Shades of Grey: R (emoval) for Real - Satya Rai Nagpaul

All is not black and white… and we want to explore the shades of grey. Feminism is diverse and we don’t always agree totally with one another, though we may share a similar perspective. While we don’t want to silence other viewpoints, we want to focus on the finer distinctions between arguments used by people who are on the same side of the table.

Even in progressive circles, there is often discomfort with including trans people for a number of reasons. The most common one cited is ‘Oh, but he is not a real man’ or ‘She is not really a woman’.

Here’s what we asked Satya Rai Nagpaul:
Who is a ‘real’ man or woman?
What makes this reality?
And, what does it say about gender?

It must not be the Delhi winter sun which keeps my mother for endless minutes on the terrace, her sharp jaw thrust upwards in the most inhuman angles, looking in a mirror that was her mother’s, aiming for the roots of almost invisible hair strands, that she knows will ‘appear’ again. I see an act without keenness. A silent act. A mechanical act done in isolation. An act that has thoughts she’ll never utter and I’ll never ask.

When her hand tires from either holding the mirror for too long or from the frustration at not being able to dig out that tiniest and most colourless of strands from deep within her skin, she calls for help. Usually it is my sister who is extended the invitation, but this time, my mother called for me.

At that distance, and in that act, I saw again a lesson of many years ago, a lesson about the meaning-making power of ‘appearance’. Ten years ago, when I started testosterone, I watched with deep concentration, every morning, in front of my father’s mirror, every strand of hair, that had any promise of ‘appearance’. It seemed to me that if I looked really hard and really long, at least one new hair will come to life, and I would have taken another step to the maleness that was only, my father’s preserve.

As I got a grip on one of the strands and pulled it right up, my mother released a sound of pain, relief and approval and I was strangely satisfied. That sound from her was not only my reward, but the act of removing the hair, and the visual sight of its exposed root travelled far within me. I felt one with my mother. A strange sense of triumph and inner peace came over me.

It must have been the same pleasure of removal that my father enjoyed in that daily ritual of shaving, that I yearned to inherit from him, and knew the impossibility of, at the same time. Only that this pleasure was unshared and belonged solely to him. Just like mine, when my breasts were finally removed. Or perhaps the surgeon had some deep satisfactions that I could never have imagined then, or else, I would have liked to make some sounds, despite my anaesthesia, to convey my pain, relief and approval……

When the beard finally ‘appeared’, I was my own father. I even took his name. Without asking. Like I took his cameras. In anger. That removal from his universe was as real as the hair that started appearing all over my body, masculinising me in ways that perhaps he could negotiate only through silence.

My hair was real. It was not just the testosterone I fed my body, but my dormant chromosomes slowly waking from their dreamless sleep. At the end of it all, they said I looked so ‘natural’…so ‘real’…that no one could, ‘tell’…

But I could tell…so could some others…not everything was as ‘real’ as my new hair. It was turning out, that what was ‘real’, was that which was ‘present’. And that which performed, what was ‘known’. But for all outward appearances and daily life and living, feminist friends thought I was too male, non-feminist men thought I wasn’t a real enough male, lovers couldn’t mention to their fathers such a male. Feminist-abhorring but autonomy aspiring women thought I was an exemplary female.

………the earliest person to see it was my grandfather. When I took pleasure jumping up and down the carpenter’s table in the car park area of our house, he got annoyed with my mother and told her to ‘throw that naughty boy out of the house’…….my mother could not make him believe that, ‘it was only our gudiya (a generic Hindi name meaning ‘doll’, used for female-bodied children)……’

The nuns would have called upon their gods, had they known that behind the assembly stage, of the all girls’ convent school, my lover saw herself kissing a male who wore a hairband and a shirt tucked inside a skirt. How did she see what my grandfather did? How could the doctors need so many years of telling?

When I finally met him, he could not bring himself to show me his constructed phallus; in a moment he got up saying he wanted to pee; he went into the loo, without closing the door behind him; within a few seconds he called out ‘do you want to come and see’……in the villages of Punjab, he passed for a real man; he could urinate where he wished and he could do it standing; only…..he deeply yearned to go back and live in the open fields and the clean air his village but knew that the small town was his only real chance to anonymity and a life without threat from his and his partner’s family, who had chased them to the last town, they then had to flee from overnight.

Who are we? What is this urge to maleness? Is it real? Is my father’s maleness ‘real’? Why is it more ‘real’ than mine? Why is my physicality less legitimate than his? My mother could have been my father; with that sharp jawline and chiselled face, all she needed was some beard and body hair, a flat chest and a working phallus. Perhaps, I am her unlived desire for maleness?..........

This paper was presented at the 12th Indian Association for Women’s Studies [IAWS] Conference at the subtheme: Generating New Knowledge around Sexualities and Genders in February 2008.

Satya Rai Nagpaul is a Transman. Satya established ‘Sampoorna’, a network of Asian and Diasporic-Asian Trans People in the year 1998. He moderates an e-list by the same name since 2004. He is a professional Cinematographer with training from The Film & Television Institute of India (FTII). He can be reached at: