I've been in the throes of my third novel Sita's Curse and hence more or less cut off from the civilized world, preferring to live out my protagonist Meera Patel, a 45-year-old Gujarati woman who rediscovers her destiny, through her physical desires. Meera's story sets about in darkness, as she slowly makes it towards the light... finding a surreal connection with a man she' never met. It was thus important that I closed my doors too... it' just been Meera and me for a while.
Maybe it' why I never bothered about Pinki Pramanik...never cared whether she actually raped her female live in partner as was recently alleged or downloaded the MMS clip of her privates being invaded at some dingy government hospital. I didn't even entertain FB arguments that probed her gender.
"So, do you think she's really a man? Or a tom boy kind of babe, you know those lesbian, butch types?" a guy friend asked, as we sipped on some chilled beer. It was my first outing in days.
"Pinki who?" was my first reaction.
It was also Friday night. The kinds you abbreviate as TGIF and add an exclamation mark!
"Dude... she's one of India's top athletes. She bagged two bronzes in the 400m and 800m races at the 2004 Asian Indoor Athletics Championships, following it up with the 2006 Asian Games where she won gold in the relay running with Sathi Geetha, Chitra Soman and Manjeet Kaur, it was India's only athletics gold of the Games," he went on, thumping on the table, spilling some leftover ale.
"Oh God! Don't start your sporting babble," I shoved my hand at his face. Don't you just hate it when guys just call you 'dude' in the midst of a conversation, especially related to sporting events that don't remotely interest you.
"Okay sorry," he said, adding with a smile, "Here this is her picture... she looks like a hijra man!"
I looked outside. But Pinki stayed within me.
Later, I read her story online, cringing at the insensitivity of her physical investigations, the indignity she'd suffered, despite having brought our country so much glory, not just when she was charged of rape being a man, but the fresh controversy that erupted again on 13 July, 20112.
Pinki's former live-in partner then claimed that she'd brought rape charges against Pinki at the behest of Avtar Singh (husband of Jyotirmoyee Sikdar), as Pramanik and Singh were supposedly locked in a bitter land dispute.
I stared into her Pinki's guarded gaze as she hid her face under a modest gamcha, being dragged away by the cops... flash lights blurring her face.
"First, it was the Baguiati police that humiliated me. They picked me up on the night of June 13, took me to Uma Nursing Home and forced me to undergo a medical test. I refused but they tied my hands and feet and gave me an injection. I fell unconscious. The test was done when I regained my senses. Also, I had to face medical examinations repeatedly which was both traumatic and humiliating. They could have done it in one go," I read her gut wrenching interview to a national daily.
I couldn't help but wonder if Pinki too had paid the price of being the fairer sex? Inside that is, despite her overt manliness... in a place beyond the penis, scrotum and the testicles... where hurts run deeper... further along than the celebrated clitoris.
But, this isn't about Pinky anymore. Not just her I mean.
Last week, I got a call from a childhood friend, presently working down South, suffering from the existential crisis of every single, 30 plus unmarried woman in India... a country where marriages are still 'fixed.'
Brief rewind - she'd been match fixed with a successful, good Bengali boy, in his late 30s, staying with his mother in his own house in South Kolkata. The two had hit it off instantly, sharing late night text messages and clandestine cappuccinos, weaving dreams of a rosy conjugal future, until the prospective mother-on-law butted in, pouting over a 'real problem.'
My friend was a self professed vegan, purely due to her spiritual leanings.
"What if the cook doesn't turn up one day? Will my son not get fish and rice, and make do with only aloo seddho (boiled potato)?" she frowned on the alliance. The groom, Mr. Perfect until then, also suddenly developed cold feet, saying, "He needed more time." Their soon to be sealed, sunny future suddenly bleak and despondent, grey clouds looming large.
"Screw him! No pun intended," I'd advised her back then, laughing at how the guy was nothing but a 'spineless, mama's boy,' the kinds your single girlfriends (read me) ask you to avoid, usually citing the usual feminist reasons. She just listened.
"Hey... I wanted to tell you something, I've switched back to non-veg," she declared slowly on our present call. I was thrown back.
"Why?" I asked, trying to stay calm.
"I thought about it... he's a nice guy, well settled," she paused, adding after a few minutes, "I know he comes with conditions, but who doesn't? And after 30 getting a guy's anyway so hard, most of the men are already well settled... also my father is getting worried."
I remained still, asking her just one pivotal question.
"Have you come to love him?" I finally spoke up.
She let out a wry laugh.
"Nope... it's not love... it's a calculated decision," she replied.
To be honest, I was switched off by then, pretending to be happy for her. When the truth was that I was shocked at how a convent educated, modern woman, earning a six figure salary with a jet setting lifestyle could sound so regressive... so suddenly, giving up on an integral part of her lifestyle, that too for a man who still hadn't popped the question, despite her coming around to ditch the paneer butter masala for the mutton pasanda.
"I'm even ready to quit my job and relocate... I was anyway never very ambitious, I am really keen to settle down," she said before hanging up.
Did settling down include settling for something less!
"She's just being practical, it's about companionship at the end of the day, I am a bit like that. I need a family," stated another much married girlfriend, when I shared my inability to be enthused about my friend's impending marriage with her on a call.
"Maybe you are just too bohemian and wild," she deduced, after an hour or so of analysis.
I sighed... wasn't the word 'romantic?' Or 'idealistic?"
There's all this hullabaloo about Pinky, the entire nation curious as hell about her privates. All that Pinky has to say in her defence, is, "I am not male. I have always been female. As a child, I used to look very sweet."
I wish I knew Pinky, knew her intimately enough to tell her maybe she should just say the reverse, instead of defending her sexual orientation, blaming her masculinity on testosterone injections administered routinely to athletes world-over to build stamina.
Maybe it's just safer to be a man... more options.... lesser guilt giving in... less of a struggle to live by your own choices.
"Hi, mind if I take the seat next to you?" a woman in her late 30s, wearing a pretty pink lipstick asked me, holding on to a cherubic boy's hand.
I moved aside. This was this evening at Pizza Hut.
I'd taken my maid's daughter, Geru for an evening of pizza and play time at Delhi's plush M block market.
"Is this your daughter?" she resumed, wiping her son's face.
"Nope, I'm not married," I retorted, not in the mood for adult conversation.
"You know I sell bags," she babbled, as the child munched on his pizza, adding, "Why don't we exchange numbers... you will find everything with me. Fendi, LV, Christian Dior."
"Are they original?" I interrupted.
"No, first copies, from Hongkong," she smiled awkwardly, as if I'd caught her bluff.
"Where do you live?" was her next question.
"Kalkaji," I replied, my voice tiring.
"I live in Pamposh Enclave... with my parents. You see my husband is in Gurgaon. He lives with his mother," she glanced down embarrassed, adding after a few minutes, "I used to be a banker with ABN AMRO, I've done my MBA from London. My husband's from IIT, brilliant mind... good looking, my son looks identical. Isn't he adorable? Anyway, my husband chucked his job two years ago, now living off his parents, he says he wants to start a business... but we have to support my son's education. He can't take any responsibilities... my son goes to Kumar Mangalam Birla, Delhi's top school. My husband and I are constantly bickering... and we live separately, not having spoken to each other in three months. I bring my son to M Block every day, not Pizza Hut of course, he misses his father."
I was tongue-tied. Some teenagers were celebrating something on the opposite table. Maybe one of their girlfriend's birthdays. It was becoming too noisy.
"So are you planning to give him the boot soon?" I spoke finally.
Her son and Geru had hit it off, playing hide and seek. She looked shell shocked at first.
"No... I don't want a divorce... I am very giving. It's me who always calls first after a squabble... but somehow this time I haven't. Why should I always go the full way? He also has some duties..." she replied, her eyes moist.
"So, what's stopping you then?" I was forced to ask.
"No, no... you know my brother's wife has occupied the first floor of our house. She can't stand me, where will I go? I am staying with my parents as it is. It's bad luck... I am cursed perhaps," her lips quivered.
"But, but you are so well qualified and so good looking?" I cut her short.
"My son loves his father... besides I don't want to think of a divorce... you know it sometimes gets worse. Anyway why don't you drop in and see some bags. I have the latest Gucci's... best quality," she changed the stream of conversation... flashing pictures of rip offs on her Blackberry.
I smiled. By then, she'd been joined in by her parents.
"Meet Sreemoyee, she's an author. Isn't that cool, she's not married, she lives in Kalkaji," the woman ranted, as her aging parents nodded silently.
"Is that your son?" the elderly gentleman suddenly asked, petting Geru.
"No... she's a boy... and I'm single," I added politely.
"Papa," gushed the woman, looking into my eyes, adding, "Actually the kid has short hair, she looks like a tom boy, that's why my dad assumed it's a boy, anyway please call me, I can come and show you my bags personally... all imported."
I waved goodbye as they trudged out.
"Didi... they called me boy?" little Geru asked on the way back.
"Tomboy," I added, both of us laughing loudly.
Why are we labeled so easily? Who says a woman needs to be in pigtails and pinafores? That she must love lipstick and love stories?
What if she doesn't?
What is tomboy exactly?
Someone who is a brat, or someone like Pinki who looks like a man... no tits, no titillations... soft target for a trial by fire.
What made me sadder, in retrospect, is the way we women often place our own sex under the magnifying glass, as if femininity needed to be proved with bangles and ballerinas.
I remembered a girl from our school in Kolkata, who always had short hair, at the way we laughed behind her back, terming her hairstyle, 'boy cut.' It's a different matter that veteran Hollywood star Audrey Hepburn almost always carried off a short crop, looking waifish in most of her famous hits, romancing the most desirable yesteryear male co-stars. Maybe celebs are excused their experimentation... maybe it's okay to pass their choices off as fashionable.
Pinki Pramanik's gender test now reveals that she has male chromosomes. Was it why she was harassed in the most harrowing fashion?
"Even I had very high levels of testosterone," says another girlfriend recently operated for polycystic ovarian cysts, adding, "You know men don't have a monopoly on testosterone. Testosterone belongs to a class of male hormones termed as androgens. But women also have testosterone. Our ovaries produce both testosterone and estrogen. Relatively small quantities of testosterone are released into your bloodstream by the ovaries and adrenal glands."
I suggest you skip the medical jargon, and look at Pinki as one of us... a woman in a man's world... or a woman who paid the price for perhaps opening her heart to love, once if not twice... a woman who may have been sweet someday, or sacred, but today has to face her most trying 'agneepariksha,' by a society of elders... mothers, mother-in-laws, cousins, coaches, lovers, lesbians, police, patriarchs, husbands to be... and husbands that are.
Or maybe Pinki is better off... at least she still has some fight left in her brave heart... her eyes still cast on a better future... the lure of the track still a force to reckon with.
Perhaps it's the others... who are really caught in the middle... juggling their estrogens and testosterones... deciding whether to marry or stay single... to raise their voice against sexual harassment or fear the loss of a lucrative promotion... undecided on whether divorce is better than a flagging marriage... decide on which version of womanliness fits best with our societal standards... to wait for that 'first copy from Hongkong' or that hundred per cent, original LV.
Saving for it... fighting for it... owning it... flaunting it... fixing it... never selling out.
Knowing that there's no faking it this time.
Not unless you are Pinki Pramanik.