How Somnath became Manobi, India's first transgender college principal

The autobiography of a journey between genders.

Throughout college, I was sought out by many boys who would take me to secluded spots along the Ganges just for sex and fun. I did let my hair down and have fun with them but, as I’ve said before, I was getting tired of such escapades and yearned for something more permanent, something that would uplift my soul.

There was a brothel near my house where there were many prostitutes. Looking at them, I sometimes asked myself if, like them, society was exploiting me too? I was young and emotional and needed to be supported by someone strong. Someone who would look deep into my eyes and drench my parched soul.

Those who came my way did not have any such feelings for me, but I don’t solely blame them because I was party to it all and everything that happened was with my consent. I knew that it was not in good taste and did not suit a student of my standing but I just couldn’t discontinue my casual flings.

I think it was around this time that I read an article in a popular Bengali magazine about a man in Kolkata who had undergone a sex change surgery to become a woman.

There was a mention of another man, the son of a well-known Hindustani classical vocalist, who also had such a surgery. I read the story again and again and hoped that one day I too would be able to have a sex change operation and turn into a woman. This seemed to me the only way to get the kind of love I was looking for.

College, on the other hand, did not stimulate me much. It revolved around just reading textbooks, writing routine exams and completing the syllabus. I’d hoped for greater training in the critical appreciation of literature which did not quite happen. So I desperately started looking elsewhere for increased mental stimulation.

It was around this time that I got to know Maya Siddhanta, one of the better known feminists in Kolkata, who had stunned the world with her single-boat Manimekhala expedition from Kolkata to Trincomalee in Sri Lanka via the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Palk Strait. Maya Di sympathised with me and realised that I was yearning to do something creative. She had started Malini, the first Bengali women’s magazine at the time, and asked me to write an article for the publication.

It was quite a difficult task. I was to interview the Bollywood actress Shabana Azmi. I was able to do it well and the interview was printed in Malini to quite a bit of critical acclaim. Back then, people read newspapers and magazines seriously and even talked about upcoming journalists. I was thrilled at the feedback and suddenly found my new calling. I wanted to be a journalist and the idea excited me so much that I decided to go all out and explore the opportunity.

Though I was in college, I kept in touch with the Bengali teacher at my old school, Arunoday Bhattacharya, who was also a journalist with a reputed Bengali newspaper. He had a special standing in his neighbourhood because of his vocation. I asked him for help and he put me in touch with Bengali newspapers and magazines that accepted articles from freelancers. Happily, some of the editors in charge took a liking to me and gave me assignments.

One of the page editors who helped me quite a bit at the time was Ranjan Bandyopadhyay, who worked at Aajkaal. I was over the moon and was already walking tall in college. Suddenly, my college mates started treating me with a modicum of respect and this thrilled me no end.

From a stage where people treated me like an outcast to this – I had already walked quite a distance. I knew I had to keep writing well and get more articles published for people to take me seriously. The fact that I could not become a full time journalist in the end is another matter. Academia, my first love, took the better of me.

I am a deeply religious person and Shiva lords over my existence. All this while I had been crying every night, asking him why my life was so unstable. Why was I not able to hold on to anyone or anything? Now, for once, I was crying to him with happiness as I was finally being accepted. I prayed to him to let it be this way and not take away my new-found happiness and stability in life.

I was gradually gaining back my confidence. I am an optimist by nature and I had hated the gloom that had enveloped me ever since Shyam had left. I had started believing that mine was a meaningless existence powered by depression. I hated my loneliness because I am extremely gregarious; I love to laugh out loud, eat and hang around with friends. But, finally, it seemed that the dark clouds were dissipating; at least for some time.

I knew that the people I was interacting with at the Bengali newspapers knew that I was a transgender but they neither jeered at me nor did they try to make me feel any different from the other freelancers who frequented their offices. Empowered with this new-found confidence, I decided to take bolder steps to come out as a transgender person. I planned it carefully and gradually changed my style of dressing. All this while, I had been wearing unisex clothes.

Now I started using accessories like scarves and women’s sunglasses to show off my sexuality.

I also realised that I would have to overcome my shyness and not make myself available for exploitation any more. People looked at me like a ripe fruit, ready to be plucked. I was at risk equally at home and outside.

In this context, I remember something that I had read about a female tennis star who was a victim of gender politics because of her sexual choices. Her father had been quoted saying that had his daughter been initiated into sex by him, she would not have ended up being a lesbian. I think he was absolutely wrong.

There are complex chemical reactions that take place in a foetus while still in its mother’s womb. It has nothing to do with the gender of the person who first initiates you into sex. As far as my parents were concerned, they still chose to ignore the fact that I was clearly not a boy. They tried their best to tell people that I had become friends with the wrong people who were spoiling me.

So outwardly, they pretended to become stricter with me and kept a watch on the number of hours that I spent outside the house. Inwardly, they were a little proud of the fact that I was writing regularly for the papers because it helped elevate their status in the locality. They also bought me a harmonium and insisted that I sing Tagore’s songs. I was also given a tutor.

However, even after achieving these new heights in my life, taunts from people around continued unabated. The term “transgender” was unknown to most, but now, from “hijra”, my status had changed to samakamior “homosexual”.

I had an objection to this. I was definitely not a homosexual. I was a woman trapped inside a man’s body looking for a suitable male partner like any other woman of my age. I also have a statement to make. It will sound a bit strong but I don’t care.

Most men, who are otherwise considered to be heterosexuals, portray definite homosexual traits. What about those married men with kids who practise sodomy with little boys? Does the world brand them as homosexuals? Mostly not. Then why be quick to place transgendered people in brackets that are convenient to the world? I’ve never found answers to that but I know that I’ve left no stone unturned in being true to myself.

Excerpted with permission from A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi: A Candid Biography of the First Transgender Principal, Manobi Bandopadhyay with Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey, Penguin Books.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

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Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

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Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.