I Am a Woman

I Am a Woman

“Hey, Bints, what are your views on the Pride thing?”

“Like the Seven Deadly Sins Pride or the Homosexuality is a Crime Pride?”

“Shhhh!”

I look around us fervently. Thankfully, the usually crowded seaside resto is sparsely populated today. A handful of customers have clustered around their checkered table-cloth-covered tables, some conversing or working or generally having a good time. The music is low and soothing—some kind of jazz.

Saachi (or as everyone calls her, Bintu), my best friend, and I are sitting at a little table facing the bay windows that look out onto The Queen’s Necklace and the sea beyond.

It feels good to be here. This view has been the background of my entire life, and now that I have moved to Pune and settled there, I miss Mumbai big time.

The city is truly magical in the monsoons.

My reflection in the windowpane smiles. YouTube make-up artists are right. A bit of lipstick and eyeliner go a long way. My waist-length dark brown hair lies over my shoulder in a Disney-style French braid, the black ruffle top with blue jeans accentuating my curves and complexion.

Damn, I look radiant! (If I say so myself.)

“Are you trying to get people to lynch us?” I hiss at Bintu under my breath. “Try to say these things in your head before you open your trap, will you?”

Bintu waves a hand in dismissal and takes a sip of the apple cider beer, probably the only beer she deems fit for human consumption. Unlike me, a passionate beer lover, she likes vodka and gin.

Snob.

Her dark hair gleams in the setting sunlight. It has that healthy, proteinated shine specific to Bengali girls who grew up on a diet of fish and pulses. Unsurprisingly, like me, she is dressed in a black crop top and blue jeans, showcasing her newly achieved flat belly.

Tall, slender (for the first time in a decade) and endowed with bong curves and oh-so-dreamy-bong eyes, Bintu is the sexiest woman I know.

Not that I tell her that. Ever. She’d sprout wings and fly away, and nobody wants that.

“Well? Which one is it then?” She raises an eyebrow.

“The other one, the whole LGBTQIA+++ and the Pride month thing.”

Bintu shrugs. “It’s cool. Don’t understand what the fuss is all about, honestly. What does it matter who people wanna date and marry? I think people should mind their own business, you know? Live and let live. It shouldn’t be that hard.”

“Isn’t that the dream?!” I snort.

“Why the sudden interest?” she asks.

“Oh, nothing. I was thinking of writing a story on the subject, it being Pride Month and all, and I just have a lot of ideas and things floating around in my head.”

“Okay, first, you do have things floating around in your head. I’ve told you a million times to get an MRI. I mean based on your Google history alone, you could land up in jail. Crime and horror writer my ass. You. Are. Crazy… and second, nice! It’s an interesting subject. I dunno if you will do justice to it, though. You are a straight woman. You don’t know what it’s like to have dysphoria. You don’t wanna come off as a pretentious bitch.”

“Aww… and take away your title? No, I can never do that!”

I stick my tongue out, and she swats at my arm. I flinch and knock my beer to the floor.

“Whups!” Bintu guffaws as I roll my eyes and call out to a passing server.

After cleaning up the mess, the disgruntled server deposits another bottle at our table and leaves.

“Actually, I do have some experience of having dysphoria,” I say, thinking aloud. “Maybe I can draw from that and extrapolate from there?”

Bintu spurts out a mouthful of beer.

“What? You had dysphoria? What?!”

“Dude, chill out. It’s not like that.” I laugh. “You know what my family was like. It was a troubled childhood, and for a significant period, I struggled with my identity as a woman.”

“Well, yeah, I know your father was an ass. But you haven’t really… Swung the other way. Have you?”

“No… not really.”

“Spill it! What? Tell me!”  she demands.

“Alright, alright.” I raise my hands and gesture to her to calm down. “It isn’t as dramatic as that. Well, you know how I used to go back and forth from home to college during graduation?”

Bintu nods, her already Sharmila Tagore wide eyes grow wider still in her eagerness to know the story.

“Well, I always took the same train from CSTM, and there was this girl.”

“Ohmygod. Ohmygod. OhMyGod! There was a girl!” Bintu squeals in delight.

“Shhhh! I’m not gonna tell you if you are going to be like that, Bints.”

“Okay. Okay! I’m not saying anything. See,” she zips her lips shut and mimes throwing away the key. The gesture is rendered useless as she immediately follows it up with, “Please, tell me….! Pleeeeeeeese!”

I shake my head and laugh.

“Okay… So there was this girl. She used to board at CST as well. But her stop was close by, so she never sat down, just stood at the gate. The train was practically empty in the morning, so I could see her clearly from the window seat I usually took. Well, nothing happened. In fact, I never even spoke to her. But I used to just look at her standing there. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her!

Her hair was this amazing golden brown, and it used to blow over her face as the wind whipped it around. The sun would reflect off her hair, and it would practically shine! She was just this average girl, you know, dusky and thin. Not very tall or anything out of the ordinary. Like not celebrity beautiful. But, somehow I felt I hadn’t ever seen someone more beautiful. I went into this trance whenever I saw her.

I think it was the first time I realised that every woman, no matter her looks, was inherently gorgeous in her own way.”

I look out to the sea and the memory of the moment rekindles in my mind. A tingle of wonder and amazement runs up and down my spine.

“So, you are telling me you are a lesbian? You like women instead of men, is that it?”

“Dude!”

“Alright! Alright! Gosh. I am trying to be supportive here. Are you a lesbian or not?”

“Right. I think I am gonna go.”

“No, please don’t! Stay!”

“Then, stop being a baby, Bints.”

“Alright, okay. I’ll be nice.”

“And bring me a beer.”

“Maahi, babe, you are my best friend, but that doesn’t mean I won’t kick your ass. Get your own damn beer.”

“Bitch.”

“Jerk.”

“And some fries while you are at it.”

I give her a good kick in the shins and go to the counter to place my order. When I return, Bintu is smiling suggestively at me and winking all over the place.

“You know, if you were a lesbian, perhaps you and I could—”

“Yeah, I’m gonna pass. Considering the guy who goes by the title of my husband back in Pune?”

“Your loss,” Bintu shrugs and takes another sip of her apple cider.

“You know I hate it when people automatically pounce on sex and sexual preferences while discussing gender dysphoria. Dysphoria is not about whether someone likes men or women as romantic or sexual partners.”

“Dude, that’s the literal definition of gender dysphoria, isn’t it?”

“Sort of. But honestly, it has all become so convoluted these days. Dysphoria is not about that, not really.”

“What is it about, then?”

“It’s about not feeling at ease with who you are. With your own identity. It has nothing to do with other people, associated relations or whatever. That comes much later. At its essence, dysphoria is not being okay with yourself.”

“Give me a, for instance.”

“Alright. How do you feel about being naked?”

“Like in front of other people?”

“No… being naked when no one is around.”

“Why will I be naked when no one is around? I dunno, man. Do I have to answer that? You didn’t tell me there was gonna be a Q&A.”

“Right. Let’s rephrase that. When was the last time you were naked?”

“Like in front of other people?”

“Ohmygod! No! By yourself! Isn’t that obvious? We were just talking about it a millisecond ago!”

“Well… no, it’s not obvious, for your kind information. Anyway! To answer this completely unexpected interrogation that I am being subjected to when I was promised beer and fries, I was naked just yesterday before I stepped into the shower. I checked myself out in the bathroom mirror and felt like the sexiest bitch in the entire world!”

“Moving. On.”

“What? You don’t think I am the sexiest bitch in the entire world? Babes, you ain’t seen me naked yet.”

“I would rather not, thank you very much.”

“Well, it’s your call. You don’t know what you are missing.”

“Again, I would rather not. Coming to the point. So, you are comfortable being naked by yourself.”

“I guess. Can we stop saying naked? It’s making me uncomfortable.”

“My point is, imagine being so disgusted by your own skin and physical appearance that you can’t bear to look at your own body. Or to feel as if the hair on your head is your biggest weakness, so you want nothing more than for it to clump and die and fall off your scalp. So ashamed of your breasts that even the baggiest of t-shirts aren’t enough to hide the bulges. Or so you think.”

“Let’s also stop saying breasts and bulges. Please.”

“Bintu, that’s how I used to feel all the time! Magnificently uncomfortable being naked by myself. I hated my own body so much that I wanted to rip off parts of myself. Or hide them away so I didn’t have to look at them. See, I didn’t even like myself. Forget thinking about whether I liked men or women.”

“Oh, Maahi…” Bintu grabs my shoulder and shakes me gently. “You know, I am just kidding around. I mean nothing by it…”

“I know. I know.”

“Come on. Talk to me. I know you want to. What’s floating around in that bumbling head of yours? I swear no more jokes.”

“Okay, well. You know, I was sort of a tomboy when I was growing up.”

Bintu nods.

“Well, it wasn’t because I wanted to be one. That’s what I hate about it. The dysphoria I went through was forced on me by my surroundings, the people and circumstances around me.”

“How so?”

“So, you know, mine was a typical Indian middle-class family. I grew up with the typical middle-class rules — you know — be nice, dress properly, don’t answer back, don’t talk to boys.

I don’t know if it was because of my father or the constant abuse my mother endured and never fought back, but I remember associating being a woman with being weak. I saw women around me being beaten down physically and psychologically. The news was full of women being raped, killed and burnt. I couldn’t understand it. The only thing I could process was that being a woman was very scary.”

“I can relate to that. Being a woman is no cake-walk.” Bintu says.

“So I did the only thing I could do. I dissociated myself from my femininity. I would dress like boys and talk like boys, picking fights, cursing and being a nuisance when I didn’t have to be. Hell, I even forced my parents to call me a boy. Man, I would get sooo upset if they said I was a girl!

The logic was simple — if I didn’t look like a girl, I would not be treated like a girl and nobody would hurt me.

Being a tomboy was my defence against having to accept that I was a woman, I was weak, and I was destined for a life of pain and misery and tears.

I was a complete rebel. Be it clothes, the company I kept, my mannerisms, everything. I rebelled against everything.

On the surface, it looks like a normal part of growing up. Everyone goes through a rebellious phase. That’s what being a teenager is all about. But the truth was that the driving force behind my childhood tomboy persona was the fear of being a woman.

I remember I never wore clingy tee shirts, miniskirts, or girly clothes, because I could feel the eyes of strangers boring into me, violating my personal space and making me nauseous. The handful of times I wore traditional Indian clothes, like shalwar kameez and sari, I remember feeling absolutely naked, with no protective armour of baggy tee-shirts to hide my curves.

I remember having to choose which part of me to protect with my school bag while travelling by buses and local trains. Should I wear it in the front? Or back? Will it be enough to stop that hand from groping? Or that elbow that would jam into my chest so hard that I would struggle to breathe?

Dude, I even wanted to go for a breast reduction surgery! No, honestly! I did the research and everything. Imagine, I was willing to go under the knife and alter my body so I could protect myself from the truth of being a woman.”

“Oh, babes,” Bintu reaches out and squeezes my hand. “You never told me about this.”

“Yeah well. I, too, chalked it up to growing pains. You know me, I am a pro at pushing stuff under the carpet.”

“That you are.”

“Huh. Our childhood has such a deep impact on us, doesn’t it? Hell, I am 30+ now, and I have come so far from that scared little girl who wanted to be a boy. But, I still have trouble feeling the entire spectrum of my womanhood.”

“Yeah. The childhood years do shape our whole lives. It’s the time when we are finding ourselves, learning new things, and understanding the world. The things we see or learn in those years, they stick, man. They stick like glue.”

I nod.

“You know, I think you should write about this,” she says.

“Sorry?”

“You know, this, the way you struggled with your identity as a woman. I think it needs to be written. I am sure there are many people out there who go through this and don’t even know what they are going through.”

“I don’t know…”

“Yes, Maahi, I am being serious.”

“But does it fit the theme of pride month? I mean, I am a straight woman. I don’t belong to the community.”

“Does it matter? That you have grown from I am a boy to I am a woman isn’t worth writing about? Isn’t that what Pride is all about? Accepting yourself for who you are. Being comfortable in your own skin. I don’t know about you, but in my book, the confusion and pain that comes from learning to accept and love your body and yourself aren’t limited to a specific gender. It’s universal.”

“You know what… I think you are right. You are so right!”

“Of course I am. I am always right.” Bintu smiles smugly as she raises her invisible collars. “So, you will write about it?”

“Yeah, I think I will!”

“Awesome! And while you are at it, make me super hot. I mean, I am hot. But I want to be fictional hot, you know? Like all those unrealistic men you read about in books. For once, I would like to see men going gaga over fictional ladies and go — Do such women even exist?”

“You and me both, sister!”

***

Glossary-
Bong- Bengali
Sharmila Tagore – Indian (Bollywood) actress
CSTM/CST – Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus local train station in Mumbai (formerly VT)

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