notions of femininity that is less about the superficial and superfluous demarcations and more about encompassing the concepts of the “Ideal Femininity” and its various rough edges and sides within everyday conversations thus, consistently refining, redefining and expanding at the same time.

In Joe’s recent book Trans*am- Cis Men and Trans Women in Love, he notes the experience of loving a trans woman as a cis het man and often refers to how it’s imperative to enlarge the conversation in a manner where the heteronormative ways of identifying as who we are do not inherently take precedence while talking about transamorous love. He writes :

                       “Cis men have largely devised and profited from the gendered economy of external validation in which the “Real Man” is the referential gold standard that sets terms for the “Real Woman,” and so many other fabricated metaphysical terms to label those who are Other, or less, than the “Really Real” (White) Man. While raking in the rewards of this economy, cis men are expected to be consistent, at least, and repose in our unassailable Manhood—a simple truth about reality—and imagine anything Other to be something with a significance relative only to their own.”

This same notion is so vital to keep in mind even as a cis het woman while engaging in conversations about our Othering of people who in theory, identify with her, so as to not alienate them from the discussion. This is one of the major drawbacks of modern day feminism when put to practice, and our systematic alienation of trans women, women of colour and of backward socio economic classes while engaging in day to day discourse.

May be when we expand our own vision of what it means to be a woman, only then can we reach out to the Other.

And only when we reach out to the Other, can we essentially understand, examine and even attempt to obliterate the archaic demarcations that keep us divided and ignorant about our own dualities of femininity and feminism as a whole.

– Navamita Chandra

(Originally published on Saintbrush)

Trans*am- Cis Men and Trans Women in Love by Joseph McClellan can be purchased here

Evening

Yamuna

 

In the dark night

I was going.

There was forest,

There was snake

There was swan

There was the music,

But I only remember

The night,

In which I was going.

 

That Window

 It was a north-faced one.

I didn’t have any other window

My home, my room was all but north.

The chilling cold dried my hair

It scorched my skin.

I shivered, for years as I didn’t have

The warm south.

And one day, as I decided to quit,

The window asked me,

“Is it you? Who’s left?”

 

The Light

Those dark horses don’t ply

In my prime I knew them

It wasn’t time, still, you and I

Waited to be longed for

Still, you and I…waited.

 

Days got older as our bird

And we got cold. Dear Lord,

We sickened together

until salvage came.

 

Dear Lord.

And Now, we see the light

at the end of the tunnel

The horses do go,

It is their prime.

-S Mukherjee

Projapoti Biskut

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At a time when the Bengali movie going public was torn between looking for an adventure atop the Mt. Everest Base camp (“Yeti Abhijaan “) or flying high inside an aircraft in peril( “Cockpit”) Projapoti Biskut appeared to saunter in with a breath of fresh air. I dare say hopes were raised both for a different aesthetic and commercially viable experience. The former because Anindya Chatterjee’s previous film, although pandering to the nostalgia of the long lost North Calcutta of the 90’s and the early 2000’s, had captured the somewhat bored and freely accepting whatever is served (read scene by scene remakes from films down south) on the silver screen. And the latter, as the production house of Shiboprosad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy do manage to churn out commercially successful films, no matter how much it reeks of middle-class Bengali compromise and sexism. But a man cannot live by hope alone. And although, the Box Office reports have hinted at adding wind to the sails, Projapoti Biskut is like the cookie, after it has been dipped in the tea too long.

Centring around a premise which has not seen too much exploration in the Bengali cinema circle, that of a young couple looking to start a family and for various reasons (be it the over-the-top timidity of the male protagonist Antar, or simply a lack of ” Netflix and Chill ” time) are unable to do so. Things to ponder upon: 1. Even though they have been married two and a half years and are relatively young (presuming being married for a longer period of time calls for heckling from members of the family to carry the family tree forward and the more practical issue of complications in pregnancy for women over 34), there seems to be a sudden uncalled for urgency in wanting to consummate their marriage. Hence, the visit to the Doctors and exploring options of IVF (quite the buzzword these days). 2. If you are expecting to see a sensitive issue being talked of/ spoken of for the first time, without the usual Censor Senguptas with a scissor in their hands, then think again. The film flatters to deceive.

Anindya Chatterjee, frontman of the Bangla Band Chandrabindoo, along with his band-mates Upal Sengupta and Chandril Bhattacharya, has been known to pen quirky lyrics, talking of urban sensibilities and sometimes urban insensibilities. Their lyrics are sarcastic and satirical, unearthing society’s obsession and idiosyncrasies with a surgeon’s precision. But satire is brilliant when subtle but not so when exaggerated and over the top. The captain of the ship, (the director) starts by placing the female (Shaon) protagonist in a familial set up, which is upper/ upper middle class, showing the done to death stereotypes of Tagore veneration in the household, a distaste for Popular Culture, and communist/ Marxist leaning (isn’t the sharing of the same ideological space by Marx and Tagore a bit problematic? One only wonders.) Other stereotypes are pandered to too, the most striking being the sketch of the male lead. Back in the 19th Century, when the British were consolidating their strangle hold on the Indian Terrain and subconscious, one of the ways was to create a binary, of the virile active British Male and the effeminate, lazy Indian counterparts (except the Sikhs and the Gorkhas of course). Their chosen targets were the Bengali “babus”, who were indolent, lazy, seen to be wasting time in luxury and privilege, not fit for any physical activities and hence the perfect fit for the “writers’” profile and thus the emergence of a particular class of individuals and government servants in the “Writers’ Building.” (For a detailed analysis, one may look up Colonial Masculinity by Mrinalini Sinha.)

Over the years, the stereotype has festered and taken up different forms, but the central core remains the same, that of the Bengali Man as a man of thought, words, a part of the intelligentsia but hardly a robust, active do-er. Our hero in peril, Antar is a caricature of this done to death perception. Hardly having an opinion of his own, a firm stand or say in matters of the office or the family, his character sketch is drawn, with the intention of making us laugh at ourselves, but where we end up only cringing at the exaggeration.

The problematics of the film deepen further. With a rift in marital harmony regarding a failed adoption attempt, Shaon returns to her parents. Having done so, she starts sporting a short hair-cut, undergoes a metamorphosis in terms of her apparel(The apparently more progressive Jeans replacing the Saree), and experimenting occasionally with alcohol and cigarettes, signifying a liberation of sorts which underlines the assumption that it is kind of impossible to portray a free thinking strong willed woman wearing traditional Indian/ ethnic wear and being a teetotaller. The case with our male lead is rather more baffling. In a world where Macho ( growing beard, beefing up the physique ) is the new cool, Antar goes clean shaven (reading too much into emasculation am I? ), starts wearing T shirts instead of the more formal attire and out of nowhere seems to acquire the confidence in speech, action and decision making that his previous self had been totally lacking. There is a very vague element of Amol Palekar of Choti Si Baat in this transformation, but if that was subtle, funny and heart warming, Projapoti Biskut fails to live up to the promise of that charm.

The film is slow in most parts. Except for a few witty exchanges, which are a trademark of the Anindya Chatterjee/ Upal Sengupta/ Chandril Bhattacharya stable, the film lacks a nuanced presentation of the issues, be it pregnancy , adoption or class and ideological conflicts within the familial, Bengali societal set up. Caricature or exaggeration works only to a certain degree. This “biskoot” (a very Bengali way of pronouncing ‘biscuit’) seems to have been dipped in froth.

-Sayan Aich Bhowmik

Revisiting Holmes:Empire and Its Falling Shadows in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Iconic Hero

It is often proclaimed by critics and theorists that there cannot be a specific demarcation between ages. There might be (and seems to be) a transitional phase between two apparently dominant literary, philosophical, social, political,cultural, psychological currents and then the stronger one takes over the weaker. Now, there might not be a specific date but sometimes one can really point out what in poetry is called a Volta: a turning point. In case of the Victorian and Modern age arguably that Volta is the publication date of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin –24th November, 1859. This was the book in which we came to learn about the human evolution –from one-celled amoeba to the multi-celled, complex neurological entity called the human being. The book virtually demolished the age-old religious notion of a coherent unidimensional world with considerable organic collectivity propelled by the church.In this context, one could almost conclusively say that in one moment of epiphany the whole Victorian sense of the superior centrality coming down through the golden middle ages of trust and truth and collective well-being as explored in Everyman, Mankind and similar texts, was gone. From Morality to Materiality, it is a journey towards brokenness –a large and gigantic fluidity with essential dots of superfluous fragments of a shattered post-industrialization, post-neo-classical age of liberal ideas trying to gather its own bits and pieces and as the poet exclaims, against its own ruins.

sherlock-holmes

In our theoretical classes our professors used to teach us how the age of “heroes” have ended with an emerging concept of the principle character, the protagonist. From the miracle to the morbidity it was all about the cry for the passing one, an all-time ubisunt which eventually leads to a corresponding search for a counter-pointing. With the breaking of the grand narratives like God, Faith, and Morality in a post-Darwinian age, the claws and paws of dehumanised modernity revealed itself more than ever in its overwhelming mechanized machinations. It is interesting to find how through the Iconoclast Sleuth of Doyle, the broken empire shows its lurking shadows; how Sherlock becomes a face of the times forgotten, trying to fulfil the need for what a Jimmy Porter would call a ‘good cause’.

It is interesting to note that Doyle was born in the same year which stands as the age-defining year for the publication of Darwin’s book, 1859. So, technically being born in the post-God-made-thee era, Doyle’s perception of his time was mingled with a belief of the enlightenment, in the super-reality of the massive metier of the empire. The very name Sherlock brings to mind a superhuman deduction with God-like knowledge on multifarious aspects. On the contrary, in the introductory novel A Study in Scarlet Sherlock’s would-be life-long partner-cum-friend-cum-narrator Dr. Watson reveals his vast ignorance about facts generally held to be an insignia for post-18th Century ‘educated intellectuals’:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done…

Sherlock, brother of an important empire-man does not only seem to be the super example of the construct of the Messiah for the distressed with all his larger–than–life ability to deduct and identify the real culprit but also the man who consciously detests the superficial sense of frugal prosperity.

Mycroft, the obese ‘government’ itself-man is the very representative of the centre that was losing its grasp on a world-wide scale. With the emergence of a broken generation on the advent of the Great War with insurgent colonies, with lowered values and higher need for mundane survival, the centre, as it is evident is able merely to give a vacant gaze at the ‘things’ while they fall apart. Sherlock’s intimacy with his new war-returned friend John Watson and his clear preference towards him over family deconstructs the idea that Mycroft symbolises – all that is of the empire, therefore, loftier and therefore important. With his unsocial confinement, his so called weird sense of the universe, man and nature, his lonely ruptures, his curious secrecy about himself and workings of his mind, Sherlock stands apart from being a mere white awe-inspiring Messiah. A nuance of a classical past, of those humanitarian substances in a virtual world of ‘superhuman inhumanities’(Owen- “Spring Offensive”) and made-up truths, his random and often outright condemnation of the present with all its scientific-geographical advancements might be considered as a comment upon the futility of the future to come. A sensitive man of the pro-war generation, Sherlock contains that potential, namely the cause of ‘being’, while the other half of the magic word remains,‘human.’

Probably, this was the reason for Sherlock’s provisional death as conjectured by Doyle –to be by a fall – a gigantic, tremendous and overwhelming fall that will shake the root of every adoring heart, the reverberation of which will last for ages –howling and haunting. Wondrous fact is that, the extent of the wailing of the devotees around every nook and corner was a little undermined by the author himself!

It is Holmes, who pointed out the threatening turbulent east and to strip it of its last residing, notion of the master. As a break from his bee-cultivation in the countryside to help his country with his espionage skill, he proclaimed it. And we see two old little buddies sitting side by side in an uncanny silhouette conversing while giving birth to the crucial prophesy that comes out of a Victorian viz-a-viz Modern bleeding heart, one final prolegomena off the platonic friendship.

In Thucydides’ Battle of Epipolae in his History of the Peloponnesian War, there is a passage on the confusion faced by the Athenians during a battle at night. Unable to distinguish friend and foe, the Athenians became panic-stricken and attacked their own people. The note of the melancholic that one could hear in the Stradivarius compositions of Holmes therefore goes beyond the personal; it virtually becomes an age-defying elegy on the loss of assurance, integrities and finally whatever stands for the humane. A more likely source could be the sermon of Cardinal Newman, ironically on the traditional day of Twelfth Night:

Controversy at least in this age does not lie between the hosts of heaven on the one side and the powers of evil on the other; but it is a sort of a night battle where each fights for himself and friend and foe stand together.(1839)

Instead of being the primeval saviour, the fairy-tale grand-narrative, Sherlock Holmes served as the metaphoric abode for the restless generations, a shelter at predicament, a psychological boost to the depressed empire, an ever-present solution to the impending unnamed complications –the last projection of a sane man probably who could sense the compromise in the prosperity, bring the ancient wisdom to meet newly found aspiration, distinguish friends and foes properly. He was the Hero, even at a failing time when Heroes were scarce; there was a character who is worth speaking of, adding whatever dignity is left off what Alan Kirby would call a pseudo modern or post truth world.

-Saranya Mukhopadhyay