1. I’m in Manhattan after a meeting with my publisher. It’s a warm autumn day and I’m wearing a salwar kameez and dupatta. My hair is plaited into a single braid which I wear over my right shoulder. I’m not eager to leg it right back to Brooklyn, so I prolong my stay on the island a bit. I walk down to “Curry Hill” to stock up on some South Asian groceries. I go into my favorite shop, Foods of India, and I’m momentarily wary on entering, remembering how my clothes are strongly signifying my ethnicity and how my hair and kohl are strongly signifying my gender. And how both aspects are amplifying each other in a space like this. And though I have been lately navigating urban spaces with little-to-no hassle or bother, I still have to check myself on occasion. The owner, a Sikh man sits at the counter — I’m pretty sure he recognizes me. I say “Sat Sri Akaal” to him and he responds in kind. I’m thinking everything will be fine. I pile up my shopping basket with bitter melons, garlic pickle, pointed gourds, cumin seeds, red lentils. I make my way to the counter where the owner has been joined by another colleague. As I’m unloading my items from my basket, I notice that the owner is looking at me with some interest.
“Oh shit,” I think, “he’s clocked me.” I try not to look at him but I know he and his pal are pretty intrigued. “Here comes the shitty questions.” Sure enough, as he’s ringing me up he says: “You…you are…” I brace myself for it. “You are…Pakistani?” I look up at him, wide-eyed. “Me? Pakistani? Uh, no…no, I’m Bengali.” Sardar ji is incredulous. “Bengali?!” he exclaims. “You look like you are Pakistani!” His colleague agrees with him. “Hah! Bengali!” I’m not sure how to respond, so I say “Bahut shukriya” — thank you — for the groceries and I amble out of the shop, quite relieved.
2. A rainy afternoon in Park Slope: I’m walking to the bank to deposit a check because I am an old-fashioned girl. Maybe I’ll buy an eggplant on the way back, I’m thinking to myself as I stroll down 9th street under my cheap umbrella. By now it’s more than drizzling and has become a little heavy. Suddenly from behind me, someone tucks themself in, right under my brolly. “Excuse me,” she says, “do you mind to share your umbrella?” She’s quite small, South Asian, wearing a kurta, her hair in a plait. I’m a little taken aback, but not unpleasantly so. “No problem.” I say.
We walk a little ways in silence but soon she asks: “You are married?” I’m on my guard but I don’t have to dissemble, so I tell her I am. “How many children?” she inquires. Oh no, I think…but whatever. “Uh…we don’t have any children.” I reply. “No children?” she is incredulous. “Why no children? Your husband doesn’t want children?” I don’t think I’m grimacing, but I could be wrong. “Uh, no…we’re, uh…not ready for that…” I’m babbling. “My husband!”
I think to myself: Oh thank goddess, we’ve arrived at the bank.
“Um, I have to go in here…” I tell her. “Oh, ok. I walk to the bus stop,” she says. “Wait,” I tell her, “you don’t have an umbrella? Please, you take mine.” She smiles at me. “You are sure?” I smile back. “Of course, please take it, sister.” She takes it, thanks me, and makes her way off towards 4th avenue. I am filled with the heavy cream of sisterly kindness.
3. We’re in India. It’s Joan’s first time ever and I haven’t been here in 10 years, since my parents died. We’re in Kolkata, where my parents grew up, where they had a flat and where they used to take me every two years during childhood summers to spend a month and a half with aunts, uncles, cousins. So here I am, playing tourist for a change. I am not sure how I will be read here, in terms of gender. But it is, for someone who has never lived in India, terra incognita to some degree — and I’m thinking I need to play it safe, which means wearing clothes that are as gender-neutral as possible. I wear my hair in a bun and am trying not to draw attention to myself. I need not have worried too much though. I’m read as who I am, a woman, pretty much everywhere, which pleases me no end. People, mainly dudes, are staring to be sure – but who knows what they are thinking. Anyway. We’re walking towards the Victoria Memorial, the sun is shining and the grass is lush. As we approach the gates, I notice a trio of trans women milling about the entrance, talking amongst themselves. I had been wondering if I’d get to meet any Indian trans ladies and here they are, in a thoroughly unplanned situation. As we approach them, I catch their eye — they see me but don’t seem to take much notice until I salute them, hands together, and say “Namashkar.” They turn towards me. I say to them, in Bengali: “I’m like you!” It’s pretty clumsy, but I lack the vocabulary to put it in a more eloquent way. They see me. They light up and speak to me in rapid-fire Bengali, asking me where I’m from, what I’m doing in Kolkata, telling me I have to come with them to a puja — a Hindu ritual of worship — and I respond, in my utterly pedestrian Bengali, that I can’t (I’m still a little wary) but I thank them with a namaste and we head inside the gates. I’m a little giddy, and in retrospect, a little rueful that I didn’t go off with them, maybe even to become the fourth member of their little trans gang.
4. Joan and I are spending a weekend in Saratoga, NY. Her mother is performing in a dramatic production up there. Joan says that as long as we are in the area, we should go visit her stepmother in Schenectady since it’s quite close. It’s 2015. I have been questioning my gender for a little while but am not really sure where I am. I have been using gender-neutral pronouns but am still a little cloudy as to who I am, where I belong. Not at all certain how I even characterize myself. Joan’s stepmom has probably told her adopted 11-year-old twins that Joan and her “husband” are coming to visit, which at this point, is not something I’m willing to dispute. We arrive at the house and Joan’s stepmom introduces Joan to one of the twins — the other one is having a time-out as she has attempted to bite her sister. Before she can introduce me, the child, looking past me, says: “Where’s Bishakh?” Joan and I side-eye each other. “I’m…I’m right here. I’m Bishakh,” I say. The child is thoroughly perplexed. “Huh.” She’s not satisfied. “I was expecting a boy.” Wow, I think to myself. This is a moment.
Stepmom is trying to write off the whole thing somehow because I think she thinks I’m embarassed, which I’m not — just quietly surprised. But the child is still analyzing me. I imagine the gears revolving in her head. “I have a question!” she exclaims. Stepmom knows where this is going so she tries to head her off, but the child will not be dissuaded. “My question is,” — here it comes — “… are you transgender?” No one knows what to say, me included. No one has ever asked me that before, me included. Stepmom is making excuses for the child, saying they know a trans woman in the neighborhood and therefore, these kinds of questions. But my mind is made up. “Yes,” I say. “I am.” This is the first time I have acknowledged it to myself and I am finally recognizing a feeling that has been simmering for maybe ages now. “I am trans,” I say, definitively. “Oh, ok,” the child responds. She turns on her heels and heads for the kitchen, singing the name of the family cat in a sing-song manner.
Read the first edition of Scenes from a Gender by Bishakh Som.
This was so beautiful! I loved it. Thank you for the beautiful arts and words
Thank you so much!
I realllllllllly LOVED this. So thoughtful and so beautifully illustrated too.
Yay, thank you!
I loved reading this so much, thank you! I’m off to buy your book!!!
Damn is this good! So impressively, deceptively simple.
Thank you Cleo! Meow meow meow
Love this so so much
This is so good!!! Particularly loved how you captured the way older desi men give you this *look* and you think “Oh no” but it’s always “So….where is your family from?” They’re often surprised when I tell them I’m South Indian and not North Indian!
Also, speaking as someone whose extremely pale white friend traveled to India with them once, it’s entirely possible the men were staring at your wife. Love those remnants of colonialism lol.
Ha ha, right? Like, what does it matter if I’m not Pakistani or whatever. And yes, re: Indian dudes, it may have been her and not me, but I’m guessing us being together was a bit of a cause for hubbub
I love these! I was so excited to see this up on the site today! 😍
Yay, thank you Linnea!
This is really beautiful! Thank you for writing it. 💜
Thank you so much, Kate. I’m so glad you liked it.
These are fantastic. I love how that last one captures both the curiosity and ease with which kids handle gender, sexuality, and identity questions when they haven’t been taught to fear or hate.
YES!! Exactly this.
That was amazing! There’s so much story in so few words, and all are captivating. I loved it.
I especially love how the child understood better than a lot of adults. They’re still free of so much propaganda.
Yes! Her words were a pivotal moment for me.
I loved Bishakh’s first piece for autostraddle and I was so excited to see more! I love the beautiful art and the mix of simplicity and complexity in these stories.
This is so nice to hear – thank you.
I loved the first installment so much, I’m glad there’s a second! thank you for sharing these beautiful words/pictures/experiences with us
I love this! Thank you for sharing 💖
This is great, thank you! Side question in the scene in Kolkata, would have referring to yourself as Hijra be correct or is that only for certain group of trans women?
Hi Al, thanks so much – I wouldn’t refer to myself as Hijra, no. I won’t attempt to define the term because I think that definition should be provided by someone from within that community – which is to say, not someone like me who is, rather, part of the South Asian diaspora.
Understandable. Thank you!
Simple and lovely. Thank you.
This is so good, thank you Bishakh! You write so beautifully about navigating culture and gender together. I especially loved how you wrote about revisiting Kolkata without your parents and sort of easing your way into a presentation that would work for you there– I felt that in my bones. Thanks again.
Hi tapir! Thank you so much. I didn’t even want to make that trip in the first place. I was so wary of how I would be perceived there. But my partner made me promise that we would go together. And in the end, that journey was suffused with sweetness…sometimes I cry a little bit to think of it. xxb
This is beautiful. Thank you.
Thank you for reading, Laura
This is so beautiful! Maybe because I remember the previous installment(and also because your writing and rhythm is so good) I was holding my breath at every interaction and I’m so glad I was left with a feeling of rightness and contentment.
Children can be so precious.
Thank you for your sweet words, Jana. Yes, though these are some more positive interactions, I still find myself wary at times. I like to think I can navigate the world (as much as that is possible in 2020) with some ease but I shouldn’t take that for granted. Anyway, I’m so glad you liked this work.
This is so incredibly heart-felt and beautifully illustrated!! Thank you so much for your work, Bishakh!!
Oh my goddess, thank you Jal!
Bishakh this was amazing!!!! And as a fellow Bengali loving the Kolkata scenes :)
Anek dhonnobad! That trip was full of sweetness and magic for me. Bhalo thako.
It’s been a long time since I’ve teared up from something that brought me joy to read, thank you for that.
Wow, I’m touched and a little teary too to hear that you were moved. Thank you so much, Katie.
Beautiful and nuanced, thanks!
Thank you, Fluor! xxb
i love this so much
Yay! Many thanks, weyes.
I loved this. The whole thing was beautiful and “I am filled with the heavy cream of sisterly kindness” really struck me.
Thanks so much, aks – I’m glad you thought that particular sentence wasn’t too over the top.
This was a lovely read :)
Thank you so much, ikke. Hugs from rainy Brooklyn.
Thanks for sharing. Your words are just as vivid and fun as your illustrations.
Wanted to be a Berlin mouse and listen in on the bar chatter.
Can’t wait for the next chapter.
Ahhh! Vielen dank, dear Ingrid! I won’t stop.