This post presents two pieces of critical reading of a single text, a short unpublished story. The first was written in the Fall of 2020 and the second in the Fall of 2022. The purpose of including these texts is (i) to show how different readers respond to a text differently, and (ii) to explicate the polysemic nature of a narrative representation.
“Deconstruction of Male-Female Binary”
– Gunaraj Nepal
Take a moment to think about your child who was born as a girl and is now grown with an unusual genital. What would you do? You would do all the usual things to keep her female, right? And you would keep all the unusual things about her secret. The story “The Prize for Unbecoming” deals with the rupture in the concept of gender defined by patriarchy as physical and cultural reality and takes physical union beyond the dichotomy of ‘male’ and ‘female’.
The story is set in a traditional, patriarchal society. The writer seems to be well-informed about the roles for men and women defined by patriarchy. It revolves around Rita turned into Ram Prasad later by her parents. As presented in the story, she was a girl child at her birth but grew with unusual features identical to those of a boy. It can be argued that society wants to see people with fixed gender, so Rita’s unusual growth into ‘boy-like’ was unacceptable. This led her parents to change her name. The change in the name gave Ram Prasad the privilege of being absent from the village until he passed the secondary exams and later. This was a voluntary exile for five years which he would not be able to do as Rita. And again it is “he” who wished to marry the girl he loved. The parents agreed to allow him to marry a girl though the people continued to talk about the biological relevance of their marriage.
Though the story is very brief, it has the power to evoke a lot of responses all at once. A colleague from my department said that this is a story about transgender’s thirst for love. Another colleague said it is all about the cursed family where only the male can bring happiness. And yet another colleague said that this is a surrealist story about genetic or gender change. Still another colleague added that this is deconstruction of males’ genitals that are no longer needed to make a female happy. I think that it is possible for any individual to have some of the markers for one sex and some of their markers for the other sex, thus deconstructing the binary opposition of male/female on which patriarchal constructions of sex and gender identity rely.
Two things kept me wondering about this story: first, its ending with no supporting clues or context; and second, its title which deconstructs itself. Any reader can notice it. Its abrupt ending offers a great deal of scope for the reader to think and reflect. The story shows that Ram Prasad remained in exile for five years, which raises a lot of questions in the reader’s mind. Where did he go? What did he do? Did he undergo any surgery to make himself “smart to manage” life with his girlfriend Laxmi? Secondly, it is not clear to me why the writer has this title because it tends to support the notion of “becoming”, not ‘unbecoming’ as the title stands. I see a move to the ‘becoming of a male’, who goes to live in exile, falls in love, and marries a girl of his choice. So, it is “becoming” because traditional gender constitutions have been broken to allow Ram Prasad to live smartly with his wife, in a society that does nothing but live in wonder looking for the biological relevance of such a relationship.
The story begins with Rita’s unusual growth as a girl and ends with her role as Ram Prasad who knows how to smartly live with the bride. It has a stylish end: “It’s all about being smart. It’s about being smart to manage,” which keeps the reader in speculation. This leads critics to interpret the story in multiple ways: a story about transgender’s thirst for love, about the cursed family seeking happiness, about genetic or gender change, and about deconstruction of males’ genitals. However, I see it as a deconstruction of the binary opposition of male/ female on which patriarchal constructions of sex and gender identity rely.
[Mr. Nepal is pursuing MPhil at KUSOED]
“Gender Transitioning Should No Longer Be a Taboo”
– Bhaskar Subba
Gender transitioning, an idea originated in the West and now a fundamental right, is a current popular buzz phrase. A Canadian actor Ellen Page, who had a whirlwind Hollywood ride from ‘her’ – excuse my using a feminine pronoun – breakout role in Juno, rather unexpectedly made the headlines when she shared a post on Instagram saying that she was a transgender. Many were struck dumb by this sudden announcement while there were some who simply stood by her, feeling proud. Now, she goes by the name Elliot Page. At least in terms of their gender discovery, I see no difference between Ellen and Rita. Assumed to be a girl child by her parents, Rita, all of a sudden, metamorphoses into a boy, following her unusual genital growth. GENITAL GROWTH, which, if I might say so, is A NON-EXISTENT MEDICAL CONDITION. It is hard to believe, but I am taking this medical condition with a grain of salt.
Actually, the story of Rita is common, not unusual in any sense. She was born as a girl, but unlike Ellen, who needed much courage and time to reveal her sexual identity, dismantles her false sexual identity at an early age after an unusual genital growth. However, it was not easy for her parents to accept the fact that their girl was actually a boy.
As time goes by, some weird things start to happen to Rita’s body: a mustache and a beard grow, her voice breaks up and a menstrual cycle stops. When she is in sixth grade, she makes her first strong demand to her parents, asking them to either take her out of the school that she was going to or send her to a distant school. However, in the story nothing has been mentioned as to why she makes this demand. Perhaps, it could be due to her feelings of embarrassment over her physical change that was taking place. Whatever the reason is, her parents agree to fulfill her wish. The new school gives her a new identity: Rita becomes Ram Prasad, a resounding triumph for him, if you will.
Another turning point comes into Ram’s life when he finds his soulmate, Laxmi. To get married to her was not an easy affair for him, a daunting task, I would rather say. However, with his parents’ approval, he ties the knot with her. But what follows after his marriage is a self-imposed banishment. For some reasons, the couple had to stay away from their home. After five years of staying away from his home, Ram along with his wife Laxmi returns to his village, strong and impervious. His relationship with his wife, one that deviates from the conventional social norms, begins to circulate and a climate of malicious gossip takes root. But such gossip miserably fails to bother them, being completely unsusceptible. Both put up a strong fight against those who spite and hate them and eventually emerge victorious.
Would Rita be able to assert her sexual identity if she was in a completely different situation? According to the story, Rita’s parents have three children including her. She is the only child who is born healthy while her two sibling brothers are deaf and dumb. By an odd quirk of fate, her siblings being unable to hear and speak turns out to be a blessing in disguise. One might wonder how it is so. Imagine if all three children were healthy, would Rita be treated any differently by her parents? That would not have, you might disagree with me, given Rita an advantage that she had. With two healthy boy children, her parents’ behaviour towards her would certainly have been different, making her feel unacceptable. She would have suffered total neglect. It is plain that her parents listen to her and readily honour her wishes because she, although being out of ordinary, is better than her two sibling brothers because she is in full possession of her faculties. That, I think, is the reason why in spite of all odds she is able to be herself.
While the story may possess a simple plot, its narrative lacks a multitude of crucial components. One of them is that we are not told where and when the story takes place. As we know that in any story a setting is extremely important as it provides the reader with context on the time, place, and environment that the story takes place in. Without a context a meaningful interpretation is not possible so that is why I am uncomfortably compelled to say how I actually feel about the story is purely based on assumption. Considering the two names of the antagonist − Rita and Ram Prasad – the story might well have taken place either in countries like Nepal or Bharat. If so, then it is necessary to look at historical context of gender issues, which include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.
In the beginning, you might have noticed that I have described the idea of gender transitioning as Western origin. Upon witnessing the Western world’s exhortation for individuals, especially those residing in countries like Nepal and Bharat, to combat gender discrimination, I am struck with the realization that both the residents of these nations, who may have unwittingly neglected their rich cultural heritage, and the Western proponents of gender equality are in need of enlightenment and education. Homosexuality and transgenderism had been completely acceptable for thousands of years in ancient Bharat Barsha until the invasion of Bharat by the Mughals and the Britishers. For example, Shikhandi, who was born as a daughter to Drupada, the king of Southern Panchala, became a biological male after agreeing to a sex exchange with a Yaksha. Similarly, had the act of transitioning one’s gender been considered a social taboo, Arjun, who underwent a transformation from male to female following the curse imposed by Urvashi, may have been hesitant to pursue such a course of action, fearing ostracization or being labelled as deviant. Numerous additional instances serve to exemplify the fact that Sanathan Dharma instructs its followers to display reverence towards all, regardless of their individual sexual orientations.
To the best of my knowledge, any matters pertaining to gender that may be deemed problematic are a direct result of the influence exerted by Abrahamic religions. The holy scripture Bible openly denounces homosexuality, and if you read Leviticus 20:13, which says “If a man lies with a male as with women, both of them have committed an abomination,” then it will not take long for you to realize where these problems have come from. Likewise, in the Quran the prophet lord rebukes the people of Sodom and Gomorrah saying, “Do you commit abomination such as no people in creation ever committed before? You practice your lusts in preference to women, you are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.” Most conservative followers of Abrahamic religions still have complete contempt for those people who do not fit into a biological definition of male and female. Some are very discreet – they simply do not want to run into trouble − while others are openly against LGBTQ. For example, the richest state in the world, Qatar, which held the greatest event FIFA World Cup 2022, was in the headlines for its stance on homosexuality. According to their Sharia Law, homosexuality is haram.
I am not saying that a person like Rita is not subject to discrimination and hatred in countries like Nepal and Bharat, where Sanathan Dharma is still widely practiced. What I am trying to get across is that we are the ones who are asked to see beyond sexuality, color of skin and caste. Our Sahastras proclaim Aham Brahmasmi, which literally means I am Brahman. The sole purpose of life is to realize that we are not just a heap of flesh and bones, but soul, according to Sanathan Dharma.
The unfavorable perception that is held regarding sexuality is not inherently ours, but rather a construct that has been imposed upon us. Abiding by the principle of “Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma,” which espouses the belief that everything in existence is a manifestation of the divine, we strive to recognize the presence of God within all beings, thereby rendering all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation, inherently worthy of acceptance. As a result of this outlook, it becomes apparent that Rita’s gender transition should not to be viewed as a noteworthy topic of discussion, particularly by those who belong to Bharata Barsha, the light of the world.
[Mr. Subba is pursuing Master’s studies at KUSOED.]