The Man In The Saree

Artwork by Anushka Sachan

I don’t remember which day of the week it was – or which month, or year, or any of the temporal constructs that accompany memories and the fervid urge to start stories with I was six years old when… But I do remember the striking black and yellow paint that was hastily smeared across the exterior of the taxi. I remember the damp, dirt-streaked seats and the vibrant pattern of triangles embroidered onto the roof – red, yellow, red, blue, red, yellow red, blue. And I remember being young – young enough for my ignorance to be brushed aside with a comforting smile and a chalta hai, bacchi hai.

But not young enough for it to not be hurtful anyway.

As I stared out of the window, and tried to count till 100 before the red light turned green, I heard a resonant tap on the window at the other side of the vehicle, where my mother was hunched over a text conversation. Curious, I peeped over my mother’s head to unearth the identity of our mystery guest. To my astonishment, and fiendish delight, I witnessed a sight unbeknown to me. A man wearing a… saree? A spurt of giggles escaped my mouth as I prodded my mother, and pointed conspicuously towards the window.
“Look mama! A man wearing a saree! What is he doing? Yuck!”
More giggles.
My mother shot me an exasperated look, before turning back to her mobile phone, “Don’t laugh, Asfiyah. It’s rude”, she muttered.
The man continued to knock at the window- he wanted a meal, some money, anything we could give him. My mother gestured for them to go away. Their pleas grew more desperate.
I laughed again, harder this time.
The tapping ceased. The oddity at our window pressed their face against the glass – flattened nose, foggy forehead, eyes brimming with a mixture of hurt and confusion.
They stared at my gleeful expression for a minute, before walking away, wordlessly.
The traffic light turned green. I had only counted till 56.

The incident of The ‘Man’ In The Saree evokes a plethora of unpleasant emotions. Embarassment. Regret. Guilt. Shame. Frustration. Melancholy.
Anger. So much anger.
Anger at myself for dehumanizing, taunting, reducing, prodding, poking, ridiculing and turning a person into a burlesqued spoof- a papery-thin, watered down version of a human being. Anger at myself for spending years of my life fervently believing that clothes define gender and gender defines clothes, when in reality, nothing defines anything. But mostly, anger at my immediate social environment for choosing to teach 6 year-olds, long division – when they should’ve been teaching us how to be kind, compassionate and open-minded.

In the context of today’s turbulent times, United Nations declared ‘Transforming Education’, the theme for International Youth Day 2019; in an attempt to make education more inclusive, holistic and sustainable.

We live in a society where intelligence is equated to the mindless memorization of futile information; where contextually relevant material is replaced by nationalist propaganda; where a warped, white-washed façade of fantasy replaces reality, a fresh coat of apathetic paint concealing the bleeding, dying wallpaper underneath; a society where minorities are dehumanised, derided, satirized, portrayed as lesser, smaller, paler, ghostlier – less stable, less normal, less deserving of life – at best.
At worst, they cease to exist.

It’s no secret that the queer community is unrepresented – invisible – in education systems. History textbooks contain no mention of LGBTQ+ history, sociology textbooks don’t address the demographic of the queer population and the patterns of their social structures and relationships, English textbooks never consider using queer literature as a lens to study literary effects or specific themes. In simple terms, education is narrowly-defined, restricted to heteronormative ideals; and reductionist in its approach; which often creates generations upon generations of individuals who’ve known nothing but bigotry and ignorance.
And long division. Especially long division. 

It’s often claimed that education is the key to a happier world; it can change mindsets, equip minorities and strengthen our fight against bigotry. But what good is an education that teaches young children to hate and deride and spit in the faces of minorities? One where we’re reduced to a mere percentage of the population that you’re supposed to painstakingly accommodate, to tolerate, to deal with – like an annoying friend you put up with, out of civility.
Feigned courtesy.
Reluctant forbearance.
A termite infestation.

Dear education system,

I am a 17 year old bisexual female, and as a child, I laughed gleefully at a transgender woman who came knocking at my window, simply because I didn’t know any better.
But I could’ve known better. I should’ve known better.

If only you’d kept aside battle dates and names of Indian states for a split second – stowed them away at the back of a musty closet along with piles of dirty laundry – you could’ve, instead, taught me to be kind, to be understanding, to be tolerant. You could’ve taught me that gay men aren’t merely pink-clad caricatures; thigh-slapping, rib-tickling dynamos who make finger puppets out of human beings; that women aren’t meant to sprawl across dirt paths, smoothening out the irregularities, not meant to be macerated – turned into a concrete paste, to form a road for generations of men to trudge across.

Dear education system,

I’m tired. Tired of being invisible to you. Tired of my community, my family being invisible to you. I have questions for you.

When will we begin to exist? Once we’re dead? Slain? Insentient? Bacteria food?

I have questions for you.

Why are we never woven into sociology textbooks like threads of an exquisite fabric – red, blue, yellow strings of vibrant cloth? Why are we not accommodated besides heterosexual couples; as individuals, who are capable of forming healthy relationships, who’re capable of sustaining and surviving and flourishing, and raising happy children?
Why? Not enough pages about heterosexual men, perhaps?

Would you rather pretend as though men don’t marry men, as though women don’t know that other women taste of strength and strawberry chapstick? Maybe if we don’t acknowledge their existence, it’ll cease to be. Chai peelo sab theek ho jayega.

Dear education system, I have questions for you.

Why are transgender people never portrayed as parents of children? Why are students not taught that people’s pronouns must be respected; that bathrooms are piss-relievers, not battlegrounds; that clothes aren’t meant to be wrung into ropes used to bind human beings to weighing scales to assess their worth?

Why are feminist and queer movements never incorporated into history textbooks? Are the Stonewall riots not as important as the revolt of 1857? Is the blood of lesbians, perhaps, duller, less oxygenated, less life-sustaining than the blood of our soldiers? Why do chapters on the Nazi regime concentrate on the economic policies of a toothbrush-moustached murderer, and not the minorities he persecuted?

Dear education system, I have questions for you.

Why do prescribed texts for English Literature classes never include works by gay authors, androgynous authors, polyamorous authors? Why are we only ever subjected to torturous readings of white, cis-heterosexual men’s accounts of their oh, so tragic, privilege-infested lives. Sob, sob. Poor them, poor us.

We want to read about high-functioning transgender characters with ordinary, happy lives; introverted lesbians who aren’t sexually or politically charged, bisexual characters who enjoy healthy, stable and allegiant romantic relationships; masculine gay men who aren’t wax figurines or sidekicks to the Hot Macho Straight Man – who’re protagonists in their own stories. Dear education system, we want to be represented and normalized and accepted, not slandered for embracing a part of our identity that we were born with. It’s not enough for you to tolerate us, to reduce us to a percentage, a numerical – a lifeless, unyielding statistic.
Treat us like human beings.
When we touch a thorn, we bleed. When you tell us a joke, we laugh. When we watch our 5 year old cousin succumb to disease, we howl. Just like every other person on this planet.

Dear education system, I have questions for you.

Why are sex education lessons a shoddy sham – a propagandist effort to instil abstinence in children who will eventually grow up to have sex, but won’t recognize the need for consent, condoms or conversations. Why do sex education lessons, if existent at all, designate women as givers and men as receivers? Giving pleasure, giving orgasms, giving herself.
Submit. Don’t breathe. Don’t move. Don’t give him any indication that you’re alive.
Merely moan, suck, sit still, be sexy. But not sexual.

Never, ever be sexual.

Why do sex education lessons never address queer bodies, queer individuals, queer relationships? How do you navigate sex as a lesbian? How could intersex bodies experience maximum pleasure? How does one ensure safety, comfort and protection of all the parties involved? What are our rights – the laws and legalities that bind and liberate us?
We deserve to know. We deserve to enjoy fulfilling sexual relationships. We deserve happiness. We deserve freedom and liberation and enjoyment.
We deserve a chance at an ordinary life.

Dear education system,

I have questions for you.

I want to know if you’re ready to transform- if you’re ready to accommodate, to accept, to celebrate our community.

I want to know if you’re willing to make changes to your system, to your curriculum, to your textbooks, to your teachers, your attitude?

I wonder if you have the strength to pull away the carpet you’ve thrust us under for centuries. If you have the courage to humanize us – to give us a place in classrooms, in textbooks, in prescribed readings, in sex education lessons.

I wonder if someday, another little girl in a kaali-peeli taxi will swallow her giggles and imprison them within her rib cage – when she sees a man in a saree; because she learnt in school, that the transgender people who come knocking at car doors begging for money –  are valid human beings who deserve the same love and compassion and dignity as her mother and her best friend. I wonder if she’ll smile, wave, and give away the last bite of her sandwich to the person at her window. And maybe, this time, the “man in the saree” will smile back, and won’t walk away with a dull, sagging heart and a lingering ache in their bones.

Dear education system,

I have questions for you.

And I hope you have the answers.

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17. Queer. Socially anxious introvert. Ironically, a performing arts enthusiast. Experiences bizarre minimalistic urges, with often manifest in a desire to encompass the universe and confine it to a glass jar. Has a penchant for books, cats, doggos, horror movies, sunsets, oversized black t-shirts, mountains, Lucy Rose, and rickshaw rides on rainy days.

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