Manobi Bandhopadhyay with Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey
A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi
Gurgaon: Penguin Random House India Pvt. Ltd. 2017
Pp 187 | Rs 273
Delving into her existentiality, was her destiny already written?
At the age 51, when Manabi Bandhopadhyay becomes the “First Transgender Principal,” purely on her academic credentials and merit, “at Krishnagar Women’s College in Nadia district in West Bengal on 9th June 2015”, it is no wonder that she becomes Cinderella walking on the Road Not Taken, “and that has made all the difference.”
Her biography, A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi, first of its own kind unveils the story of a “woman trapped in a man’s body” and finds education as her Fairy Godmother and key to her liberation. Giving message to her community, “Education: If we learn, all our problems will be solved,” Manabi narrates the “extraordinary story” of her internal conflict with self, quest for her identity, confrontation with dual standards and hypocrisies of society, journey of her physical, emotional and spiritual transformed self through this book.
Dedicated to all those who pressed hardships upon her, humiliated her and made her struggle tough, she expresses her indebtedness to all of them because of whom she discovered her strength and reached to untouched heights, which otherwise would have not been possible.
The biography begins with her childhood days, her relationships with her family and friends, her heart touching, profound love stories, her intellectual growth through her academic and cultural engagements, her efforts during her job and how these phases and episodes, metamorphosed her into a strong, independent and self-reliant woman, whom we see, read and know as Manabi today.
Born in a middle-class family as a boy named Somnath on 23 September 1964 in Hooghly’s Chanderpur after her two sisters, it didn’t take her much time to discover that she was different from others. She started feeling an irresistible yearning to be dressed like her sisters and then soon asked these existential questions: “Who am I….and what is my destiny?” These questions, which none could listen to, nor could answer, forced her into her individual quest.
In her pursuit, fighting against all odds, she decided to go for her sex change in 2003, and from Somnath become Manabi Bandhopadhyay, finding and creating her own answers. Compromises she made, with her morals and ethics for her emotional and physical fulfillment, which she expresses with indomitable candidness and profoundness in her narrations like Anne Frank does in Diary of a Young Girl; however, she did not let her intellectual hunger be submerged into her ignorant struggle. Results, she becomes the first third-gender to hold an MPhil and a PhD in Bengali Literature and celebrates authorship of two books: Ontohin Ontorin Prositovortika (Endless Bondage), Third Gender in Bengali Literature, along with her third one, her own biography. With relentless roadblocks that she faced throughout her journey fearful, she accepts and understands, writing in the author’s note, “My inner voice tells me that the fame and celebration that I see all around is maya (illusion) and I should accept all this adulation with the determination of a sanyasi (hermit).”
Reading the book, initially it feels as if the encounters and anecdotes picked by the author only delve into the carnal gratification of Manabi. However, on further readings, they reveal the symbolic manifestation of the longing and fulfillment of physical and emotional needs of the person, who is alone, seeks companionship and needs love for her completion, which finds solace in these pages through her self-expressions. A void, she tries to fulfill all her life. Born as a lucky charm in her family, not as a girl, but as a boy, “They said, Chitta, this is a boy Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth).” This came as a “premonition” that the boy born “was just outwardly male.” But this symbolic Lakshmi, at the end, brings fortune and name not only for her family but also for many like hers. She seems to have the blessings of not only Goddess Lakshmi but Goddess Saraswati (Goddess of Knowledge) as well.
The book stands on its firm ground because it comes as the first biography of a transgender who has achieved such academic heights in India. The incorrigible honesty with which she verbalizes her internal conflict makes the readers ask what one goes through when one confronts such gender and identity crisis in a world, divided into man and woman polarities. The book provides a naked glance into the unseen and unexplored world of transgenders, not written and understood like this before.
With 187 pages to turn, the book could be finished in one go with its moving narration. The picture of Manabi at the cover page grabs readers’ attention, catapulting them to have a microscopic look at her sharp features. The three images on the book’s jacket – first of Manabi with her adopted son Debashish; second after her sex change; and third of Manabi as Somnath – arouse the inquisitiveness of the readers to run into quick reading of the book. The book starts with the Author’s note and ends with the acknowledgement section. However, the story could have been enriched in providing insights had the authors provided a table of contents and named the chapters, showing the journey of Manabi from point A to B in more chronological order. The descriptions and blurb on the jacket definitely spark interest in the readers. Moreover, the four pictorial pages dedicated between pages 102 and 103 justify that a picture speaks more than a thousand words and successfully provide cinematic and chronological journey of Somnath transformed into Manabi. More such pictures, synchronized with the content in between would have made the reading more engaging and memorable for readers.
In her life so far, there have been many incidents that would have touched and shaped her, and to write about all of them would not have been possible. However, had the authors elaborated the sections like how she developed her thesis on the issue of transgenders, how she was initiated into her spiritual journey and how it affected and changed her, along with a little more sketching of her mother and sisters, it would have increased the length of the book and so the book’s dimensions. Moreover, a few pages dedicated to her new role as the vice chairperson of the West Bengal Transgender Development Board and what she would do in that new role would have mirrored her expectations, experiences and responsibilities in this new Avatar.
Written in candid style with gripping expressions, the use of Bengali and Hindi words in the book gives it a glocal positing and an authentic touch to make the reading more enjoyable. To say, A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi becomes a poignant story of a self, treated as a “sub human”, but wanting to be treated as a “human”, oscillates between reconciliation with self-denial of her gender and then acceptance of her transformed self, deserves a place on the reading shelf of all those who want to plunge deeper into the life of a third-gender and see how she becomes the Malala of her community, fighting for their rights, fighting for their education, winning her identity and writing her destiny in these 51 years, would not be incorrect.