In 1972, Syed Mustafa Siraj (1930-2012) published Māyā Mridanga, a novel which has attained an iconic status in recent years, with the advent of queer studies and a proliferation of queer texts in South Asia. Since its first appearance, the novel, set within an almost extinct itinerant folk theatre group, Alkaap, drew the attention of scholars working on aboriginal and folk cultures of Bengal; but, they have largely ignored Siraj’s declaration in the 1972 preface that the novel primarily deals with the cross-dressing male actors (p.5), the chhokras–jara purush tobu purush noy, nari – tobu nari o noy (Men, who are not men, but women – yet, not quite women either, p. 12). Siraj’s novel is a rare modern Bengali text to address deep philosophical questions of sexual subject formation, of essence and existence, of being and becoming.
The novel, written out of Siraj’s own experiences of performing and travelling with Alkaap groups, philosophises on the mystical enigma of a man’s transfiguration into a woman on stage, which creates birol māyā– a rare phenomenal mystery – which has a magical power over the playwright, the co-performers and the viewers, all at once. Sirajponders over the intricate relationship between body, gender and sexuality, while cogitating on the mutability of youth and beauty, which an ageing chhokra finds difficult to deal with. The natural process by which youth flows into adulthood, which in turn mutates into old age, has a violent bearing on the mind and body of the chhokra. The māyā begins to recede as soon as the young chhokra’s voice loses its mellifluous pitch at the initiation of adulthood. Once the garb falls apart, what happens to the chhokra? Does he regain his essential identity, if there was one, which was so far concealed under the garb? The title Māyā Mridanga demands decoding in this connection, in order to make sense of Siraj’s profound insight into whether there is a real gender, a coherent and fixed identity, a question which Judith Butler raised much later, in 1990, and opened up new avenues in sexuality studies.
Māyā is a phenomenon, a power, which has inestimable potential to create illusions or mysteries. Māyā has more or less this implication in both Hindu and Buddhist philosophical discourses. There is no English word which can encapsulate its meaning. The term mridanga, on the other hand, appears more translatable at a glance. But that is not so either! Here, Siraj engages in an intriguing word play. Mridanga refers to a musical instrument, a clay drum that accompanies musical and dance performances in Alkaap; but, notably, it is a compound word, which splits into mrit (clay or earth) and anga (a limb, a body part or the body itself). Literally, mridanga connotes a body of clay, an appropriate metaphor for the chhokra. A lump of clay can be moulded into any shape the artisan wishes to; but, the object created has a limited life. It is fragile, vulnerable, and transient. So, is the chhokra. He is moulded into a woman, literally constructed as one, the artisan being the ustaad, or the head of the Alkaap group. But, with the passage of time, he outgrows this mould, loses his beauty, and is rendered useless.But, he, unlike a clay puppet, is not an inanimate object, but has agency, consciousness and a personhood. The equivocal implication of mridanga needs to be taken into account in order to appreciate the novel’s delineation of the chhokra’s being and becoming.
Māyā Mridanga infinitely problematises the nature vs. nurture debate that is central to sexuality studies. The novel seems to suggest that a certain kind of male body – feminine, smooth, shapely – is the ideal raw material for making a chhokra out of a biological man. Ustaad Jhaksa, whose life the novel documents, repeatedly emphasises on this act of nurturing, moulding and pruning of a feminine male body for which he has fatherly affection as well as a lover’s lust (pp.26-27). The chhokra’s artistic life as female impersonator demands of him to suppress his masculinity almost to the extent of forgetting he was once a man: Majhe majhe tar money thakena je se purush, sotero bochhorer kishore (Sometimes [Subarna] even forgets that he is a man, a young man of seventeen. p. 61). When Sanatan, realising Subarna’s amorous feelings for him, forewarns him of a bleak future – of his ephemeral chhokra identity – the author writes: Sob bodlabe; tar eimon – saat bochhor dhore toiri mon ta bodlabe konodin? (Everything will change – but his soul? This soul which was built over seven long years, would that change ever? p. 61).Notably, there is a clear emphasis on becoming, which renders his being an illusion.
It is important to point out here that the characters’ understanding of gender and sexuality is located within a hetero-patriarchal paradigm, within which the man, such as Jhasksa, has absolute power over his wives and his chhokras, not withstanding their occasional revolts. Unsurprisingly, therefore, their understanding of gender and sexuality, as underlined by several dialogues in the text, is based on an essentialist notion of two binary categories, man and woman: Purush kokhono nari hoy na (A man can never be a woman, p.18). The chhokra, therefore, is apparently an aberration in this clear-cut order of gender binaries. Therefore, Jhaksa often wonders whether he has committed a terrible sin by constructing women out of men, following his mentor, Maniruddin’s warning: Pursuhke mone prane nari te poriborton korar karchupir khoma nei (The artifice of converting men into women, in mind and soul, is an unforgivable sin, p. 33).
There seems to be an unquestioning assumption that there are two natural categories- man and woman, each having its own essence and each different from the other. Imposing one category on the other, through the process of making chhokras, is like engaging in an act of deception against the order of nature. Maniruddin is seen repenting for this sin he has committed against nature by withdrawing from life, and taking refuge within the precincts of a mosque. He reminds Jhaksa of the Quranic story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and cautions him of the inexpiable sin he is indulging in. The kepes belonged to a subaltern social group which had little reverence for bourgeois notions of monogamy, compulsory heterosexuality and modesty; yet, it is strange how they are generally resentful of having committed the ‘sin’ of homosexuality, and of making homosexuals out of apparently heterosexual men. This is because, they cannot imagine or are not informed enough to imagine a whole spectrum of sexualities that exist and have apparently no connection with the biological body.
It is interesting that despite all his resentment, Jhaksa cannot rationalise why he is so beguilingly in love with his chhokras. Sanatan too is equally flustered on discovering that Subarna is in love with him: Byangey ghrina e thonth kuchke gechhe tar (He curled his lips with abhorrence, with mockery! p. 63). Yet, he is unable to resist Subarna. The birolmāyā they constantly refer to is a way of understanding this indeterminable mystery of sexualities, in fact, their own queerness. Siraj’s novel would have fallen flat had he tried to explain away this birolmāyā. By remaining elusive about it, he sustains this inscrutability of sexualities, which cannot be satisfactorily rationalised, psychoanalytically, socially or biologically.
On the other hand, Subarna is often troubled by the questions of the reality of his identity. His biological body is that of a man; yet, he has been tutored to imagine himself as a woman. He cannot reconcile his being with his becoming. Who is he? He is deeply in love with Sanatan but, is uncertain of the nature of this love – could this love be a reality too? Is this love no more than chasing amāyā, an illusion, which will never be realised? But,by the end of the novel, these doubts, premised on essentialised notions of masculinity and femininity and the perceived naturalness of heterosexuality, are eliminated. Siraj problematises gender as well as sexual identities understood as belonging to oppositional binary categories. This is the gujhyo totwo (deep metaphysics, p. 16) which the novel frequently refers to, but refrains from over-explaining.
When Siraj’s novel was published, the LGBT movement was unheard of in urban India, let alone in these remote villages through which the Alkaap groups travelled and performed. Neither Siraj nor the characters, based on real life individuals, had an accessible interpretive tool – a scientiasexualisor even the discourses of queer theory – which could elucidate femininity in men or homoerotic relationships between them. But, Siraj’s understanding of this apparently inexplicable notion of a fragmented and contingent sexual subjecthood and the possible existence of an infinite range of sexualities, therefore, came from a profound world-view. The novel ending on a positive note, with Subarna and Sanatantaking the vow of living together forever, yet refraining from labelling the relationship,dispels the fear of committing an unforgivable sin, as dictated by the puritans, such as Maniruddin. And, Siraj’s candid admittance in the 1972 preface – Ekhono boro māyā e ankrato hoi. Ora amay rehai daye na (Even now, I’m infected by that māyā; they [the chhokras] do not allow me to rest in peace. p. 5) – makes this novel an act of confession, nonetheless; a vehicle of telling the truth, as it were. However, there was no compulsion to tell this truth, and what makes this truth fascinating is the author’s refusal to rationalise it and to keeping it at the level of a deep percipience, which is not intelligible to everyone.
The novel was republished in 2004, by Dey’s, Kolkata, 20 years after the second edition came out.
Jhaksa is a widely revered Alkaapustaad, well-known in Murshidabad, Birbhum, Dumka, Purnia and other places. Sanatan and Subarna belong to a rival group, but, are deeply respectful of Jhaksa. The novel’s focus is mostly on Subarna, but, also has several other chhokras, Shanti, Madhu, Sufal, Bhanu, and an elderly female impersonator, Kalachand, who constantly reminds Subarna of his bleak future. Subarna, known for her singing, dancing and seductiveness, falls deeply in love with Sanatan. Sanatan is a young good-looking man who having failed to make a fortune in the film industry has joined Alkaap. It is believed that Sanatan is a fictional counterpart of Siraj himself.
All textual references are from Syed Mustafa Siraj (1972), Māyā Mridanga, third edition (Kolkata: Dey’s, 2004). Translations are mine.
Kepe (or kopey) is a term used to refer to the performers in the Alkaap group.
See, Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, second edition (New York and London: Routledge, 1999).
 See, Michel Foucault (1976), TheHistory of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, trans. R Hurley (Victoria, New York, Toronto, etc: Penguin, 2008).
Cover Image: The cover of the Dey’s 2004 edition of the novel; a picture of the cover of his personal copy of the novel by Kaustav Bakshi.