I was making a documentary on Amitava, a transgender, about whom I had read about in some newspaper article.
I tracked him down to his office in Zamroodpur Delhi.
Amitava was approximately five feet ten inches tall, wearing ethnic clothes, a kurta with parallels to be specific & carrying a cotton jhola bag. I found his face extremely charming.
We found a comfortable corner sipping pheta hua coffee which the office peon served in colorful mugs. He spoke very gently and gave me a short history of his life.
Amitava was born a man in a middle class Bengali family from Kolkata and being the only child, he had enough attention from his family and relatives. He was perhaps 6 or 7 years old when he felt he better enjoyed playing with dolls and wearing his mum’s sarees. When he was 16 he knew he was a woman inside, and his struggles began soon after.
As I was about to leave after a half an hour chat, he held my hand and looked into my eyes and said “You are confused right? You have no clue how to handle the subject, isn’t it? You are hesitating to ask questions? Don’t worry these reactions are quite normal. I am trapped in a wrong body like many of us find us trapped in a wrong job or trapped with a wrong partner right….?”
I just stared at him.
Later that week I met him at his place. He made some laal cha (black tea with elaichi and clove) for me and soon began endless discussions on the subject and his experience. After couple of hours we were both hungry and we both walked to the nearest market to pick up some bhel puri.
The shop keepers and shoppers both noticed us. Though he wore a long kurti with pajamas there was some odd stares.
We came back to his place and soon another session of long discussion on Hijra cult, Transgender, cross-dressers began. While eating Bhelpuri he was talking about his cooking issues everyday and not being able to find a maid because they simply refuse to work in his house. Seeing him distraught I wanted to lighten his mood and taught him to make bhel puri with left over cold rice with onions, red chillis and curry-patta and any namkeen mixture available at home. The recipe I had learnt from a small dhaba in Koppal district Karnataka – during a shoot.
Bengalis make panta bhaath with left over rice. They add water to their left over rice and let it ferment overnight and have it next day with onions, green chillis and a bit of kasundi (mustard sauce). The dish is also believed to be a great detox.
However when I taught Amitava cold rice bhelpuri he laughed and said why Bengalis never thought of it…we were bonding well and he was opening up to me – and this was important for me.
That night after logging the interview, a few lines got stuck in my head, “My organs were wrong, my body defying my womanhood. Vagina is not a woman, a woman is much more than an organ called vagina, which I always felt was over rated.”
“Why has God created such people and send such people to this mortal world who are not pre-defined in His dictionary, in His own created society as per His gender norms ???” He spoke with so much conviction and with so much confidence that I knew that he had thought over the subject, many times, over and over again.
We again met couple of days later at his place. This time I met Simran Sheikh and Ahir Abeena and Mahesh. All of them were fighting a war with their own bodies. Their war was fierce and it becomes fiercer when they have to fight two wars, one within their body and another other with external forces.
“In a male driven society, when a man chooses to become a woman, it is considered sacrilege because for most people a man holds a higher place in society and why would any man sacrifice a God gifted higher seat for something lower, insignificant and irrelevant” ?
Those lines came out of the immediate male family members of Amitava. His neighbors speculated and often spoke to him in a condescending manner. His childhood friends would tease him and often gave him gyaan or tell him to consult a psychiatrist.
Amitava felt miserable during Durga puja, the biggest festival of the Bengalis because that is when he was asked to dress like a Bangali Bhadralok with dhuti and kurta and he hated doing that. On top of that because of his height and good looks few girls from his college even approached him to become their boyfriend.
“It was harrowing growing up as a woman with a male outer cover and many times I just wanted to die to be reborn again as a woman”. He would become completely silent after these outbursts.
The only person who understood Amitava during his tough teenage days was his mother. She taught Amitava to divert his mind and he started learning music. His Guru was the well known Bengali singer Suchitra Mitra. He drowned his sorrows in the songs of Tagore. His favourite Tagore song defined him …the opening lyrics “Forgive me too (Aamareo karo marjona)” is what I pray to the universe asking for forgiveness even when it played a cruel joke on him and as the song ends with the lines “listen to my heartache too (Shuno go aamaro ei maromobedona.)”
Amitava had joined the hijra cult after college. He had a guru and he performed various tasks for his Guru. He then realized he did not belong to the cult but he had many Hijra friends who understood him. He even adopted a young transgender as his child. He suddenly felt brave. There were others like him; they all were children of a lesser God.
One morning he decided to wear his mother’s dhonekhali green saree with a readymade red blouse which he had picked up from a nearby shop. The first day when he wore his mother’s saree and came out on the streets he felt a sense of freedom.
It was the Hijra cult that gave him the courage; the embarrassment he felt all his life was now slowly disappearing. His first job interview was in a kurta and a skirt and a long string of red beads which he wore with confidence and he got the job. Now there was no embarrassment, no hiding, and no lies.
One evening Amitava invited me to his friend’s house. I reached with my crew and a stunning Amitava opened the door in a crisp cotton dhakai saree with red bindi and red glass bangles and lovely silver ear rings. That night I met many more cross dressers, transgenders and hijras. First, I thought I had entered a different world, but soon I realized they were just like any of us. They all spoke of fears and issues as women. They spoke of the stigma, they spoke about job security, they spoke about difficulty in getting rents and then I realized they faced many more issues as most people are wary of them.
They danced to Bollywood numbers, recited poetry of hate and shame. One of the eunuchs came and sat with me and I looked at her and asked is it true that when you bless a newborn it is indeed auspicious. She kept on looking at me, laughed and said “well if it helps us economically so be it – after all a blessing is a blessing isn’t it.”
Soon some of them cracked jokes on the only woman present in the room – whom God made when He was sane. I laughed too.
It was a night I perhaps will always remember. Amitava had cooked a simple dinner of meat and rice. “It is a veg meat”, he said. A typical mutton curry recipe with no onions or garlic. I laughed at the concept of Bengali veg meat but the taste of the meat would have definitely put Gordon Ramsey to shame and seriously no jokes.
Before leaving, for the first time, I held Amitava’s hand and told her that – she was beautiful. She smiled with tears in her eyes, after all it was the first time that I addressed her as a woman.
The film never got finished because every time I edited it I felt I was not doing justice to it. But yes we both remained friends. We share interesting recipes, anecdotes and music…..relationships are more important than films after all.
PS Amrita (she changed her name after she underwent a sex change surgery) sent me a whatsapp recipe of Veg Mutton which she describes just like her life – as Mutton without onion and garlic is not considered mutton, yet the dish tastes as good without those predictable ingredients.
Mutton cooked in slow fire with cumin seeds, ginger, tomatoes, green chilies and coriander leaves with loads of potatoes because Bengalis can’t fathom meat curry without potatoes.
I did make it once and yes it does taste yum.
Which makes me wonder…?
Is the normal that we think is normal… the real normal – or there is another normal, that we are refusing to see.
STORY AND PICTURE BY: ISHANI K DUTTA