When The Pen Became Mightier Than The Sword
In an unprecedented and unique initiative, Sahitya Akademi, the biggest literary organization of India, hosted the first Indian literary meet featuring transgender writers. The event that took place on 17th July 2018, in Kolkata, was funded by the government of West Bengal and was chaired by Manabi Bandopadhyay, a writer, activist and the first transgender woman to be the principal of a college in the country. The noble joint venture by the Bengal government and the Sahitya Akademi aimed at providing a platform for the transgender personalities associated with Bengali literature to raise their voices and show their concerns for their socially excluded community. The event chairperson, Manabi Bandopadhyay, has become one of the most popular transgender representatives of the country, actively fighting for the rights and equality of the people of her community.
The exclusive literary meet was an idea first pitched by Manabi Bandopadhyay herself to Subodh Sarkar, a poet of Bengali literature and member of the Sahitya Akademi, who then readily accepted the unique proposal. The event that was created to promote the voices of the transgender people through performances was organized at the auditorium of the Sahitya Akademi. The event saw transpersons emerging from various strata of the society and highlighted readings performed by poets like Aruna Nath, Rani Majumdar, Prosphutita Sugandha, Debdatta Biswas, Debajyoti Bhattacharya and Sankari Mondal. Additionally, the event featured spontaneous performances from poets among the audience like Tista Das and Anurag Maitrayee.
Sahitya Akademi Helps Break The Silence On The Unsaid
The violence and stigma that the transgender community is subjected to are so appalling that it makes one wonder about the real facets of humanity. Why are we so afraid to step out of our comfort zone? Why is it that we are ready to share our existence, our world with only those whom we consider as “natural” in our perception? Why do we consider it our duty to stand in the way of someone trying to flow in the opposite direction of what the society has ruled down for us? Raising the above questions among many more of others, the transgender literary meet united literature and the transgender community. The performances and the experiences that the event witnessed were extremely personal, providing a peek into the extraordinary minds of the writers and their struggles with the world. The authenticity of their writings, their stories, painted a real picture of the tumultuous yet brave lives that they live creating inspiration for everyone.
Rani Majumdar of Asansol is a writer, poet and activist for the transgender rights. A tone of violence pervades through her poetry, dealing with the repressed desires functioning within one’s sexual identity. A teacher of mathematics, Prosphutita Sugandha from Medinipur, performed a reading of the poem, ‘Ekti Patar Golpo’ –‘The Story of a Leaf’. The poem spoke about rejection and adolescence and struck the chords when Sugandha read, “Everyone wanted me to be smart, I didn’t. I wanted to sit in the trees among the butterflies.”
Sankari Mondal, a writer and actor, impressed the crowd with her powerful poetry renouncing and criticizing the standardized society and its terms of acceptability for the transgender community and the intolerance against them.
Manabi Bandopadhyay took chances to present her own poems in between readings as well. Bandopadhyay’s poetry explored gender inequality within the dynamics of communal strains and featured a male cisgender narrator. Her literary work related her experiences and judgments to associated events around the world involving politics and society. In a heart-wrenching statement she said, “Gender Dysphoria, these two words are my Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Another writer who was very well received among the audience was Debajyoti Bhattacharya. Her work focused on the divergent relationships of the transgender people with their families. Failing to accept the reality and them for who they are, most families of the transpersons enter into conflicting relationships. The dynamics of such dysfunctional relationships finds a place in the poetry of Debajyoti Bhattacharya.
At a point of time in the event, Bhattacharya told the audience about her journey as a writer, “I didn’t study literature, I’m a person of science, but I’ve written since childhood. It’s not easy to be recognized as a writer in general, but the moment someone sees that I am transgender it becomes all the more difficult.”
But Is It Enough?
Bengal has surely been a pioneer in setting examples for creating platforms, like the event, in the discussion for the transgender community and their right to expression. The state government along with the help of some non-governmental organizations has come a long way in clearing the path for the trans-community to step up and raise their voice before the world, against the social stigma of which they are victims. However, questions arise regarding the effectiveness of the efforts of the government as to how far have they been able to minimize the social intolerance against the transgender community.
In fact, in retrospective, though the intention behind the literary meet was a noble cause of providing the transgender community with a creative platform to express their views, there were many issues that could have been easily identified as “the elephant in the room”. For starters, even though the exclusive event was a huge success, it could not hide from the hints of ‘transphobia’ that remained mixed in its atmosphere. There was a clear wall between the transgender audience sitting at one corner and the cisgender audience who occupied seats facing the stage. There was no intermingling of the two sections unless there was a crunch in the sitting space in either section. Moreover, naming the event “Third Gender Poetry Meet” received some criticism as well.
An annoyed Tista Das claimed, “I do not believe in this hierarchy of gender. I understand that the Supreme Court has ruled us as the Third Gender, but I believe that Sahitya Akademi could have had the sensitivity to refrain from using this terminology.”
Issues like the controversial perceptions of propriety popped up when Mihir Kumar Sahoo, an officer of Sahitya Akademi, used the term “mainstream” while welcoming the transgender community.
Such expressions received a blow when one of the audience members of the transgender community stated, “What makes the mainstream? The fact they were born with everything handed to them and we were not? Did they not use this to discriminate against us and abuse us? I do not want to be ‘accepted’ by my oppressors.” Activist Raina Roy supported the above statement, “They want us to fit into their standards of respectability, and so, as long as we have ‘respectable’ jobs, as long as we aspire to their lifestyle, we’re okay.”
A Silver Lining
It is true many such initiatives of the Bengal government like the Transgender Welfare Board have formerly been received with criticism from the trans-community owing to its ineffectiveness. However, despite the critical comments that the event in question received, it was a successful one, reaching new heights in promoting the interests of the transgender community. Without putting a stop here, Sahitya Akademi hopes to conduct more such events in the future. Commenting on the success of the event, Manabi Bandopadhyay said, “I cannot explain the importance of this event…it is something that is felt within the community.” The extraordinary initiative by Sahitya Akademi not only showcased the continuous efforts of the government towards establishing an identity of the transgender community but also confirmed that literature as a domain is a unified concept. Literature has no place for demarcations, that is, it is one and a whole –it is a shared world.