Pinki Pramanik stands a burning testimony to the collective brutality of the state-society-media complex. Each one of us is implicated in the brutalities inflicted on her. Starting with her arrest on charges of rape, her repeated humiliation in the hands of the medical establishment (euphemistically titled gender verification) without following due procedure, a leaked MMS of her naked body that went viral and which was telecast on a private channel (Aakash Bangla), headlines screaming “She’s a he!”, the state government that remained not only silent through all of this but also tried to lump charges of land grab on her to our prurient curiosity about her body. But no, this is no sob story. In conversation with Pinki Pramanik. By Sayan Bhattacharya.
This interview was supposed to happen at different points in time. First in August 2012 after Pinki had received bail and Kindle had organized a discussion titled “How Public is our Private?” featuring lawyers, sportspersons and journalists. Then in July 2013, when she had already taken up the pen to reclaim her life and tell her side of the story. But each time, I was left wondering what I should ask her. Such a lot had already been spoken about her. Sensational, inhuman, crude reports, sometimes nuanced editorials, panel discussions, both rigorous and salacious… I was not sure whether I wanted her to revisit those harrowing days for a good copy but after I watched an untitled film (by Debalina) about her, I changed my mind. Here Pinki speaks with delicious candour about her intersexed body. There is a lot of self deprecating humour which ultimately strikes at the complacency of our ideas of selfhood and our gendered identity.
So an interview is fixed after a couple of interactions with her. She asks me to meet her at the Sealdah Station where she works as a Train Ticket Examiner at 8:30pm, one evening. She would come straight from a mini marathon which she was supposed to inaugurate. She soon arrives and takes me to the parking lot. We will go to my place, which is at a stone’s throw for the chat. Her Yamaha R15 stands in all its glory in the evening light. As I stand gazing at it, Pinki chuckles and asks me to sit comfortably. I do not know how to ride a bike and have taken a bike ride only twice in my life before but of course these are thoughts best kept to myself.
There were mike announcements, ‘Our didi… Pinki Pramanik.’ Yet, I heard a boy asking, ‘Is Pinki a man or a woman?’ I am sure there were other people too saying the same thing. There was this man saying, ‘Oh! She is the one we saw on TV.’ When I went to give the speech, I said that you do good deeds, people will not remember you, they will not call you. Look at me. Nobody spoke about me 4 years back and today when there’s a case against me, I am invited everywhere.
However, not quite. She senses my unease, “Am I riding too fast?” Stoically I mumble, “No!” In 10 minutes, we are at my place. But, now I am faced with a new problem! I realize that I do not have a set of questions. Where does one begin! So we start with her mini marathon experience. “There were around 400 people to receive me, 15 bikes were trailing the open jeep in which I stood waving my hands. Flowers were showered on me. There were thousands of people standing on either side of the road.” Pinki is smiling as she says this but before I can ask her about perceptions changing, she continues, “There were mike announcements, ‘Our didi… Pinki Pramanik.’ Yet, I heard a boy asking, ‘Is Pinki a man or a woman?’ I am sure there were other people too saying the same thing. There was this man saying, ‘Oh! She is the one we saw on TV.’ When I went to give the speech, I said that you do good deeds, people will not remember you, they will not call you. Look at me. Nobody spoke about me 4 years back and today when there’s a case against me, I am invited everywhere. I find myself being captured by 1000s of mobile cameras. This way, will anyone ever want to do anything good?” She adds, “But if my presence and my words can motivate people to donate blood or train harder, I am there with you.”As an Asian Games gold medalist, Pinki used to be invited to sporting events even before her arrest but now besides sporting events, she is also invited to inaugurate pujas and blood donation camps. Yes, perceptions about her are certainly changing, people reach out to her, show their affection and respect, and talk to her about the article she wrote about herself but for many, it’s still about a free ‘freak show’.
We continue with Pinki’s social responsibilities. She had participated in a rally protesting the rape in Kamduni. “When I was lodged in jail, very few people came forward to support me. I attended the anti-rape rally for precisely this reason. If people come on the streets and mobilize support, some impact can be created, impact that can have a positive outcome.”At the rally I had seen her being hounded by the electronic media and bystanders. So how was it interacting with so many people? The answer is unexpected but prescient. “It was a good experience but of course I saw all kinds of people, some of whom so opportunistic. They were there not out of great support for a cause but to show their faces on camera, to network, some to get brownie points with political parties which were not overtly present but were there in the rally.” As my thoughts drift towards facebook feminists who rage on with status updates and in minutes upload photographs of New Year parties, Pinki continues, “Some people did come out in support after my medical examination but is it enough to protest when an incident occurs and not sustain it later? This is what bothers me, saddens me. If you stop at protesting only for a couple of days, what’s the guarantee that the same incident will not occur again?” However, it’s not all cynicism. Pinki remembers walking in the Pride March for the first time in 2013. “There was this transgender girl whose mother hugged and kissed her on the podium in front of a huge audience. She could be such a lesson for those parents who do not accept their children the way they are, also a lesson for those who speak ill about such people. It brought tears to my eyes.”
Some people did come out in support after my medical examination but is it enough to protest when an incident occurs and not sustain it later? This is what bothers me, saddens me. If you stop at protesting only for a couple of days, what’s the guarantee that the same incident will not occur again?
Pinki fondly remembers some inmates in jail. “When I was lodged in the men’s section, there was a huge public outcry, because of which the male inmates were removed from my building. But there was one old man in my section. I requested the in-charge not to shift him. So this man and his son-in-law were allowed to live in my building. We developed a rapport. They gave me Mortein coil each night. The son-in-law and I used to work out together, that is lift stones, read the newspaper. We bonded over my bike stories, we shared our food. The in charge guy who was himself a life prisoner and I used to listen to the radio together. He would lock us all at the end of the day and then get into his own cell and the constables would lock him in.” We start laughing. Pinki continues, “One day when I sat to lunch, I found myself having 15 dishes, something I could never imagine at home. The different sections had cooked and inmates from each section had brought me something. I did receive a lot of warmth from them. At jail, what I felt was that there were many lodged who were innocent but their bails remained stuck for years for lack of a few thousand rupees. There was this Bihari migrant who could get bail for 2000 rupees but his family could organize only half the amount. I chipped in with the other half. I had helped some people there. When I see people crying or becoming depressed, I feel for them, cannot hold myself back from reaching out.” The sheer violence and absurdity of the fact that she had to remain cooped up in a dark dank room with a basic toilet partitioned by sheets for 26 days could not hit louder when I find Pinki choosing to talk only about the bond she built with some fellow inmates. Surely, this lightness could not have been easily achieved and I sense its fragility soon.
I ask her was she oblivious to the media stories about her while she was in jail. Pinki says no. “The jailer would cut out the portions about me and send me the paper, lest I do something rash after reading news stories about me. This is a standard procedure in jail. But there were people who would collect those cuttings and bring them to me. Also the old man and his son in law would go to the other section, read about me and then they would tell me what was published and that’s how I realized what the media was doing with my life, starting with telecasting my mms. The media is not supposed to show the face of a rape survivor. With that leaked mms, what happened with me was a kind of rape but this was in full public glare. I felt like committing suicide but like many other challenges in life, took up the challenge of living.” Pinki’s voice breaks. I am at a loss of words. I find my lofty hopes of not making Pinki go back to those bitter memories for my magazine lie shattered. We are silent for some time. How does one continue such a conversation? Pinki adds, “The media can educate and entertain and it can also make a monster out of you.”
I think we have had enough of that episode. I ask her to talk about what she does best, athletics. “Let me tell you a funny story. This was 2002 and I participated in the inter-rails. Back then, you could participate in as many events as you wished. So I took part in the 100,200,400,800,1500m races plus the 400m hurdle and 2 relay races. My coach Gita Zutshi got angry because she felt that I would tire out and this would affect my performance but my target was to win the best athlete (the one with the maximum medals) trophy. But next year the rule was changed and one athlete could participate in a maximum of 6 events but I still won the trophy next year. In 2005, the limit was set at 3 events. And then 2 events, which is there till date! All this because I was winning all the medals and they wanted fair distribution!” Pinki’s eyes shine and she looks animated. “I want to restart my career. I think I am still capable of giving a lot to athletics. I have also bought a piece of land with some help from the Netaji Subhash Azad Hind Foundation where I want to set up a training centre for children. I had gone to the state government for assistance but they told me they did not have any land! So I bought the land myself. I do not know how will I set it up but perhaps I have to do it on my own.” There is a lot of resolve in her voice.
Once I performed very well in a heat and was so tired that I slept off in the stadium and the next morning I found my spikes had been stolen. I ran the 200m race bare feet and broke the state record. Later somebody gifted me spikes. I broke other records too and that’s the only way I could move forward. Then somebody planted some stolen cassettes in my bag to frame me. Those were my struggling days, I was no big sportsperson, coming from a privileged background whose mistakes could be overlooked. I was from Purulia… I could be easily dismissed as uncouth
If you think that Pinki had a smooth ride on track which was haulted by her arrest in 2012, you could not be further from the truth. Talent, perseverance, luck… yes, the 100 crore sports flicks and self help gurus invoke them as success mantras. True but that’s not enough because your gender and class positions complicate your sporting experiences in ways, unfathomable (more on this, in the next interview). Pink remembers, “Once I performed very well in a heat and was so tired that I slept off in the stadium and the next morning I found my spikes had been stolen. I ran the 200m race bare feet and broke the state record. Later somebody gifted me spikes. I broke other records too and that’s the only way I could move forward. Then somebody planted some stolen cassettes in my bag to frame me. Those were my struggling days, I was no big sportsperson, coming from a privileged background whose mistakes could be overlooked. I was from Purulia… I could be easily dismissed as uncouth! ” Yet, discrimination is not just on the sporting track but also in the most intimate of spaces, namely home. “When you see that your parents are behaving one way with you and another way with your siblings because you have a different body, it feels uncanny. In my village, fairs during Kali Pujo and Poush Sankranti were annual features that we eagerly looked forward to. Children would be given new dresses then. One year, everybody was given new dresses except me. I was given a school uniform. People’s attitudes, words about my ‘masculinity’ made me acutely aware how ‘different’ I was. Does a child understand she is ‘different’ unless she is told?”
It is 10:30 in the night. A winter night. Pinki has to go home. We end the chat. She quickly grabs her helmet and flies down the stairs. The street’s silence is occasionally pincered by the lazy barks of a few stray dogs. Pinki sits on her bike, smiles at me when I thank her for taking time out and vanishes into air, like a thunderbird. Her words still resonating , “You know Pinki, the athlete, Pinki, the intersex person. If I want to play, why can’t I? Tell me something, does a baby know whether she is a boy or a girl unless she is told or made aware? But isn’t she human first? Why cannot I be thought of as a human being first?”
Post the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377, slogans like “Love is not a crime” and “My body, my Sexuality” have rent the air. To think that the battle gets over if the review petition is accepted and homosexuality is decriminalised will be a monumental loss of an opportunity. 377 is not just about winning acceptance. The issue is more fundamental. Do we have the tenacity to keep questioning the patriarchal constructs of gender models and gender roles and the violence they inflict on bodies that do not fit in? Can we keep questioning the basis on which this fitting in project plays out? The battle is on and far from over…