Literary Review

From one cage to another...

Red Lipstick; Laxmi, Penguin Random House, Rs. 399.  

When Bruce Jenner came out as Caitlyn last year with that famous Vanity Fair cover photograph, it was disappointing that someone who had broken out of a tightly boxed identity should have announced it with that ultra-clichéd marker that has conspired to define perfect femininity in our times: a legs-and-cleavage revealing Monroe-Madonna pose.

It is even more tragic when you consider that the ramp-ready breasts and hair and facial-feminisation that Jenner shows off are available only to the super-rich. For every Jenner, countless transgendered persons get botched surgeries and cheap hormones from quacks exploiting their desperation to “look” the part. This is the ultimate trap not just for transgenders but women as well — of fighting the objectification of the body by succumbing instead to self-objectification in a market-driven miasma of confusion about what constitutes empowerment and what continues to feed the sexual gaze.

Laxmi’s new book falls into this trap. Here is one of the most powerful transgender advocates in the country, whose seminal role in getting social and legal recognition for hijras and other marginalised gender identities has been vastly celebrated, and how is her second book marketed? With a title that says Red Lipstick: The Men in My Life and a blurb that talks of her “most intimate encounters”. It is rather sad that a book by a leading rights activist has to be sold by disguising it as a kiss-and-tell account of the men she has bedded.

In one of those fashionable collaborations, the book is written in first person but not by Laxmi alone; Pooja Pande is co-author. The emotional disconnect is obvious — Pande’s conversations with Laxmi’s close associates appear to have been reproduced as part of Laxmi’s recollections. It is no accident that a chapter written personally and warmly by Manvendra Singh Gohil comes off best.

The book is arranged in sections, each devoted to a man. From Ashok Row Kavi whom Laxmi first met as a pubescent boy, to the guru who adopted her into the hijra clan, to her father, brother, and close associates (sexual, platonic and business), they all figure here in what can be loosely described as an extended Awards Night thank-you speech. After a while, they all segue into a string of placeholders, reduced to “he was like a brother-father-son-best friend-husband to me”. The men dangled on the cover enter late; they are the males in her extended family with whom she has revenge sex.

On the one hand, the anguish that must have been Laxmi’s boyhood is shrunk into vapidity with lines like these: “When we were kids, I was vilified very often because I was different.” At the other end, you have the cringe-worthy melodrama of: “I made patriarchy come crawling to me, on its knees, to be on my satin bedsheet.”

Between these, a powerful story is lost. You catch glimpses of it. Laxmi is not a hijra but has (without castration) embraced the identity deliberately. She talks of ‘creating’ the Laxmi persona to play activist; she refers to herself constantly in the third person, talks of spending hours getting her make-up on. A chapter titled ‘Raju’s Monologue’, easily the most moving in the book, speaks of how she breaks down when her sisters call her ‘Raju bhaiyya’, of how she continues to represent the maayka or paternal home for her sisters, of looking in the mirror and suddenly seeing Raju behind the mascara.

It’s a poignant pursuit of identity. There are many people inside this body, one smothered, one alive, and maybe a myriad other semi-formed personalities. We all wear masks, “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet”, but Laxmi’s masks seem legion and deeply at conflict.

Scion of a distinguished Tripathi family from Gorakhpur, the fiery rebel is, ironically, a traditionalist at heart. She is “not subversive enough”, says Hoshang Merchant in a gently ambivalent postscript. After breaking out of society’s most rigid cage, that of gender, Laxmi appears to negotiate life with a copybook genuflection to orthodoxy.

Her pride that her father continued to consider her his first-born son and heir, her dismissal of the women in her lovers’ lives as “jealous bitches”, her description of strong women as “men” and “husbands” — this is the voice of patriarchy. When Deepak, her adopted son, gets married, Laxmi confesses to being a “strict mother-in-law” who stopped Megha from wearing a sleeveless blouse. During a conference, Laxmi gets the hotel air-conditioning working again by threatening to lift up her sari “like a hijra”. This is an uneasy arc for the reader to traverse with the activist.

Possibly the most depressing aspect is Laxmi’s desire to be “owned by a man”. Of an early lover named Chand, she says, “All I wanted was for him to take ownership of me.” Of her present lover Viki Thomas, she says, “For the first time I can say that a man owns me. He’s made me a woman.” She talks of Viki’s tantrums, how she fears losing her freedom, and then justifies it, “After all, I consider him my husband now.”

Has she exchanged one gender cage for another? Or maybe she occupies several cages at the same time. Or perhaps she is free of all of them. This could have been a complex, multi-headed hydra of a story, but what we get instead is a curiously flat and deadpan narrative that fails to draw us in.

Red Lipstick; Laxmi, Penguin Random House, Rs. 399.

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Printable version | Aug 1, 2021 12:09:57 AM |

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