Manabi Bandyopadhyay, the first transgender in India to head a college in West Bengal, inspires an entire generation into accepting people from the third gender for what they actually are.
SUJOY DHAR says that many male-to-female transgenders are forced to work as sex workers
As the makeshift fashion runway at an upscale hotel in Kolkata explodes in a hue of psychedelic blue, a bejewelled middle-aged woman in a gorgeous sari draped in the style favoured by Bengali homemakers walks confidently with a child in tow, waving at the admiring audience. Wearing heavy make-up, her unruly mass of hair fashionably tousled, she struts in sporting a million dollar smile and effortlessly joins popular Hindi film actor Soha Ali Khan and a host of Bengali film industry celebrities for a children’s charity fundraiser. This woman may not be a paparazzi favourite from the glamour or art world but she is certainly an icon: she is Manabi Bandyopadhyay, the first transgender in India to head a college in West Bengal.
An academician, who had underwent a male-to-female sex change operation in 2003, Bandyopadhyay’s appointment as the principal of Krishnanagar Women’s College, about 105 kilometres from Kolkata, came almost a year after the Supreme Court officially recognised the long marginalised transgender community as the third gender. In a significant judgment, the Apex Court called on the government to ensure their equal treatment and rights.
Incidentally, at present, as per India’s census report, the number of transgenders in the country is 4,90,000, which activists point out is six to seven times lower than the actual figure.
Born as Somnath, a man in a rural family in Nadia district, Bandyopadhyay, who is now in her late forties, has a Masters degree in Bengali and loves the teaching profession although there have been many challenges along the way. “It has been a long struggle for me. But you should not confuse me with the urban face of the LGBT movement in India since I am not supported by big money or NGOs. I do not think I belong to the so called mainstream movement. People like me, the transgenders, are happy in our own skin; we do not want to be so-called mainstream, we only need protection of our citizens’ rights,” she says.
While Bandyopadhyay is making news from eastern India, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Kalki Subramaniam, another transgender, who is also an activist for community, is not only setting an example of empowerment but she is drumming up support for securing the social, economic and political rights of transgender persons in India. As a transgender person, Subramaniam, like Bandyopadhyay, grew up with her share of stigma and jeers in school and college, but she overcame it all to emerge as a strong leader. Through the Sahodari Foundation, this former actor, who holds two Masters degrees, works on drawing effective entrepreneurship training programmes, which she believes can positively impact the livelihood choices of her people – essentially take them away from a life of poverty and servitude.
For now, both women agree that the pace of socio-economic inclusion of the transgenders is slow despite the landmark Supreme Court judgement. “The ruling is historic but, unfortunately, the progress on implementation has been quite sluggish. We urgently need better medical facilities and jobs. There should be reservation for transgender people in government jobs,” asserts Subramaniam.
Apart from economic uplift she makes a case for societal acceptance, too. “Most members of our community are poor people and they need housing and education. Many are school dropouts. This must change and in every school and college young boys and girls should be given lessons in gender equality and gender diversity so that we are treated with respect. As it is at present, the treatment of transgenders differs from state to state. For instance, we are better off in states like Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Karnataka as opposed to Kerala or Jammu and Kashmir,” she adds.
Of course, whereas the LGBT group may have some common issues to deal with Bandyopadhyay, who has been a teacher for nearly two decades besides being a popular opinion-maker on television debates on alternative sexuality, opines that the fight of gays and lesbians is different from that of the transgender community. “Unlike the gays or lesbians, you will find transgender people begging for survival on the streets in the absence of work. A few end up as sex workers. The government should seriously consider providing us with avenues for gainful employment,” she says. Many male-to-female transgenders are forced to work as sex workers and it’s not uncommon to spot them
According to Jyoti Samanta, 30, a transgender who is being mentored by Bandyopadhyay, the social discrimination and economic hardships they face in the absence of employment is indeed acute. “Even though I am fortunate that I have been able to pursue my passion – I play the role of a woman in folk theatre of rural Bengal – I know many like me are actually scouring the streets. We definitely need jobs,” she says.
Though their situation is far from being ideal, ever since the SC judgement, there have been some developments in their favour. For example, in Kolkata, the state government has put together a dedicated medical team to attend to transgender patients at the RG Kar Medical College and Hospital. Besides a counsellor, the panel of medicos in this hospital also comprises a psychiatrist, a plastic surgeon and specially trained nurses.
Hope, optimism and the support of a loving family is what is driving the likes of Subramaniam and Bandyopadhyay today. In fact, the college principal counts heavily on her adopted son, Debasish Manabiputra. “I was a student in her class and she adopted me later. I could finish my studies and did my Masters in Bengali because of her. I love my mother and I hope more such people are able to come out and live their life on their own terms,” he signs off.