On January 10, 2020, queer support group Dinajpur Natun Aalo Society, led by founder and trans rights activist Joyita Mondal, celebrated its 10th foundation day. The group, though based in Islampur (in Uttar Dinajpur district of West Bengal), organized a rainbow pride walk in Gangarampur town (in neighbouring Dakshin Dinajpur district) as a mark of solidarity with the local queer communities. The event was the first of its kind in Gangarampur and was called ‘Dinajpur Pride Walk’.

Joyita was one happy picture at the pride walk. But only a little more than a year before (in late 2018), she was forced into changing her rental accommodation in Islampur. Her encounter with severe transphobia was in all likelihood the handiwork of her landlady in league with a neighbourhood politico-religious outfit. Joyita pursued the matter legally, though a resolution to the dispute is still awaited.

Pawan Dhall met Joyita in Islampur last April as part of a meeting organized by the Varta Trust Legal Aid Support Group Project. The event was organized in Islampur on purpose, to lend visible support to Joyita and send a message to her detractors. Edited excerpts from an interview conducted with her on April 28, 2019 follow. The interview was in Bengali with a smattering of English. Key expressions have been retained in the original language during the translation process. The transcription has been done by English literature student Vaaswat Sarkar.

This photograph shows an early evening scene from the first rainbow pride walk organized in Gangarampur town in Dakshin Dinajpur district of West Bengal on January 10, 2020. The pride walk was organized on the occasion of Dinajpur Natun Aalo Society, an NGO led by trans activist Joyita Mondal, completing 10 years of its functioning. The photograph shows a smiling and bespectacled Joyita Mondal holding up a small banner that says “No NRC”. She is flanked on either side by trans women, one on each side – the three of them dressed elegantly and in attractive colours. Behind them more of the pride walk participants can be seen. The background shows some road traffic; buildings, hoardings and trees along the road; and a series of flags of a particular political party fitted along the road divider. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Joyita Mondal (centre) at the first rainbow pride walk organized in Gangarampur, Dakshin Dinajpur district of West Bengal, on January 10, 2020. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

This is the first part of the interview, where Joyita talks about her rebellion at home, a shift from ‘progressive’ Kolkata to ‘remote’ Islampur in northern West Bengal, and how she built her base in her new home town. Long read alert!

Pawan: Joyita, please tell us about your life and work. Since when have you been engaged as a trans rights activist and what is the scope of your work?

Joyita: I was born in Kolkata and am 32. I used to consider myself an effeminate man. As I grew older, I was subjected to a lot of violence and torture in my family, as is common to people from our [trans and queer] community. When the mistreatment crossed its threshold, I left Kolkata and travelled to North Bengal for work in 2009. Some people who were associated with my work at that time gave me the idea that I was capable of running an organization. With their support, I moved to Islampur city [in Uttar Dinajpur district].

On the 10th of January in 2010, I decided to form an organization called Dinajpur Natun Aalo but did not register it then. It was here in this city that I found my dear ones, heard their plight and how together we could work our way forward. I had learnt a few things back when I was in Kolkata because since 2006 I had been working with an organization that aimed to spread HIV awareness among men who have sex with men (MSM) and trans women. It was only in 2006 that I realized I was not alone and there were many people like me.

With these notions and experience, I began work in Islampur. Many organisations operated in West Bengal but Islampur or North Bengal was a region where much work had not been done [with MSM and trans women]. The people of this region had no concept about the existence of same-sex [love], different gender identities or the fact that people like us existed. This manifested itself in problems and discrimination in living, eating and staying somewhere in Islampur for me.

At this juncture, I had to be strong-willed and decided to work on my own terms. For example, hiding and conducting group meetings; suppose, when I would walk through a field, people of my community would walk 100 metres behind me so that other people would not understand that they were with me. Sometimes we would go to the corner of a field and discuss things quietly and have a few laughs. Sometimes I would stay in a hotel and people of my community would tell me to go in first; they would follow and join me later so that no one would suspect them of going to other people’s hotel rooms.

Slowly but steadily, I continued organizational work and Dinajpur Natun Aalo got registered as a society in June 2011. I moved permanently to Islampur and rented a place to live in. In 2012, Dinajpur Natun Aalo Society (DNAS) was granted a project to work on health and rights issues of MSM, transgender and Hijra communities. At this stage we had to depend on a partner agency to run the project since all our papers were not in place. In 2013, our organization started implementing the project independently and over the next three years I worked as the director of the project.

I managed to foster a healthy relationship with the local government and administrative bodies, local [youth] clubs and the general public. Also after the 2014 Supreme Court NALSA verdict [on trans identities and rights], our communities gained a stronger sense of identity and changes followed. The name assigned to me at birth was Jayanta Mondal, but in 2014 I changed it to Joyita Mondal. I also made changes in terms of gender and name in all my identity documents.

The identity of our organization grew from the local to the state level, followed by a few small projects and seminars. Since this was a small place and the people here were simple-minded, they were overwhelmed by the good things happening, but the negatives affected them even more. It then struck me that in order to make my organization known I would have to modify our plan. My first step was to start work with old people, along with the existing work with MSM, transgender and Hijra communities. In this endeavour, the local Sub Divisional Officer (SDO) supported me along with a West Bengal Civil Service (WBCS) officer, our Deputy Magistrate, who I still consider as my ‘godfather’. With their help, we set up a shelter for old people called Age India. Every month, many of the aged would access rations, basic food and clothing from the shelter.

This is daytime photograph that shows Joyita Mondal participating in a health camp for the general public somewhere in the Uttar Dinajpur district of West Bengal. She is seated at a table in a grassy open area carrying out what looks like paperwork for client registration. A number of men and women, of different age groups, and a child can be seen standing patiently around the table, looking at what she is writing. The child is peering closely at her work. All the people waiting seem to be part of the urban and rural poor. In the background, an arrangement of plastic chairs seems to ring the open area where Joyita Mondal is seated. Photo courtesy Joyita Mondal

Joyita Mondal at a health camp for the general public in Uttar Dinajpur district. Photo courtesy Joyita Mondal

On January 26, 2016, during the Republic Day celebrations in Islampur, the government announced that an organization comprising of people considered backward in our society was being led by Joyita Mondal. On that day, with 10,000-20,000 people in the parade ground, DNAS and Joyita Mandal became household names. The fact that someone like me went up to the stage and shared it with the old people we were working with and important government officials created a favourable impression among the people of Islampur. From that day people started harbouring certain expectations from me.

The day after the Republic Day programme, the SDO asked me to attend an administrative meeting. The agenda of the meeting was to ensure that more sex workers in the red light areas of Islampur could obtain voter identity cards. The government officials were unwilling to go there and that is where I stepped in. From my organisation’s point of view I told them that I would need an official letter to begin work. In our Islampur sub-division, there are two red light areas and I was assigned work there. A fellow trans comrade began campaigning there with me on the issue of voter identity cards and I was given all the [application] forms. I did all the work, including scrutiny of the forms. I submitted the completed forms to the Block Development Officer (BDO) within seven days. Ultimately, I facilitated voter identity cards being issued to 200 sex workers. This propelled our organization forward.

In 2016, our project with MSM, transgender and Hijra communities came to an end and owing to the fact that we were a small organization with few resources, we could not hold on to all of our members. Some of them come sometimes for volunteer work but they are not permanent members. Anyway, DNAS continued to gain the trust of Islampur’s larger community. On the 8th of July, 2017, I was appointed as a Lok Adalat Member Judge. Just a week ahead of this development, we had organized the first rainbow pride walk in Islampur. I needed a lot of strength to organize it and having been influenced by the Kolkata and the Chandannagar pride walks, I asked myself, “Why should my city be deprived of a pride walk?”

I sought the advice of seniors and other activists associated with pride walks. I raised funding and other resources from various places and then organized the pride walk in my own way for the first time. It was pretty unbelievable for a small town to have more than 150 people attend its very first pride walk. My objective was for the District Judge to be present at the opening ceremony of the pride walk. He called the police to enquire if our organization had a sound reputation and they replied in the affirmative. The District Magistrate was also present and through the pride walk, I was able to foster a better relationship with these officials. The District Magistrate stated that in the following year, instead of a pride walk, we ought to organize a rainbow carnival.

My community contributed a lot of funds for the pride walk but 60 percent of the event was government funded. The WBCS officer, who I earlier referred to, took it upon himself to make the event a success helping out with stage bookings, sound and other things. He said it was not Joyita’s event alone but also Islampur’s event. So, with immense support and togetherness, I organized the first pride walk on the 29th of June, 2017.

For me becoming a judge was a big step as I had no background in law. I received an appointment letter asking me to go to court on the 8th of July, along with the names of other judges who would be present. My designation stood as Social Worker, Dinajpur Natun Aalo Society. There was a lawyer present and an LLB pass out District Judge. On the appointed date, in the morning, a car came to pick me up. The car was designated for LLB judges but there was no discrimination. Even the amount of police security that escorts a judge, it was the same for me. That day I went to court and presided over a Lok Adalat session. I gained a lot of experience. Many people, who came to court, saw me and it changed their body language and facial expression. People who used to look down on me started respecting me and addressing me as ‘madam’. I started receiving their support. As Lok Adalat Member Judge I have presided over many sessions and each time, the treatment was the same. I attended several programmes and was awarded for my services in many states in India.

Pawan: I will interrupt you just a bit – about what you said about your gender identity in the beginning. Would you like to elaborate on it?

Joyita: I now identify as a rupantarkami nari though I was assigned male at birth. Back then I used to consider myself as an effeminate man. My body and mind were not on the same page, I thought. My body was all male but my mind was that of a woman. This was the notion I had. But as I researched more and got to know more about gender identities and my rights, I realized that I was not an effeminate man but a rupantarkami nari.

Pawan: Earlier, you talked about your family and living in Kolkata and now here in Islampur. So, who is there in your family?

This is a daytime long shot of a part of Islampur town taken from the third or fourth floor of a building. To the left of the photograph is a bus terminus with a few vehicles parked. The terminus does not seem to have much of a crowd. Next to the terminus is a near empty road, and to the right of the road is an expanse showing several low rise buildings, and numerous palm trees and other vegetation. The background consists of a lightly clouded grey-blue sky. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

An aerial shot of a part of Islampur town. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Joyita: My parents, two of my sisters and my grandmother. My father has no brother and I was born after the two sisters. My parents had a lot of expectation that after two daughters, they had a son, who would further their generation. I belong to a middle class family and their expectation was quite common. When they saw my feminine mannerisms, they would hit and scold me. My relatives would come and tell me not to elope and get married. They would assure me of marriage with any woman I liked. They thought I would become masculine as I grew older; I would be ‘cured’ of my femininity. However, as I grew older, my physical and mental development went in the opposite direction – opposite to what society thinks is normal. Back then sometimes I would think maybe my parents were right. I tried my hand at cricket or football but even while bowling my action would be ‘feminine’, or when the ball would be coming towards me, I would scream in panic and move sideways with the bat in my hand.

Pawan: Where do they stand now? What is their perception of you now that you have achieved so much?

Joyita: Since 2017 when you could Google me, my family members’ respect for me has increased. In July 2017, I appeared in a TV reality show called Didi No.1 but without informing my family. Earlier when I would go to Kolkata, I would dress ‘modestly’ – modest in their terms. I would try to act masculine. I would often change at the train station before going home. I should add that my sisters were supportive of my gender identity since childhood. My eldest sister supported me when I told her that I would appear in Didi No.1, which was shot in Kolkata on July 16, 2017. She assured me that she would handle the situation at home. The prizes that I won at the reality show, I sent them home [from Islampur] saying that I had won them in a lottery held in my office (laughs). I could not tell them about the show as it could have caused many problems at home.

However, on the 30th of August, when the show was telecast, my mother, who watched the show regularly, switched off the television on seeing me. She did not talk with me for 10 days. My sister then informed me over phone that my way of speaking, the saree I wore, and my mannerisms were something my mother could not bear. Some relatives called her and said that they had seen Babu, my nickname, in Didi No.1 wearing a saree. They complained about my audacity and why my mother could not stop it from happening. These things irked my mother though she revealed this to me much later.

During the show I said something along the lines that I had moved to North Bengal saying that it would be for two months, but it had been nearly 10 years. On being asked whether I planned to return to Kolkata, I said that I had no such wish . . . The fact that I mentioned that I had no desire to return really upset my mother, which was why she stopped calling me. Eventually she did call me one evening asking why I had not called in a long time. I countered why she had not called as she knew that I lived alone. This phone call helped us to clear the air and we came to an understanding.

My family gets regular updates about me from news in the media, or from my relatives’ children who are net savvy. My school in Kolkata, which was a boys’ school, honoured me. Some of my relatives’ sons study there and they went back home mentioning the honour bestowed upon me. This increased my family’s respect for me. Since Didi No. 1 happened, I go home wearing my usual clothes and my parents have accepted who I am. Most of my relatives have also accepted me but if they object, my parents stand up for me stating that I am their child and they accept me as I am.

Most importantly, I am the family’s primary income earner. My mother is a housewife and my father is ill. He had a business, which closed down after he fell sick. My parents say that our child feeds us, clothes us and hence is our guardian and we accept her whole-heartedly . . . My parents no longer pressurize me to get married. They do wish that I should not undergo SRS (sex reassignment surgery). They are not averse to the idea that the surgery would make my body more feminine, but they fear that they may lose their child’s life in the process. Still, I am trying to convince my parents otherwise. My clothes have changed and I believe it is time for my body to transform too.

To be continued.

Main photo courtesy: Joyita Mondal