When a book on transmen in India is published and the writer is a ciswoman whose work I am unfamiliar with, I would have picked it up with a bit of suspicion. I am genderqueer, a writer, a researcher and a member of LABIA – a Queer Feminist LBT Collective, working in Mumbai since 1995. Yet none of the trans* people in my vicinity, transmasculine, transfeminine, or gender non-conforming, were aware of either the book or the author before its publication. That changed soon.

A few weeks after Nandini Krishnan’s book Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks was published by Penguin India in November 2018, excerpts began to circulate from the book’s foreword, written by journalist Manu Joseph, revealing an ill-informed, fetishised and transphobic approach to the subject. Soon after, other bits from the book and interviews with Krishnan emerged that made it clear that it was not exactly, as its blurb promised, “a powerful case for inclusivity and a non-binary approach to gender”.

Multiple critiques

As those who have been represented in the book read more, the scale of the protests grew. Many intensive readings (by Gee Imaan Semmalar in The News Minute, Jamal Siddiqui in Feminism in India and Rohini Malur in NewsLaundry) of the book have been published since, raising questions that are not just legitimate, but necessary. They have pointed out examples of misgendering, Brahmanism, disrespect, incomprehension, patronising outlook and other issues. Some of these critiques have been by people who have been part of conversations with Krishnan.

On January 10, the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMANA) and Eta Manipur, an organisation working for transgender rights in the region, staged a protest by burning the copy of the book sent by the author to the interviewees in the group. The protest came after their demand for a public apology from Krishnan, due to a misrepresentation of indigenous Meitei narratives in the book by using Hindu mythology instead, yielded no result.

Krishnan has meanwhile stood behind Joseph and her book through the critiques, claiming that anybody who actually read the whole book wouldn’t have a problem with it. Many have done precisely that and so have I.

Trust and access

Invisible Men weaves in interviews that Krishnan conducted with several trans* people with her own reflections on the interviews and interviewees, gender, masculinity, and more often than not, her own emotions during the process. It is clear on reading the book that Krishnan has been given wide and deep access to the transmasculine spaces and networks in some parts of the country.

Some of my questions, even before I read the book, were: what does the writer do with these stories entrusted to her? What enables her to be this interlocutor for these lives and stories and for whom? How have Krishnan and others responded to criticism by the very people who were the subjects of her book, some directly so?

What sort of project is this book – commissioned by a large multinational, researched and written by a ciswoman with centuries of social and cultural capital behind her, with a foreword by a cisman, with even more privilege by virtue of his being a better-known writer?

A familiar script

I had read several reviews and excerpts, so I was prepared to be appalled, but also determined to read it with care. How could I not, when it dealt with lives and concerns very close to mine? Even so, the book made reading it most difficult in the very first three pages. The foreword by Manu Joseph and Krishnan’s subsequent defence and non-apology regarding it, makes it incredibly difficult to continue.

After saying he knows nothing on the subject, Joseph writes breezily and offensively about transgenders (sic) and on gender itself, without once pausing to consider that he truly knows nothing and should probably restrain himself.

When questioned about Joseph’s appalling understanding and damaging words, Krishnan defended his right to his “honest opinions”. She acknowledged that some trans persons have felt hurt and for that she is sorry. But in no way is this to be construed as an apology.

This form of non-apology has unfortunately become part of our daily media dose. It’s one we’ve heard many times before, a script followed by the powerful, most recently by many of the men who’ve been accused of sexual harassment in the Me Too movement. The steps go something like this: I deny everything; I did not mean to hurt anyone; and in case I’ve inadvertently caused some hurt, I am sorry for that.

It is a shame that Krishnan uses this script because this is precisely the script of the centre against the margins, of the establishment against the dissenters. When you’re part of a network of people with the accumulated social and cultural capital of class and caste, and also cis-heterosexual normativity, such a response undoes what Krishnan at least attempts, not entirely unsuccessfully, to do in the book itself.

Who is it for?

Over the last few weeks, Krishnan, her publishers, and the literary festival circuit, all seem to have closed ranks. At the recently concluded Hindu Lit for Life festival, Krishnan was a part of no less than four panels, including Sexual Personae: Overcoming Prejudice and Misconceptions about Sexuality, Exiled at Home: Women and Lesbians in No “Man’s” Land and Being the Other. She was part of two more panels on gender at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Clearly Krishnan’s “expertise” is obvious to all but her detractors.

It is when we talk of the intended audience that this jigsaw becomes complete. Krishnan says several times in the preface that her book is for “the world” or “the people”. Translation: cisgender heterosexual persons who are not trans*, have perhaps never met any transmen, let alone having spoken to them, for whom transmen are “invisible”. It sounds terribly like a colonial anthropological project, but in the hands of 21st century cisgender savarnas, it is projected as a civilised, liberal and heartfelt enterprise, which Joseph has no qualms in comparing to Svetlana Alexievich’s work on crafting narratives on witness testimonies, of bringing layered narratives to “people”.

In the preface to the book, Krishnan writes about her dilemma in asking her interviewees about traumatic periods or events in their lives. She must do it, she writes, because “unless I could uncover those layers, how would the world know their lives...how would the people know the stories of their partners...how would I write about the other difficulties that could compound gender dysphoria...?”

Clearly then, the narrative, even before it begins, establishes a three way affair. First, “the interviewees”, second, Krishnan herself as the interlocutor, and third, “the people” who await enlightenment, through Krishnan, about the real lives, loves, and what not of the first party.

The fact that this structure works well is evident from some glowing reviews that have come to this book, one of them in this publication itself. “While the timelines, characters and narratives in Krishnan’s book move back and forth, she never loses sight of her readers, some of whom may be encountering the subject of transmen for the first time,” the reviewer writes. A member of the third party recognises a member of the second. Newly gathered information on transmen is repeated for the benefit of those third parties who haven’t yet read the book in the rest of the review. The reviewer, having read the book, is now a new interlocutor between “the people” and the object of curiosity.

The social and cultural capital of the second and third party are integral to this book. The readings of cis-heterosexual persons and the laudatory festival panels are part of the same system. In effect, Krishnan has done what she set out to do. It is just not what many of her interviewees wanted or what readers who are trans*, whether they were interviewed or not, can applaud.

How power works

Krishnan writes in the book about moving from a position of “gender binary” or “gender as category” to “gender as spectrum”. The stories in Invisible Men are offered to combat the notion that cismen and ciswomen are the only acceptable genders. But what of the systemic assertion of the gender binary, how various power structures work together to maintain these structures, and how someone like her continuously benefits from them?

In a telling moment in the book, Krishnan writes about how disturbed she was, as a vegan, with the “number of banners which carried messages against the beef ban” at the Madras and Bangalore Pride parades she attended. She asks whether this is a reflection of “intersectionality” which, she goes on to say, “in practice seemed to be the adoption of all purportedly liberal causes in the course of standing for an entirely different cause, had something to do with the NGO-isation of the movement.”

From the meaning of intersectionality to which causes are liberal and which are radical, and what “NGO-isation” really does, it’s hard not to laugh at just how wrong this is. If anything, perhaps veganism is as liberal a cause as one can espouse today. The author could do well to listen to those who see the politics and the movements differently.

What could have been

It is not as if the people Krishnan spoke to for the book did not lend nuance to these ideas. Two of them warned her about the problems inherent in story telling in the kind of project she wanted to do. “The idea of sympathy is an offshoot of power structures,” Sunil said to her, “That’s why I say I don’t have a story...I don’t want to make myself a victim for you. But people love to hear that story and feel sympathetic. To give sympathy. Who are you to give something or deny something to me?”

Krishnan further acknowledges that conversations with Gee Imaan Semmalar had opened a whole slew of questions regarding the book itself and her role in it: “How do we democratise from positions of privilege, he asked. How could I not act as a facilitator rather than an author?” She realises that she was part of a power structure and was “entrusted with telling stories that were not mine.” Yet she goes on to write, rather disingenuously, “I have striven to...prevent the ‘othering’ of the people I am interviewing. But when the stories do not belong to me, could my book help ‘othering’ those to whom the stories did belong?”

In its early stages, book was envisioned and pitched as an anthology of individual narratives but Krishnan writes that discussions with her editor and publishers “changed the form the book was to assume” to become this fragmentary thing with her own voice woven in all along.

In the absence of a revaluation of her own relationship to gender or that of gender to other structures of power – despite being prodded to do so in various ways by so many of the participants – I wish Krishnan had done what she had first set out to do – put together an anthology of narratives. Even as the most troublesome parts of the book are those where the author interrogates the lives of the persons she is interviewing, rather than interrogating herself, the most powerful parts are the narratives of the persons who’ve shared them so generously.

Early in the book, Krishnan brings up the time when writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made her infamous remarks about whether “transwomen are women” and how her response to the subsequent criticism showed an inability to understand what was being said to her. “What I find remarkable about the fallout of Adichie’s statements is that there was no point at which the response prompted remorse in her,” Krishnan writes. It is ironic then that Krishnan herself has offered some remorse but not the apology that has been sought. In the book and in responses thereafter, it is clear how unwilling she is to examine herself or her own location, and to engage in a conversation that scrutinises her.