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The stories that inhabit the Vedas and epics are “whispers of God” says Devdutt Pattanaik as he opens his book Jaya, a retelling of the Mahabharata. It’s true. These books present a startlingly clear vision of the now from the ancient then. The authors of the stories had a seeing eye that modern scientists would give their eye-teeth for. Pardon the mixed metaphors.
Take the notion of Shikhandi. It is both an idea and a character and has so many reflections in this prism we call the “modern family.” The robustness of Shikhandi as a character is astounding and awe inspiring. As each layer is peeled and his/her place in India’s mythological history is uncovered, Shikhandi’s ambiguities of nature and form become moral, ethical and philosophical data points that have withstood generation upon generation of interpretations.
Last July, I interviewed a young man whom I chanced to see in a production called, “The Box.” He was introduced to the audience as J. Jha from India who was seeking asylum in the United States. Binary gender pronouns came up in our conversation and this remarkably talented individual rejected the “he,” “she” format that is the traditional gender distinguisher. Jha preferred “they,” and “theirs,” so I will respect their wish in this article.
Shikhandi is both an idea and a character. Shikhandi’s ambiguities of nature and form become moral, ethical and philosophical data points that have withstood generation upon generation of interpretations.
In their interview, which I wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, Jha told me about being confined by the limitations of heterosexual identity and cisgender norms. Growing up in India, Jha said that they had no homosexual or transgender role model. Jha did not have a single openly gay person among their family or friends that they could relate to. Early on, Jha understood clearly, through reactive and reinforced behavior, that transgender people were personae non gratae. It is only upon leaving India and coming to America that they experienced personal liberation with the freedom to express in gender non-conforming ways.
But how have we come to this place of intolerance where we have blatantly ignored or forgotten the lessons from India’s own wise men?
Shashi Tharoor’s latest book, An Era of Darkness, discusses this very idea. He begins his argument with Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which allows a punishable verdict on “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” Tharoor claims that this order of nature was established by the British. “The irony is that in India there has always been a place for people of different gender identities and sexual orientations. Indian history and mythology reveal no example of prejudice against sexual difference.” Tharoor goes on to remind us of the gender-morphing Shikhandi.
There are many versions of the Shikhandi story, but in every version, there occurs a sexual transformation to the female form, crossing male-female boundaries. It is remarkable that a country that gave us the Shikhandi prototype persecutes avatars of this remarkable character.
Here in America, with the high school bathroom issue, gender became hotly debated across the country. At the time, I heard people remark dismissively, “isn’t there anything better to do than focus on high-school bathrooms? When people don’t have jobs, why should we worry about gender-neutral bathrooms?” It’s true, it’s an outsize idea, and one we are unable to adjust to because of in-bred conventional normalcy. So, we find ways to minimize its significance.
Even when we do try to relate, we fall short. Take the Louis Vuitton advertisement where Jaden Smith, Will Smith’s son, is shown wearing women’s clothes. It was explained as an ad for women’s clothes featuring a man. Young Smith looked comfortable in the clothes he modeled. He wore it with style and attitude. Yet, it seemed as though he wore women’s clothes because he needed more choices. As Lauren Duca remarked in Teen Vogue, the ad, while looking at the world unconventionally, still “confronted the binary, while participating in it.”
Judith Butler, gender theorist and author of Gender Trouble, argues that gender is not a noun. “Gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject,” she says, and clarifies by saying that gender is “a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame.” So, according to Butler, a person assumes the feminine identity by doing feminine things. As a young child, wearing dresses, growing long hair and playing with dolls reinforces the stereotypes needed for inhabiting a particular gender.
Interestingly enough, one of my daughters, from the time she was five till when she turned fourteen, wore her hair short, dressed in shorts and t-shirts, and played Pokemon and Donkey Kong with the boys in her class. Today she is a beautiful young woman, remarkably sure of her femininity. I was cautioned about her gender-bending tendencies by several well-meaning friends when she was growing up. It didn’t bother me then and it doesn’t bother me now. Her femininity was hers to discover. Just like Jha’s. [Though it might be worthwhile to admit here that tomboys are more accepted than boys who emulate girls.]
Modern Shikhandi characters abound in the world. They teach us a valuable lesson about how to navigate edge cases in our society without distorting character or creating noise. To pursue this engineering analogy, if we are able to gracefully and seamlessly transact our boundary conditions, we will have ourselves a robust operating strategy for life.
Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.