A version of this article originally appeared on VICE India.
The word "mainstream" holds little significance for the majority of the transgender community in India. But when the trans community of Kolkata, the capital of India's West Bengal state, announced their plans to host the city's first ever trans poetry reading at the Sahitya Akademi on July 17, they experienced collective, "mainstream" recognition for the first time ever.
Legal recognition for transgender individuals is complicated in India. While the Constitution acknowledges hijras (trans), the third gender, basic access to fair employment opportunities, government services, and identity documents like a voter’s ID card, the Aadhaar card (the Indian equivalent of a social security ID) is still difficult for the country's trans men and women.
"2014’s NALSA verdict said that trans people are free to declare themselves male, female, or trans," Ankan Biswas, the first trans lawyer in India, told VICE. "But trans people in India face stigma at every step. Even now my colleagues tease and taunt me in the court room, and judges mock me.”
The brief 90-minute program reflected the community's daily struggle for acceptance through poetry that was largely drawn from their real-life experiences. It was a unique mix of transgender poets, comprising of a college professor, a math teacher, an award-winning actor, a nurse, and an NGO-activist. Verses "Amar Anubhati" ("My Feelings") and "Ekti Patar Mrity" ("Death of a leaf") by Prosphutita Sugandha, "Saapmochan," "Bichched Ebong" ("And Separation") by Debdatta Biswas, "Chakravyuh" ("Cycle") by Aruna Nath, and "Rup Antorer Pala" ("Turn to the heart") offered glimpses into lives to which we're not usually privy.
"Transgender literature is mostly drawn from real-life experiences," said Dr. Manabi Bandopadhyay, the first transgender principal at a district college. "It [can] give you a slight hint of our daily misery. I wish more and more transgender people created their own poetry. It's kind of an escape route, you see." Dr. Bandopadhyay added a personal touch to the event by inviting each poet to share their stories about coming out.
"My mother would sit near the idol, cry her heart out, and say: 'He is my son. I have given him birth. Oh, Lord help us in this difficulty.’ And I would hide in the room all day long," poet Prosphutita Sugandha read.
To survive by means other than begging at traffic signals, public parks, or dancing and singing at birth ceremonies, a number of transgender women often turn to prostitution. While physical needs are often satiated, Rani Majumder used her poetry to speak of others that are not. "Spending a summer afternoon with the 15-year-old Japanese boy... So much body, where's the heart?" she read.
Whether it was being dumped by a girlfriend for not being masculine enough, excluded from your family, or the everyday bullying encountered at the workplace—the poetry fest gave the community a safe space to process difficult emotions. "I am so impressed with the poetry, the stories, and everything else about this event; I just hope we come up with more such events," said Priti Raha, a student of Calcutta University who is currently researching Bengal's transgender literature.
Although successful, the event was also tinged with controversy. A heated conversation occurred between Ranjita Sinha—a former Member of the West Bengal Transgender Board who had been protesting and questioning the authenticity of the event from the moment it was announced on social media—and Dr. Bandopadhyay, who also serves as the Vice Chairman of the Third Gender Welfare Board in West Bengal.
At the meeting, Sinha claimed there was favoritism within the Third Gender Board of West Bengal, and that Dr. Bandopadhyay had created a clear distinction in the community between those she considered to be elite and those she did not. Along with her Facebook post, Sinha reiterated her statement to VICE by saying, “This program was supposed to be for the community. But I was surprised to see how [Dr. Bandopadhyay] conveniently did away with a number of talented poets who might not be a professor or hold a Masters degree but have enough merit to be up on that dais. This meeting shouldn't have been restricted to just a few people from the community—it could have been a prestigious day for all of us.”
"It’s very, very unfortunate," a member of Kolkata's trans community who did not wish to be named told VICE. "She had a lot to say against [Dr.] Bandopadhyay and the fest committee. It actually shows how we are fighting within the community, and instead of standing by each other, trying to pull each other down."
Sinha, however, maintained: "I have no personal grudge toward anyone. I raised my voice as there were some derogatory comments being made against the transgender NGOs."
The argument was soon overshadowed as Dr. Bandopadhyay invited Madhu, Shankari, Kalpana, and Anjali from the hijra community on stage. "We are here to acknowledge transgender poets, but how many of us actually realized the talent of these hijras who write and compose their own songs?" she asked, as they launched into song and dance, effortlessly engaging the whole hall.
"Who would have thought that civilized society would sit and watch us doing our hijra dance? I can definitely not forget this day,” said Shankari.
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