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Interview: Satya Rai Nagpaul

Photo of trans activist and cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul, holding up a camera to shoot a film

Satya Rai Nagpaul, award winning cinematographer and FTII graduate, trans man, and trans rights activist, speaks about the influence and role of memory in his own life, and in the world around him as he views it, through the lens of his experiences, personally and professionally. Satya is the founder of Sampoorna, an Indian trans and intersex network begun in 1998. Ten years later, in 2008, Satya had spoken to TARSHI about a paper that he had presented at the 12th Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS) Conference (subtheme: Generating New Knowledge around Sexualities and Genders) where he had shared a memory of his grandfather and himself, saying, “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)…”.

Now in 2018, we invite Satya to re-visit memories such as these and others, and to share his thoughts about how we shape memories and how we are shaped by our evolving understanding and constructions of such memories.

Shikha Aleya (SA): Satya, thank you for taking time out for this interview. Please share some of your earliest memories of your sense of self and sexuality, and of family and friends, as you remember them today.

Satya (SRN): There are very few ‘earliest memories’ with specificities of time and place, as such; but if I try to go back in my mind, as far as I can, and wait to see what emerges, what there is, is a very, very deep sense of ‘being whole and being connected to my mother’. There is no separate sense of a clear self. And there is no memory of sexuality.

SA: Has your relationship with these memories, your understanding of them, and of yourself, changed over the decades?

SRN: What I know now is that there were memories that are no longer there. Perhaps, not remembering has been a mechanism of ‘coping’ with the trans experience, which in the mid-90s when I was waking up to it, had no structural mechanisms except medical pathologisation, to address it. Most importantly, in the last 10 years especially, as one has attempted to engage with the question of gender identity and expression, the question that one is at, at this moment, is about the memories that could have been, but are not. More specifically, the memories that could have formed, had there been a cultural validation of female masculinity. The gender poverty that we are socially, culturally and historically embedded in, as far as female-bodied persons are concerned, is misogyny. All we have, at a very deep-seated level, is the unbearable patriarchal devaluing of female bodies and feminine expression and no amount of only securing legal rights is going to change that.

SA: In a 2016 interview focusing on your film ‘Chauthi Koot’ (The Fourth Direction), you spoke of your cinematic influences as not lying within cinema, but in ‘deep-seated childhood memories of the house I have grown up in’.  Do speak to us about the influence of memories on your work, and on your professional identity.

SRN: If memory is the ground on which my self unifies itself as it goes from one moment in time to another, then there is nothing that is possible without memory. I hold myself as ‘me’ because of this unifying across time; and therefore, it is on the grounds of memory that life itself becomes possible. I don’t think memories influence us. In fact, they constitute us. I therefore see my work, and the various identities that I hold as referencing to ‘me’, coming in and through, and because of, memories.

SA: You link the personal being, through memories, to the professional, going beyond the typically narrow, surface construction of academics and work experience.  In your interactions with trans, intersex and intergender communities, what are your thoughts on the links between personal memories and their influence on the lives and occupations of individuals?

SRN: The construction of self through repression is the hard core of trans and intersex persons’ memories; unlike cis-individuals, the social, cultural and historical ‘othering’ of our bodies informs us daily, and, from our very infancy/childhood. Intersex newborns continue to be surgically reassigned at birth, a practice that is not only far from being criminalised, but currently enjoys social and medical sanction. Sampoorna Working Group has been the only collective to make an intersex deposition to the Parliamentary Standing Committee in December 2017, on why ‘intersex’ cannot be clubbed with ‘trans’ and why therefore we need to rename India’s upcoming Transgender Person’s (Protection of Rights) Bill as the Transgender and Intersex Person’s (Protection of Rights) Bill. In fact, as a result of a campaign we ran then, WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health) responded to our campaign call by writing to the Government of India, alerting them to the grave danger of not treating intersex and trans as two separate, even if sometimes overlapping, domains. It remains to be seen what final version of the Bill the Government is going to pass, but if the last four years are anything to go by, we do not have much hope. When a society does not hold up justice as its highest value, what memories does or can it ensure when it continues perpetuating structural inequalities and violence towards gender and sexuality minorities?

SA: What are the key differences of the impact of memory across these different communities as reported by some of the individuals you have interacted with? What is your take on the sociological perspective of memory, a collective memory of a group or a community of people? How does this translate in the context of those who identify as trans, intersex or as any of the many possibilities of gender identities?

SRN: It may be more fruitful, politically speaking, to talk here about the similarities, rather than the differences, with respect to the impact of memories, from the experience of being trans, intersex, intergender.

Can we deny that the world is divided into ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’? What does it mean for those of us who fall into the second category, to negotiate, or, to give up, a life thus categorised, pathologised, marked and continuously governed?  Was this modernity’s promise of equality, freedom and justice?

What can be the memories of those already thrown out of this project, right at birth? Where the equality, freedom and justice for some, first throws you outside your very own body, and then provides you a reclamation route (infused with ‘truth-belongs-to-cis’), constructed through capitalism’s categories of ‘mental disorder’, ‘hormonal re-assignment’, ‘sex re-assignment’? Whose ecosystem of ‘health and pathology’ gives legitimacy to an identity called ‘trans gender’ and when one receives the question,“Sir, aapka ‘treatment’ poora ho gaya?” (Sir, is your ‘treatment’ complete?), one realizes how deeply the cognitive impossibilities, thrown up from the locked-off dyad of ‘male and female’, constitute most of us.

Or, where you grow up to find that your parents never ‘told you’ that they decided to medically reassign you at birth, because you had a ‘condition’ (of being intersex) that needed ‘correction’, without which you would have remained a ‘hijra’ all your life. And, ‘who would marry you?’

What could our memories be?

Memories of those who are ‘brought back’ into the ‘fold of humanity’ – on the condition of ‘consent to be normalised’?

While those who did not thus ‘consent’, continue their bare life in ‘the prison’, ‘the madhouse’, and ‘the brothel’.

SA: India’s Transgender Person’s (Protection of Rights) Bill has been at the centre of intense debate due to many issues of rights and rights violations being flagged by activists.  In a recent article, you have written, “The biggest tragedy in the entire hullabaloo about trans rights is that it has come to be seen as the rights of the ‘third gender’, rather than the legitimisation by the highest court of the land, of two ideas: self-identification of gender and the delinking of sex and gender.” Is it possible that there are chunks of missing memory, un-recorded by individual or group, corresponding to gaps in the public, political and legal approach to these issues? What are the processes that could identify these missing chunks and begin a process of re-writing memory, history and a way forward?

SRN: There is no way forward without having our hystories*. But our hystories are histories of pathologies. Empirically, we are all caught-up in a ‘rights language’ to try and regain ‘dignity’ for our hystorically disenfranchised communities. A deeper analysis would show that this route will not deliver. The route of continuous creation of difference through categories of illness, only to collapse and integrate into a ‘normatively’, against the promise of ‘legitimacy’, will not deliver.

When one takes a moment to recognize it, it is amazing to see how much the scienticism, and the resulting psychologism of the European enlightenment still has us in its grip; how else does one understand that homosexuality as an illness was removed from its diagnostic manual by the APA (American Psychiatric Association) as recently as 1973 (not to mention that it was brought about by a movement and not a self-reflexive moment within medicine)? And how does one understand that issues of gender and bodily diversity continue to be seen as mental pathologies and disorders of sexual development respectively, within key diagnostic manuals like the ICD-10 and DSM-5?

It is time for the straight-cis-cartesian project to take responsibility for the structures of signification they have created. And apologize. And then create the processes of historical reparation, recognition and justice. It is only then, that a beginning can be made. It is only then that self-erasure of memories will cease for us, and a desire to even have them in the first place, can begin.

*Why ‘hystories’ instead of ‘histories’: The latter has been used in the form of a ‘universal’ address, but actually refers to the naturalised, and thus, invisibilised, ‘story of man’ – man here being the gendered idea of man and not the anthropological one; ‘hystories’, reverses this, and also evokes it as the hystories of misogyny that construct us all today.

Cover Image: Satya Rai Nagpaul

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