When you will have made him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
and restored him to his true freedom.
-Antonin Artaud, To Have Done with the Judgment of God (1947)
Recently, I read a news report about Jayalakshmi from Villupuram, whose husband Kumar had gone missing in 2016. Last month, they found him on TikTok. In the video, a woman in a blue nightie sits behind him on a bike, singing the popular Tamizh song Otha Roobayun Tharen from the film Nattupura Pattu. Her hair is flying in the wind as she joyfully lip syncs the lyrics, “un sotthu sugam venda yen buddhi ketta maama… un manja thaali pothum” (‘I don’t need your property or wealth, my crazy man. Just being your wife will do’). As she sings the lines “yen buddhi ketta maama”, she pulls him posessively by the hair to face the camera and proudly shows off her yellow thaali at the end.
The report identified her as his trans woman lover and ended with the assurance that the police have “counselled” Kumar and sent him back to his wife. The trans woman was unnamed, their love reduced to a throwaway line. In this world, love that is illegitimate must sacrifice itself for a marriage that is legally bound. But imagine a world that allowed Jayalakshmi to move on and explore her desires unburdened by a loveless social contract (with Kumar paying for the education and expenses of their two kids) and where the trans woman lover is free to devour Kumar like a spicy curry kolambu. Like Sai Pallavi and Dhanush in the super-hit Tamizh song Rowdy Baby, they would dance recklessly, moonwalking away in slow motion from all the bullshit of this world.
When I was 12, there was a Tamizh girl who worked in the house opposite ours in Thrissur. She remains unnamed. I remember speeding past that house on my way back from school, hoping she wouldn’t see me in my school uniform. I needed her to see me as a boy she could desire. Not as a boy forced to wear a skirt that he willed into being a lungi.
Every weekend, I would watch Tamizh films on Sun TV just so I could speak to her. Nobody at home could understand why I suddenly started furiously banging on our old, stubborn Videocon TV to move past all the Malayalam channels. After all, in the 90s, which Malayali in their right mind would change the channel just as Mohanlal was hitching up his lungi, getting ready to beat up the bad guys?
Then, one day, the Tamizh girl disappeared from the house without a trace, before I managed to say a single word to her. What is it about the words we never say that hurt us so badly? Maybe she is on TikTok, dancing with her lover somewhere.
Throughout my school days, like Kiran who was asked to write love letters to Delilah for Rajan in Sancharam, I ghost-wrote and delivered letters to the beautiful Syrian Christian girls in school. But unlike Kiran and Delilah, my love remained unrequited and I learnt to brace for rejection even before desire could be expressed. What is it about the words that were never said to us that hurt us so badly?
When I was a teenager, Yahoo chat rooms opened up a door to being whoever I wanted to be, to express desire anonymously. I don’t remember the details of those early explorations, just that they seemed momentarily liberating. When I read this beautiful piece on discovering desire through internet porn by my friend Nadika (who has since found the Linda of her dreams), I felt I was reading about myself, although the only porn I watched when I was young was a CD mistakenly given to me by a boy in school who used to share music with me.
I was 18 years old when I was rejected by a co-ed college and accepted into an all girl’s college. I cried till my eyes were puffy. I had been hoping that I would find a boy and have a crush on him but now I knew, surrounded by girls, that there was no way I could run. That was the beginning of my serial monogamy days. I would move into the cramped hostel rooms of my lovers every year, hungry to be desired. Finally I had a word to express who I was. Lesbian. It didn’t feel right but it would do. At least it was simple.
It was when I moved from a small town in Kerala to the polluted, big city of Delhi, that I found air I could breathe. A few months later, I was outed to my whole family by my brother, who sent an email to them about my live-in relationship with a girl. I sobbed on the phone as I told amma, “I like girls”. She calmly replied, “Why are you crying? Ah well, I always thought your brother was the gay one”. He was introverted, had hardly any friends and retreated into a world of music and chess very early on.
I was consoling a senior from college about a fight she had on the phone with her boyfriend. She was sobbing and I was holding her close, stroking her hair. Maybe she felt safe, maybe she felt desire. That was my first kiss. I still believe the desire was for me and not, in some displaced sense, for her long-distance boyfriend. After all, our relationship lasted over a year. It doesn’t matter, because the thrill of the first time another tongue snaked its way into my thirsty mouth can be only matched by the erotic shock of having the barber at Kut and Kalor stick his finger into my ear during a minty, Navratna oil massage.
I learnt to seduce, to pursue, to stalk, just about enough to not be creepy and liberally used my letter-writing skills perfected from my time as a ghost writer in school. Most of the women I was with were heterosexual. I was the crooked anomaly in their straightness. Maybe I was part of it and they saw something that I hadn’t recognised in myself yet. Post my transition, I learnt to wait to be pursued. I was wary of emulating the stubborn pursuit of uninterested women by macho heroes in cinema. I was too cool to chase. And too feminist to push. I must admit that I have been lucky in love and feel affirmed in ways that I am grateful for.
But I have still not learnt to take rejection well. Does anybody ever do it with grace?
Four years ago, I was in Brazil for a two-month political education course. Every Saturday night, there would be a party and comrades from all over the world—married, in relationships back home, single, literally everyone in the course—would go back with someone they found on the dance floor. By then, I had freed my body enough to dance recklessly and do a mean kuthu to the beat of Latin American music. Most of the comrades there could not speak Portugese, but they would brag about how love has no language. Every time I would get hit on by a man or a woman, I would fumble for a language to explain the cryptic, invisible, glorious mess of my body. I would gesture in drunk conversations, “Mulher” before “O Homem” now. Maybe I should have been as confident as the Kut and Kalor barber and just surprised them.
I watched as the Mexican girl I had a crush on rejected me and went out with a gorgeous Latin American boy. She had told me, “I am sorry, I like you as a friend but I am married”. It had been a few years since my last rejection. I sulked in the corner, wanting to blame it on her transphobia or normativity. His skin was not as dark as mine, it was the colour of the tamarind that we used to steal and suck on while playing cricket in the coconut groves near our house in Thrissur, and his face was framed by the halo of a tightly curled Afro. His hips were slender and he made music (the techno kind that millennials love). And as if all that wasn’t seductive enough, he rrrolled his Rs sexily in a way that sounded so exotic. I could understand why she chose him. But was still annoyed that her marital vows were strong enough to reject me but too fickle in the face of his beauty.
Often, when I feel rejected, I fantasise about women and gay twinks objectifying my body, like Rani Mukerji lusts after Prithviraj in Aiyyaa, except instead of his chiselled six-pack, they pine for my scarred chest and latest Thor-like beer belly.
Does full consent mean you disclose details of your body beforehand? Will casual sex encounters without this conversation become violent? Do people who are not trans worry about this? In many states in North America, the “gay or trans panic” defence has been used in acquittal of crimes including murder, the claim being that the revelation of the gay or trans status of the victim caused a diminished capacity to think, or provoked the perpetrator. The Gay and Trans Panic Defense Prohibition Act of 2018 is still pending in the Senate and the House of Representatives. In India, most crimes against trans people, if at all they are registered, are not investigated or tried in courts. No defenses required.
Desire is not devoid of power just as power is not devoid of desire. We experience power and powerlessness even when consent is present. Of caste, race, gender, class, disability, age and sexuality. What or who we find desirable is mediated by how we accept, reject or confuse the codes of desirability handed down to us by “cool” clubs in school, movies, our families, friends etc. The normative is a myth, as our desires are more risky if we allowed ourselves the freedom to explore.
I cringe every time I read the half-man, half-woman descriptions of trans people in books, legal policies and judgements. We are more like cyborgs. Not just trans people but all of us. Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto (1985) describes a cyborg as a “cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” who is “resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity”.
My own desires changed when my relationship to my body and how I am perceived by the world changed. From lesbian to heterosexual trans man to queer trans man, I searched for labels until I didn’t anymore. I caught myself checking out the collar bones and ear lobes of men on buses. At first, I thought it was because I desired it on myself as I transitioned. Then I embraced my desire for what it is—desire that is too free to be fixed by sexual identities. Maybe I should’ve pursued the Latin American boy with the curls instead.
When I read Kafka’s Metamorphosis or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in college, I identified with the protagonists. I wish I had stumbled upon Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995) at that time. In the original story, a female companion was made for Frankenstein’s monster but destroyed by their creator, Victor Frankenstein, before completion. In Patchwork Girl, the female monster is completed by Mary Shelley herself and the author and her creation become lovers. The body of the female monster whose organs are derived from the graves of other women is illustrated through disjointed images. The patchwork girl becomes a queer cyborg in a sexual and romantic relationship with her creator.
In this brilliant essay, Jack Halberstam says, “While the trans* body represents one particular challenge to ideas of physical coherence, all bodies pass through some version of building and unbuilding”. In other words, we are all patchworked into being. The coherence of all bodies is a sloppily constructed myth.
In Testo Junkie, which I stumbled upon a few years after I began to take testosterone injections, Paul Preciado says, “My ambition is to convince you that you are like me. Tempted by the same chemical abuse. You have it in you: you think that you’re cis-females, but you take the Pill; or you think you’re cis-males, but you take Viagra; you’re normal, and you take Prozac or Paxil in the hope that something will free you from your problems of decreased vitality, and you’ve shot cortisone and cocaine, taken alcohol and Ritalin and codeine... You, you as well, you are the monster that testosterone is awakening in me.”
But unlike Preciado, my ambition is not to convince you that you are like me.
I am writing for the gentle Ravanans demonised by others’ stories, the frogs who were kissed but remained frogs, the beasts who fall in love with beauties, the Rapunzels who shaved their heads.
I realise now how foolish it was of me to try and explain my body on Saturday night dance floors in Brazil. I like to think of bodies as ice cream melting on a hot Kerala summer afternoon, like the formless paintings of Francis Bacon. We must make no attempt to explain the illegibility and glorious hybridity of deviant, othered bodies. Even as we fumble our way through newly spun webs of desire. In the fumbling is the erotic. In the free falling of the incoherent assemblage of the body, the thrill.
Now, on Saturday nights, I take off my penis, wash it and place it among my boxers, tighten the lungi around my waist with my intestines, throw my uterus against the wall to make a serpentine Pollockian painting and dance the night away. And it is perhaps because of this, that when my ex-endocrinologist (this was why we broke up) told me, “Be careful, after all we are messing with the body that God gave you,” that I threw my head back and laughed irreverently at her irrelevant creator.
The writer is an activist and artist based in Bangalore.