Book Review: “A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi – A Candid Biography of India’s First Transgender Principal” By Manobi Bandhopadhyay with Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey

Last month, I had the pleasure of reading (and reviewing) I’m Afraid of Men, a brilliant, emphatic work by Canadian-born Indian trans author Vivek Shraya with self-reflections on identity, trauma, self-love, and community. I was eager to deep dive further into writings by other trans authors, particularly South Asian. Amazon showed up two recommendations – A Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi and A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi by Manobi Bandhopadhyay with Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey. While A. Revathi’s work reclines quietly in my book rack waiting for its inauguration, I spared an evening to finish the 180-pager A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi.

Manobi became the talk of the town in 2015 when she became the ‘first transgender principal’ in an Indian university.  She sprung back to the limelight over the next two years with the release of her biography and allegations of harassment from colleagues doing the rounds. Manobi, like most trans persons, has lived through her share of ordeals to emerge resilient. Furthermore, she has formidable credentials, with a PhD in Bengali Literature and authorship to multiple other books, magazines, and hundreds of newspaper articles. In 1995, she founded the first Bengali transgender magazine Abomanob (Subhuman). It is undoubtedly commendable that Manobi put on a brave front in the face of persistent humiliation and indignity. Belittled by others, treated as a public spectacle, and bumping into the glass ceiling throughout the career – such challenges are relatable to most queer individuals. The strength of Manobi’s work is it calls a spade a spade, and the concluding sections emphasizing her ascendancy in work-life are particularly inspiring.

However, this merit cannot compensate for the several problematic aspects in A Gift of Goddess that have shockingly made it to print. Right off the bat, one senses a desultoriness in the writing with banal details from Manobi’s family history lingered over. Clichéd phrasing like ‘saved from the jaws of death’ rankle. Basic and avoidable errors of mis-gendering and using transgender as a noun are frequently committed. Some of the details of sexual intercourse are unnecessarily and cringe worthily graphic. To make matters worse, the book peddles with common stereotypes about the trans community, such as suggesting they have a natural inclination for make-up and dancing. Furthermore, it overly emphasizes on physical appearance as the litmus test for societal acceptance.

While Manobi’s indignation towards the injustice faced over the years is justified, the author(s) could have expressed the sentiments with more tact and thought instead of languishing in self-pity and launching into thinly veiled accusations on all and sundry. In many instances, she even puts down her allies and friends. Mere rechristening does little to protect the identities of those mentioned considering every minute details of their whereabouts etc. are divulged. Manobi’s privileged upbringing has perhaps even blinded her to some of the classist remarks she makes, from flaunting her own ‘educated’ and ‘cultured’ status on one hand to making condescending observations about those without equivalent status. Despite her educational background, A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi rarely evinces self-reflection; whether on societal constructions of gender, patriarchy, love, companionship, and so on.

As a trans person, I seldom find dignified representations of transgender identities in the arts. Take cinema, literature, or paintings, what usually occupies a space in the mainstream imagination are either glorified or vilified representation of cis-gendered heterosexual identities. Within the queer community, transgender characters are particularly subjected to egregious characterizations, with cis-gendered persons often coopting stories of our struggles and successes for their own gain. We are viewed as either the ‘lowest of the low’, the ‘despised lot’, or the ‘monster’ on one hand, or ‘the exotic’, ‘the supernatural’ and the ‘impossibly righteous figure’ on the other. Being a researcher myself, I have sieved through reams of literature on transgender studies. Most studies, usually by cis authors, have pathologized a trans person’s sense of self from either psychological or sociological standpoint.

At this point of time, we need more transgender voices to reclaim their positionality in the arts, seize the pen, the paintbrush, the camera, and illuminate society about their own lived (or fictionalized) experiences. The autobiographical (or biographical) mode provides a rich and powerful source for the world at large to grasp the lived experiences and the authentic voices of trans people. This is where the works of Manobi Bandhopadhyay, Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi, Living Smile Vidya, and A. Revathi become essential reading.   

As trans creators of media, and especially people in positions of influence, one must be doubly responsible in their self-representation and cannot commit the same mistakes that the society perpetuates. As a minority, the statements made by the few who get a seat at the table are taken as the gospel truth, while failing to consider that they too are human and therefore capable of erring and holding prejudices. The solution to this is to critique community’s voices with the same fervor that we show while critiquing others, as only this will help us bring forth our lived experiences in a more matured, refined, sensitive, and authentic manner.

Now, on to A. Revathi’s A Life in Trans Activism...          

(The article is written with some inputs from Sindhu Eradi, a doctoral scholar at MICA Ahmedabad currently researching on trans identities)   

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Career-wise, I am passionate about media and education. My inspirations include Meryl Streep, Joan Rivers, Nicki Minaj, and the movie Singin’ in the Rain. I walk the tightrope of being serious, kind-hearted & optimistic while at the same time I can be wreckless about laughter, be critical of things around and cry ‘f*** the world’ aloud from rooftops.

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