Dr Manabi Banerjee, 38, underwent a sex change operation to become a woman in 2003, in Kolkata. Despite suffering torture and physical intimidation, Manabi earned a doctorate and now works as college lecturer in Bengali, one of the most spoken languages in the world. On the back of the Delhi court’s decriminalisation of homosexuality last week, she describes her journey.
When Michael Jackson died, I cried. Not only because his music was so inspiring and he so young, but I identified with his problems including that of having a monster of a father and having been born with a body which grew old while the childlike Michael seemed to remain trapped inside.
I was the only son and had two sisters. When I showed signs of being a girl, my father did not take kindly to it as he wanted me to work and earn. I preferred to study and took to dancing lessons – all girls are taught to dance to classical music at an early age. This helped, but only for a while. My father’s taunts never left me. But I vowed that he would not get the better of me. My sisters stood by me, and I did not give up my femininity.
As I grew up, I realised that men drew me more. I got sexually aroused when a man touched me. But there was nothing I could do to express my feelings. My father continued to harass me and I felt like a caged bird.
When I was barely out of school, I went on my own to a psychiatrist. But during those days psychiatry had not made much progress and the doctors, all belonging to the old school, asked me to try and forget that I was a woman. In fact, I remember one of them even telling me that if I continued like this, then I would end up killing myself. They gave me sleeping pills which I threw away.
Life continued like this. I was a woman at home but once out on the streets I had to wear trousers and shirts and behave like a man. It was tragic and humiliating, but I had no option. Deep inside, I knew I had to do something which meant that continuing my studies was important. So I studied and I studied hard. School and college mates teased me and thought I was a homosexual but, by then, I had got used to taunts.
In 2003, I gathered the courage to undergo a sex change operation and it cost me a fortune, around five lakhs (£8,000) which I am told is far less than the cost of such surgery in the West. It was a long process with arduous counselling sessions as a prelude but somehow it worked. I was free to wear a saree.
I immediately changed my name from the male Somnath to Manabi which means woman in Bengali. My college authorities created trouble; they would not allow me to work as Manabi Banerjee since I had got the job as Somnath. But they could not do anything in the face of the law.
I fell in love with a businessman from Contai in the eastern part of the Bengal province, and we started living together after a Hindu ritual marriage that same year. My parents were against it but we were happy. That said, society can be steadfast in its cruelty and soon my husband could take it no more and fled. The torture continues though.
My father is now 85 and watches helplessly as I live my life on my own terms, acting in documentary films, attending seminars and teaching in college. My mother, however, is a broken woman and is bed-ridden. I take care of both of them.
I now have a boyfriend, a government administrator, and he has become a friend, philosopher and guide. But we cannot get married officially yet. Also, I yearn to be a mother but have to console myself by saying that I come from a land which was home to the greatest mother of them all, Mother Teresa, who herself never had a baby.
I have faced a lot. I was drugged and raped when I was out of school, someone once tried to set fire to our apartment, I have been singled out in college and asked to do election duty with men in remote villages and, finally, I was beaten up by eunuchs at a rally by a non-government organisation when I said things they did not want to hear.
The world wanted me to be in a circus but I have defied them all and even written a novel on eunuchs, Endless Bondage, which has been a bestseller. In between all these crises that have turned up, I managed to get my doctorate though I have been denied a promotion to which I am legally entitled. I am fighting, and I shall keep at it.
I do not think that too much will come out of the decriminalisation of homosexuality by the Delhi high court last week. Nothing happens in India for the good of anybody who chooses to be different. You can pass laws but you cannot change the people. It’s a fact that man is free but everywhere he is in chains. I agree with that. It has taken a lot, but I have cut loose somehow.
• As told to Anthony Dias, a journalist in Kolkata