Championing an Identity sans Signifiers:

A Review of Kalki Subramaniam's We are Not the Others: Reflections of a Transgender Artivist

By Basudhara Roy*


 

Kalki Subramaniam

We are Not the Others: Reflections of a Transgender Artivist

Notion Press, 2021
ISBN (Paperback) 978-1-63940-487-2
Pp 166 | Price 
http://www.museindia.com/images/rup.png 350

 

“I too stand

in the thick of the battle field

destroying stupidity

and defeating

the emasculated,

let us celebrate life,

come.”

(Kalki Subramaniam, ‘Arise, My Precious’)

 

Kalki Subramaniam’s latest collection We are Not the Others: Reflections of a Transgender Artivist published by Notion Press this June, is a book that will leave your heart open for ever. An honest, unapologetic, and fiery narrative of a transgender’s lived experience presented through poetry, prose and through deeply figurative and unsettling illustrations by the talented writer herself, here is writing that takes the heart by storm, wreaks havoc on our complacencies, upsets the neat and futile categories of definitions that have been drilled into us through a prolonged process of socialization, and liberates us by the overwhelming strength of its optimism.

 

Artist, activist, poet, actor, and writer, Kalki powerfully places her transgender identity at the centre of her rich and multifarious work. Founder of Sahodari Foundation, an organization that works for the social, political, and economic empowerment of transgender people in India through various creative projects, Kalki combines art and activism with a commitment that is not just intellectual or social but defiantly humanist. One of the most prominent voices in the LGBTQI+ community of India, she is well-known for championing the recognition of the legal rights of transgender people which resulted in the historic 2014 verdict of the Supreme Court of India whereby the rights of the transgender community as the third gender were recognized not merely as “a social or medical issue but a human rights issue”. Widely awarded for her social work, art, film performance, and literary contributions, Kalki continues to be an inspiration both within the transgender community and beyond it. Her poems, as N. Elango writes in his Foreword to the collection, are “clarion calls, not only to the LGBT community, but for those whosoever seek to break themselves free from the shackles and fetters snapped around them by the hegemonic conspiracy.”

 

Comprising sixteen poems, some of which have been translated from the original Tamil by N. Elango, four personal essays, and magnificent quotations and artwork, including the actual handwritten scripts of her Tamil poems, the book takes us into an autobiographical journey of growth, strength and faith through the trauma, angst and painful discrimination that transgenders undergo every day in this country. In her Author’s Notes to the collection, Kalki writes:

 

This book is a bundle of so many of my emotions – joy, pain, anger, fury, distress and hope. Through this book, I tell some parts of my story and that of the others like me. You will hear their voices through me.

 

Poetry and art give a richness to my life. They give beauty, strength and hope. They heal. I couldn’t have survived my tormenting teenage years without them.

 

Signification, one realizes, is a complex process and often, self-defeating. The complexity of signification stems from the fact that the signified, rather than being an objective presence in the real world, constitutes an abstracted idea of it in our minds. Our ideas, often being entrenched by particularities such as history, society, religion, culture and conditioning, the looming possibilities are that a wrong, erroneous and unwarranted idea may root itself over time into a vindictive stereotype. Around us and across the world, the negative effects of such stereotyping are rampantly visible. Stripped of distinctive individual virtues, identity becomes an allotted story of signification that may have no correspondence to fact. Every human and non-human Other is the victim of just such a process of signification whereby the assumed has offset the actual, and ushered in practices of prejudice, discrimination, hatred and violence. When it comes to people who identify themselves as LGBTQI+, the trauma and suffering that pernicious narratives of signification can produce, is heightened by the fact that there is no appeal to a common truth. The only truth about sex and gender is that which also challenges their greatest fallacy viz. they are binary. Nothing can be farther from biological fact. In From Transgender to Transhuman, Martine Rothblatt writes:

… sex in humans is a continuous variable, a complex of phenotypic and genotypic factors as unique as one’s fingerprints. While male and female categories are useful to group biological characteristics for medical purposes, these same categories have socially detrimental effects when used outside the field of medicine. Sex should really be the sum of behaviors we call gender—an adjective, not a noun. People should explore genders. When they settle on a set of gender behaviors, the name for that set describes their sex.

Rothblatt insists that the resting point for gender “depends upon the same complex of mental propensities and chance socialization that leads people to adopt one or another career, hobby, or religion.” However, in a country like India where sex is, in most quarters, destiny and where patriarchal thought largely reigns, transgenders are routinely judged by society for their bodies, voices, physical appearance, sexual choices and morality, so much so, that the ordinary prerogatives of ordinary people everywhere in the world become for them, exclusive privileges they must fight to earn.

 

In ‘If You Don’t Mind’, the poet describes how the claim of transwomen like her to womanhood, is continually contested by mainstream society that reserves the right to judge her body as an anomaly, and in a blatant invasion of her privacy, to ceaselessly question her about  it. ‘Don’t Tell That to Me’ documents, in the same testing spirit of the irritable receiver, what transgenders receive most from the world – curiosity, sympathy, stares, whispers, questions and requests for blessings as if they were divine in their departure from normative humanity. Kalki writes:

 

To you and to

the million others

I want to shout

I am made of

flesh and blood,

of fear and hope,

of joy and pain.

 

I am like you

I am human too.

 

 

On the terrain of gender identity, gender affirmation for transwomen is no less traumatic. As far as the socio-cultural binary thinking about gender goes, it is not sufficient for a person to identify as a woman. One must also offer evidence of ‘being’ one as per mainstream norms of body-type and behaviour. Such socio-cultural determination of questions of ontology does grave injustice to real life by refuting the immense variety of embodied gender experience and imposing a blanket uniformity on the internalization and articulation of womanhood. ‘Piece by Piece’ that examines gender identity as a process of becoming rather than de facto being, is a poem that talks of the poet’s struggle to painstakingly establish her claim as a woman:

 

I am not a woman by birth

I was born as a shattered

Rubik’s cube,

all my life I worked

step by step

to reclaim my honour.

 

To correct the wrongs,

I collected all of me,

my body, mind and soul

and put together in patience,

vouching with perseverance.

I endured shame and guilt,

yet I stood strong with grit.

 

In the heart-wrenching poem ‘Nirvaanam’, the multi-layered issues surrounding gender – biology, culture, policing and performance – poignantly coalesce. The transwoman’s joy in her anklet and her ecstatic dance invite ridicule from the moral police, “those/ who have their manhoods/ hanging about them”. The only way for the woman here to “stand my ground/ to prove my womanhood”, is through biology:

 

with tears rolling down

I remove my saree.

 

In this moment,

I do not want any Krishna

to save or rescue me

 

The act of disrobing is transformed here into an act of agency and defiant transgression. Its complex and potent symbolism is heightened by the mythological subtexts that it skilfully builds, both evoking and rejecting the need of a male God to protect the sham cultural notion of ‘honour’. The female body which has historically borne the brunt of violence against women in society now becomes a vital site for the empowered assertion of female identity, beyond the need of patriarchal intervention or safeguard. This is not to say that the element of victimization is absent here but the conscious attempt is to wrest power for the woman against all odds.

 

‘Truth and Lie’ documents another painful moment of rejection, this time, in love. In a potential bond of marriage, the poet-speaker’s revelation of her real identity as a transwoman, spoils all her conjugal hopes:

 

“I told you not to out

yourself as a Transwoman.

My parents rejected you,

I need them and

can’t reject them,

so I reject you”

you spoke.

 

This is a culture that, as the poem points out, punishes honesty and will forgive and even welcome inauthenticity at the cost of maintaining its illusions intact. In her prose pieces ‘My Perfectly Imperfect Vagina’ and ‘Will an Indian Man Ever Bring a Trans Woman Home and Say ‘Ma, I Love Her’?, Kalki evocatively describes the transwomen’s existential necessity to acquire the biological gift of womanhood through sex-reassignment surgeries and society’s prejudiced rejection of them as women despite their fierce identification as members of the female sex.  In the former essay, she writes:

 

Women who are ‘born women’ are gifted with a perfect vagina, they don’t have to spend a dime or a rupee to have a perfect one. But our stories, the transwomen’s stories are entirely different. Before we did our sex reassignment surgeries, those days whenever we looked down naked, we were ashamed and wanted to pluck it off whatever was hanging there. We loathed it.

 

The essay throws light on the various experiences of gender dysphoria and the non-seriousness of the government in dealing with it. In poems like ‘She’ and ‘Clap Aloud’, Kalki deconstructs the stereotyping of transgenders by establishing their clapping as an act of empowerment and liberation from the misplaced and hypocritical values of society – “Clap aloud/ Thirunangai/ clap aloud!/ Like a crack of thunder/ that shocks the world/ during a great rain,/ clap your hands aloud!” The ability to have both hands free for oneself and for service to humanity becomes a higher form of ethic than the selfish engagements of the workaday world. The act of clapping, thus, becomes an assertion of humanity and of the superior knowledge of identification of the self with the world.

 

Rothblatt states that the “apartheid of sex” by which we are cast, from the time of our birth, into a sex-type based on our genitals and socialized into a “sex-type-appropriate culture called gender” is extremely detrimental to society. “Freedom of gender is,” in her opinion, “therefore, the gateway to a freedom of form and to an explosion of human potential. First comes the realization that we are not limited by our gross sexual anatomy. Then comes the awakening that we are not limited by our anatomy at all. The mind is the substance of humanity. Mind is deeper than matter.”

 

Kalki, in her writing, also strongly argues for the evaluation of humans as humans, irrespective of gender. In her prose piece ‘A Letter to a Transgender Kid’, she attempts to put forward a narrative of androgyny that is gloriously human:

 

Do remember that there is no complete man or complete woman in this world. If anyone as such existed ever, they can never understand the emotions of the opposite gender. In every man, there is a woman and, in every woman, there is a man. How much of a man is a woman, and how much of a woman is a man is what makes them. Makes us all.

 

Each piece of writing in We are Not the Others: Reflections of a Transgender Artivist deconstructs the idea of transgenders as Others by deconstructing cultural signification and offering an insider’s account of their dreams, desires, hopes, pain and suffering that are all too universal and all too human. Challenging the stereotyping of signifiers, these are pieces that vehemently bring home to us the fact that boy/girl/man/woman/first gender/second gender/third gender are hierarchical categories that we forcefully impose upon human experience with severe injustice and irreparable damage. It is important to acknowledge the diversity of life, of living and of performing humanity across bodies, genders, cultures and sexual orientations. “This book,” writes Laura Sherwood, “is essential for all academic institutions and programs working to dismantle dominant narratives or facilitate dialogue around gender beyond the binary.” I would like to affirm that this is a work that must be read by everyone who wishes to know, first-hand, of human grit,  perseverance, and the human ability to, both, fuel and transcend them through art. Also that, once read, this is a book no reader will be able to permanently disentangle her memory and consciousness from.

___________________________________________________________________________

 

*Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Drawn to diaspora, gender, and ecological studies, she is the author of three books - Migrations of Hope (criticism) and two collections of poems, Moon in my Teacup (Writer’s Workshop, 2019) and Stitching a Home (Red River, 2021). She loves, rebels, writes and reviews from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India.


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