Fighting the demons

“Why do you want to go back to India? This is a much safer place for women and you have a daughter too. Why do you want to go back to a country where the women folks have to constantly watch their backs and look out for hungry sex predators waiting for an opportunity to pounce upon you?”

These were the concerned words from one of my European friends who had come over for dinner last night. Well I appreciate the noble thoughts behind the words, but simultaneously I do not approve of the sentiments that go along with the words. I am a proud Indian and I will always be one; unlike some of my fellow countrymen settled abroad who are so ashamed of their country of origin that they prefer talking to their kids in their adopted country language than their native language.

Yes I agree recently there has been a spurt in the sexually motivated incidents against women, some being extremely brutal and heinous. The news reports all over the world have been rife with atrocities towards Indian women of-late reducing an Indian women to a subject of pity. But are these so called atrocities, brutality, and sexually motivated crimes against women restricted to the geographical boundaries of India? NO! Atrocities and crimes against women have no geographical demarcations. In fact they are spread out all over the world. Unfortunately they do not get reported. But just being not reported doesn’t mean they do not happen; they do happen; and they are done by men; but not all men. So if not all men are rapists and perverts then why are you generalizing Indian Men? Not all Indian men are rapists, not all Indian men disrespect women, not all Indian men ask for dowry, not all Indian men kill female foetuses, not all Indian men are perverts. India has always been a patriarchal society but so has been the societies of many countries around the world but that doesn’t mean women are not respected in the country. Women have always played pivotal roles in an Indian family and continue to do so. In fact a lesser known fact is India has matriarchal societies in many parts of the country too where the ‘woman’ and not the ‘man’ is the head of the family.

So here is the answer that I gave to my ‘European’ friends too last night. Yes I will go back to my country; in fact I do not intend to settle anywhere in the world except my own motherland. Irrespective of all the patriarchal values, atrocities against women in everyday life, poverty, disease, population, garbage, filth, cows, goats, elephants, camels on the streets I will definitely go back to my country. Not because it is the only country that is trying to sustain such a vast population against all odds but because India gives me an identity and if I let go of that identity I will have to live a life where I have to struggle life long with an identity crisis.

I would like to mention a short story from my life’s experience in the light of all the controversies that surround Indian women, Indian men, Indian society; its a story which will make you realise that India is just as safe as any other country in the world, if not more.

It was the last day of my final year graduation exams. All my friends had left for home except me. I had my tickets booked from Varanasi station in the Doon express till Durgapur. It was to leave the station a little after 4.00 PM. So I call up the railway enquiry and they informed me that the train was delayed by half hour. I quickly finished off the last minute packing, checked the time on my watch, called the auto rickshaw, loaded my stuff, and headed for the station. It was about 3.35 PM by my watch. I reached the station, unloaded my stuff, and looked up the electromechanical display device to check for the platform. The train was indeed half an hour delayed but the board also said that it had ‘Departed’ in bright red. A flurry of emotions started settling in as I read the word ‘Departed’. How can that be? The time next to the train showed 4.30 PM, its 3.35 PM by my watch then how can the train go! I wondered!

As I turned around to walk to the ‘Enquiry’ office, I happened to look at the ‘Big’ watch on the platform which said 4.45 PM in bold numbers. What! That’s not true, my watch says, 3.35 still, although it has been almost 20 minutes since I had reached the station.

As the truth started seeping inside about the missed train, thanks to my watch, my mind eventually started organizing Plan B. It was the last day in Varanasi, so all my money had been spent in either buying small tidbits for my parents or clearing off my hostel and college dues. Even in my wildest of dreams I had never thought that I would miss my train and stand there alone in the middle of the station with peering eyes of strangers, loads of luggages to carry back and no money in my pockets.

It took me sometime to gather myself together. Finally I walked to the ticket counter to get my ticket cancelled; firmly keeping an eye on my luggage mountain. The man behind the counter cancelled my ticket and handed me half of the fare that I had paid for the booking. I asked him to book me in the next train. He looked at me and stopped typing on his keyboard and asked, “are you in trouble sister?”

I was almost on the verge of breaking down but was careful not to show myself too vulnerable. So I carefully marked my words before saying, took a deep breath to control my emotions and said,

“Actually I have missed my train, Doon Express and I want to take the next train back home. I am travelling alone with a lot of luggages and am a bit short on the cash too. Can you help me please in getting a current reservation?”

“The next train is the Poorva Express and I can book you in that but the current reservation for that will happen only 2 hours before the scheduled departure of the train so you need to wait and come here at around 3.20 AM as the train’s departure timing is 5.20 AM. As for the fare, well the return money that you have after the cancellation of your original ticket is enough to suffice the current reservation,” the man behind the counter said patiently.

“You do one thing, fill in the reservation form and give it to me. I will make the reservation and give it to you the moment the lines are open. You can wait in the waiting room with your luggages. My uncle and aunt will be travelling as well in the Poorva Express tomorrow so I will talk to the ticket checker in the train and swap your seat near them so that you do not have to worry about the luggages and you will be safe as well,” he continued.

It was about 3.23 AM and the man behind the counter walks in to the waiting room where I was sitting with my truck load of luggages and handed over the tickets to me. There was an elderly couple with him whom he introduced as his uncle and aunt. They sat down beside me and we chit chatted a while. As the train hit the platform at around 5.15 AM, the man behind the counter walked inside the waiting room again, helped me with the luggages, spoke to the ticket checker of the train, stacked the luggages in appropriate places, turned around and said with an honest smile, “wish you a very happy and safe journey sister, and don’t miss your train again.”

“I won’t and thank you so much,” was all I said as I watched him disembark the train and walk away inside the station.

The man behind the counter, a man, a complete stranger had not only stuck to his words when he addressed me as sister and protected me from being a vulnerable victim but also ensured he left me with safe hands so that I reach my destination safely. I do not know his name, I do not remember his face but what I know and what I remember is what he did for me. It is for this reason I want to go back to my country since I know a handful of perverts who bring a bad name and shame to the country cannot undermine and over-rule the efforts of scores of other men who respect women and ensure they are safe from these psychopaths.

If one racist attack in Australia or USA or Canada or anywhere else in Europe cannot brand the entire country as racist, then similarly one off incident in the second most populous country in the world cannot brand it as a ‘nation of rapists’ and a ‘nation unfit for women’. Crimes against women are prevalent everywhere around the world; you have to look behind your back everywhere in the world; you have to protect yourself and your loved ones everywhere in the world; than why separate just one nation. We are fighting our own demons just as everyone else around the world.

‘Call me Caitlyn’

call me caitlynA transgender or a cisgender, is not uncommon to us especially when we come from India where we see transgender people often on the traffic lights beating their hands in a certain way or on the trains or barging in someone’s house when a child is born or on a wedding. In India there is a certain phobia circling these kinds of people; a phobia of sorts. But one thing that is similar among all the feelings that we have for these people is the feeling of fear and apathy. Fear because we think that this community are a special kind and upsetting them might invite wrath of the gods; and apathy because we see them as people who are different.

The ‘Hijra’ or the transgender community has held place in the subcontinent from ancient times. But even now the Hijras have limited opportunities for employment and so can be forced onto a path of high-risk behaviour. The combination of high-risk behaviour with limited prevention alternatives has resulted in the increased vulnerability of Hijras to HIV and sexually transmitted infections. Since time immemorial transgender people face double stigma and discrimination from within the community and outside mainstream society as they are always looked upon as different. They are always seen as men having sex with other men. But certainly this perception is not true. They are just people with the wrong souls in the wrong body.

So when I watched Bruce Jenner transform into Caitlyn Jenner I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the predicament of scores of transgender and cisgender people back home in India who are not fortunate enough to have that kind of financial leverage that Caitlyn had to successfully transform themselves and fit into our perception of a ‘woman’. They keep on struggling all their lives trying to fit into our perception of how a ‘woman’ should be and should look like. Caitlyn Jenner was as much a woman as she was even before she went through the transformation of outside attributes which would signify her gender. The way she feels now was as much similar to the way she felt before. It’s the same feeling that many transgender and cisgender people all around the world feel about themselves and their sexual preferences. The only difference is the financial strength. While Caitlyn Jenner had the financial power to transform herself many others are not fortunate enough to do that. In fact there are many in India who struggle each day to get life-saving medicines to keep themselves alive due to the various health issues especially HIV-AIDS.

The attitude of people towards the transgender and cisgender people are slowly changing. But we still have a long way to go in bringing about a significant change in our attitudes. Being what they are was not a matter of choice for the transgender folks. The recent appointment of a transgender person as the principal of a college in India is a striking example of the changing times. Somnath Bandopadhyay had loads of first class degrees in his kitty along with impressive oratory skills. But his skills and his degrees couldn’t fetch him the respect he deserved because of his preference of dressing like a woman, putting kohl in his eyes and keeping his hair curly. He was ridiculed and made a laughing stock. It wasn’t his fault when he said “I feel I am a woman trapped in the body of a man. I want to conquer my body. As such people keep saying I am effeminate so I think I will be much better off if I become a woman” in one of his interviews. It wasn’t his fault because he did not make that choice of feeling what he was feeling. He was born in that way. So he changed himself into Manabi Bandopadhyay to spare himself the constant struggle of feeling differently and looking differently. Something similar to what Bruce Jenner did when he transformed himself into Caitlyn Jenner.

The struggles of life that a transgender faces might be greater if not less than what we face. The ridicule, the apathy, the struggle of fitting in to the societal perceptions and social decree is much more in the life of a transgender than us. While some are lucky to have the financial viability for the transformation and successfully fitting themselves in to the slot of our perceptions, there are many who are not fortunate enough. We as a society and as part of the society should start respecting these transgender people in whatever way they are and accept them among us without judging them; and it is for the simple fact that they were born that way and did not have a choice. The more we stop judging them the lesser they can focus on progressing in their life and being successful than meeting our expectations of gender perceptions. Had we been less judgmental on these people then Bruce Jenner and Somnath Bandopadhyay wouldn’t have lost their identity to Caitlyn Jenner and Manabi Bandopadhyay just to meet our gender biased expectations.