Friday, October 23, 2015

‘O ma, how queer!’

Vartanama, Oct '15
By Pawan Dhall

Goddess Durga as Ardhanarishvara in a puja
organized by trans women in Kolkata
Photo credit: Pawan Dhall
It is queer when more than a dozen social researchers from different South Asian countries have to travel to Bangkok in Thailand to train for a study to be carried out in South Asia. More so when the focus of the study is on sections of society that often identify as ‘queer’ (a term that signifies a non-normative gender or sexuality). Well, yours truly was one among the researchers and so this editorial was inevitable!

The reason why the researchers had to travel to Bangkok (earlier this month itself) was because the political equations between South Asian countries were such that it would have been impossible for all the researchers to obtain visas to gather in any one South Asian country! Leave aside the cost implications of travelling all the way to Bangkok. It is sad and ironical that political boundaries should come in the way of a study that seeks to better understand the lives of queer people and break down social boundaries that make them victims of stigma, discrimination and violence.

The irony becomes stronger when one notes that many of the socio-legal factors that today make South Asian lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other queer people criminals or second class citizens in their own countries were once imported across boundaries by our colonial masters. The most infamous among them in recent times is probably Section 377, which continues to criminalize or influence other laws against queer people in almost all South Asian countries.

Juxtaposed against this backdrop, Durga Puja in Kolkata this time has seen some unique efforts to cross boundaries. Not the ones surpassed by mega-sized idols, crowds of pandal-hoppers or corporate advertisement budgets, but those related to gender and sexuality diversity or the issue of disability. In quite an unprecedented attempt, several trans women in the city (with support from community-based organization Pratyay Gender Trust) have collaborated with a youth club in Sovabazar area of Central Kolkata to organize a Durga Puja celebration, where the goddess has been portrayed as Ardhanarishvara.

Photo credit: Pawan Dhall
There may be debate around how meaningful such an attempt is in terms of gender equity, especially since some of the beliefs and rituals associated with the festival may be seen as undermining women’s status in society. But as an attempt to (re)claim social spaces that have been denied to gender variant people, the initiative has merit – especially the strategy of collaborating with a youth club, a phrase that often evokes an image of young men who can be helpful and enterprising but also so often a law unto themselves. What remains to be seen is if the initiative continues and sparks off greater social inclusion for gender variant and other queer people in the long run, including on festive occasions such as Durga Puja.

Photo credit: Prosenjit Pal
Another welcome sight this time around has been the placement of wheelchairs by some of the Durga Puja organizers near the pandals. How functional these wheelchairs were and how often they were put to use for disabled people (including those with old age related disabilities), one doesn’t know. But the thought and the effort does count. The next step in promoting greater inclusion of disabled people in Durga Puja festivities could be to design pandal approaches, entrances and exits that are disabled-friendly.

This issue of Varta carries stories of individuals who challenged social boundaries in different ways. In Sukhdeep Singh’s Freedom Fair and Square, you can read the story of Shivy, a courageous Indian trans man based in USA who took on his parents when they tricked him into coming to India and tried to marry him off forcibly to a man (the parents never respected their daughter’s desire to identify as a man). In Reflection, Pratulananda Das shares how he came to terms with his sexual orientation after he read the late British mathematician Alan Mathison Turing’s life story. Star Quest: Straight from a Queer Positive Heart! profiles Arunabha Hazra, a young Kolkata-based event manager and a queer rights activist who’s not queer!

And then there is RKPS in my thoughts. He’s not the focus of any article in this issue of Varta, but a friend who is HIV positive and an old-time queer activist from Manipur. He recently migrated all the way to Bangalore for better livelihood and HIV treatment prospects. One hopes his long journey across physical, political and emotional boundaries will yield happy and meaningful results as that of the researchers who travelled to Bangkok.

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!


  1. Concept of Disabled friendly Durga Puja started in 2010, an organisation called NIP along with Disability Commissioner's office started giving away ward to Pujas who keep wheel-chair ready and make other arrangements for senior citizens & disabled people. I had been one of the judges in the past in such an endeavor. In 2015, 230 Puja Committees agreed to be part of this award.
    Though it seems a tokenn as generally roads and vehicles remain inaccessible for wheel-chair users, the thought needs to be applauded.

    And definitely lot of discussions/debates required of whether/how we, gender activists can "Occupy Durga Puja".

    1. Shampa, many thanks for pointing out that Durga Puja organizers have been arranging wheelchairs since 2010, and that 230 of them had this arrangement this time. Of course, when one looks at the crowds, traffic and overall pandal arrangements, it does seem as if a lot more needs to be done to ensure inclusion. But it's good to know that efforts are being made.