By Ila Ananya
Transgender rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s first book, her autobiography, Me Hijra, Me Laxmi, came out in 2012, and was translated into Gujarati, English, and Hindi from the Marathi original. It included details about her life as a transgender activist, her childhood, and her love for dance. You might know her from any of her various avatars: she participated in Bigg Boss 5 in 2005, starred in the TV show Sach Ka Samna, is one of the founders of Astitva, a non-profit working with sexual minorities, and was the first transgender person to represent Asia Pacific at the UN in 2008.
Laxmi says the idea for a second book came up when she realised that she hadn’t talked about the men in her life in much detail. Her new book Red Lipstick: The Men in My Life was co-written over the course of several interviews with Pooja Pande, freelance writer-editor and Lead Reportage Editor at the online magazine Paper Cuts. Pande says that the toughest part was getting the voice of Laxmi’s persona right — with a brazenness that she knew existed but couldn’t place her finger on, along with a vulnerable, self-effacing Laxmi, caught up in definitions of identity and family relationships. This is particularly true of the book’s section on her family and parents — Laxmi appears careful and as understanding of them as they seem to be of her, despite their differences.
The book presents detailed explanations of the men in her life, ranging from her father, whom she calls the “perfect man”, to her gurus, to Atharva Nair, who she describes as “the person behind Laxmi” who, with others, helped her found Astitva. There is also a section on the men in her family who sexually abused her as a child. In between, there are descriptions of the first man she kissed, the first man to break her heart, and the man she is in a relationship with at the moment. The book has unapologetic and sometimes flattering descriptions, both of herself and of how others see her. She does not hesitate to describe how easily and quickly men fall in love with her, or talk about the things she has achieved.
While the book might be structured around the men in her life, it is still about her and her many voices: the one clear image that we are left with at the end is of her, in all her dealings and interactions with men, those she has worked with, family, friends, and those she has been in relationships with. As readers, we are quicker to damn these men or decide we like them, but they are still blurry images; we allow ourselves to take longer to understand and see Laxmi.
We spoke to Laxmi and Pooja Pande about the unusual process behind this first-person account and how writing it changed their own conceptions of gender.
Laxmi, what made you want to write about the men in your life?
L: My first book was about my own life, and I had not mentioned much about the men who were a part of my life. I just thought, why not discuss in detail the men who had played a crucial role in shaping my journey in life. It’s always good to discuss them, right?
Laxmi, both your books — Me Hijra, Me Laxmi and Red Lipstick — have a similar form of autobiography. What did this form allow you to do?
L: No, both are different in their own way. One talks about my life and my activism as a hijra and transgender activist. Red Lipstick is [more] personal. Very personal, I must say. It’s unapologetically intimate. It’s about the men who shaped my life and journey, and their equation and relationship with me. While writing my first book, I was holding back from expressing myself a little. In this book I’m explicit and true to myself even more. It talks about the men who helped me become Laxmi. The men who used and abused me, the men whom I used and abused in return, the men I loved and adored and who loved and adored me in return, and the men who had an impact on my life.
Can you describe the unusual process of co-writing this book?
PP: There were phases to the process. It started with a lot of meetings, interviews, and conversations with Laxmi. I first like to observe and absorb, before I actually start writing. In this particular case, I had hours and hours of conversations with Laxmi that I had taped, which meant weeks of transcribing. I wanted to do that myself, to get into the process and get ideas on how to write it, because I knew I would be writing as Laxmi. Working on the transcripts took a very long time. This was also the time I was re-reading her first book, I think for the fifth time, just to make sure the facts of her life were absolutely familiar to me.
These were the things I armed myself with before getting into the writing. Our conversations would mostly happen in person when Laxmi visited Delhi, and we would also speak on the phone a lot when she would be back in her hometown, Mumbai. Lots of times these were just conversations as friends.
How long did it take and what did you worry about the most?
PP: It took us 10 months to a year. There were a lot of meetings and conversations with Laxmi even during the writing; so I wasn’t able to compartmentalise the phases that cleanly. What I did consciously do was to stay away from reading a lot, especially memoirs, and anything written on the topic, say by or on transgenders. And during the writing, my work as an editor came very handy. Otherwise you don’t generally edit while you write. Or rather, shouldn’t!
Some days I would go to bed, anxious that I hadn’t found the expressions I wanted. I knew there was a certain voice I wanted, but I couldn’t grasp it. And then sometimes, I would just wake up, and I’d suddenly have the voice I wanted. Like with ‘Raju’s Monologue’ — I distinctly remember that it came from a lot of confusion in my head, and one day I woke up thinking that I would write this as a separate voice.
What was the logic of structuring the majority of book into sections called The Creator, The Preserver and The Destroyer?
L: Well, to tell you the truth, I was always attracted to feminist characters. I always imagined myself as Rakasha or rather, a courtesan, who had so much power in the way they controlled men. So with a little help from my editor, we chaptered it according to the characters in my life who I related to in my own way.
PP: The structure of the book was something that came early on when I started writing. It was inspired by Laxmi herself in a way. She’s very well-versed in Hindu Brahmanical literature, it’s something she has read and studied as a child. So I knew this was relevant to the book.
The section ‘Manthan: The Churning of Laxmi’ came when I was reading a lot of mythological stories about the goddess Lakshmi, and I knew there was something I was looking for, but wasn’t sure what it was. Then I found an old Amar Chitra Katha with the Manthan story, and I could instantly imagine Laxmi right there, in the middle of that.
The men came from a slightly more studied and structured place as an editor. I knew where each man would go.
Pooja, what is it like to write as someone else? When you do it in fiction, you’re creating a person from scratch, but here you’re talking as a ‘real’ person.
PP: I would credit Laxmi for this. Once we got to know each other, there were lots of conversations and also faffing around, exchanging notes. We’d begin talking about our personal lives — I think there was some kind of trust built there. She really went about it with a no questions asked attitude, and shared magnanimously. You feel very responsible about presenting a real person, and the fact that she trusted me so much meant something.
When I started writing, I didn’t know how I would present it, but I did know I wanted to experiment in terms of style, narration, the voice. Laxmi was okay with my experimenting with these things, and that gave me creative freedom, which was important. Writing about someone else as her became pleasurable for me.
Pooja, what was so difficult about capturing Laxmi’s voice?
PP: The voice was the biggest challenge. I tried many things, and had many false starts. Initially I was experimenting with the voice based on the title. Red Lipstick: The Men in My Life is a title that asks for cheekiness, a been-there-done-that kind of tone. This voice also fits Laxmi well, because when you meet her, she has this persona — it is a persona, an avatar she has created, and she says as much — which absorbs you, she has all your attention when she is there.
So there was a brazenness I wanted to capture, but when I tried only this, I would find myself stuck. I didn’t fully give it up because that brazenness is also Laxmi, but I felt like I had to find other voices that I knew were there somewhere. And I found so many of them, a cacophony almost — there was a very very vulnerable Laxmi; there is this self-effacing Laxmi that people find hard to believe is there, but it is; there’s also a conflicted Laxmi so caught up in definitions, identities, and her family. To sift through them all, and figure out which will fit the book, to be true to Laxmi throughout, and working on each of these voices was a challenge. I didn’t want to muffle any voice out.
I always joke with Laxmi that I have gone where no man has gone before, because I had to enter her head.
Laxmi, do you still grapple with questions of gender? Do you think it’s possible for us to ever not struggle with it?
Sexuality is fluid. Sex is different from sexuality, and one needs to find and explore one’s sexuality. I won’t agree that sexuality is a taboo in India; since ancient times, sexuality was appreciated and has been there in Indian history since Puranas or Vedic times…there is a quote in Manu Smriti which says ‘Vikhurthi evam Prakruthi.’ People accepted sexuality in ancient times, but after colonisation by the British, we were forced by western culture [to] look upon this as part of decent behaviour, or rather, through their moralistic view. I would rather say that we should go back to our culture, rediscover ourselves, and explore within ourselves. We shouldn’t be set in the norms decided by society. I would like my book to open some Pandora’s Box that lets the youth get some insight on self-exploration and understand their sexuality.
I’m true to myself and the book helped me grow as person and learn from it as I looked at my past. While going through those memories, I was living those moments at that time. It was refreshing and made me look at myself in a new light and helped me grow.
Pooja, how did writing this book change your own conceptions of gender?
PP: I don’t want to sound dramatic, but for me this book has been an understanding of what the full potential of me is — as a person, as a woman, and of course as a writer. I have been in this conversation about gender — with myself, mostly — that started fairly recently, in my early 30s. I think about my 20s now, and I’m appalled at how little I thought about this back then, and how I went around in an indulgent haze! But I think it became a really important question for me when I became a mother. It became something I could no longer put off dealing with, because I’m now responsible for the shaping of another person.
I remember very clearly the moment the doctor informed me just after I gave birth that it was a girl. And she immediately followed it up with — are you happy? I remember I was exhausted, but I was thinking that this is the problem, the gender bias, and this is the world I’ve lived in and I’ve been living in. It was really a panic moment, knowing I was bringing a child into this kind of world. I remember barking back at the doctor, screaming yes at her. Of course, this partly comes from hindsight, but from that moment on, I knew that as my daughter grew up, she would also look to me for cues and so I’d better deal with it myself, to start with!
Laxmi and this book came into my life and plugged into these conversations that until then I was really only having with myself, and a little bit with my husband as co-parent. My realm of understanding until then had been narrow — it was in terms of men and women, but I was not engaging with anything beyond these binaries. I had the idea that gender can be fluid, but then you see Laxmi living this idea. It’s something I want to pass on to my daughter.