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The Colonial Lens of an Ethnographic Research: A Note on Nandini Krishnan’s Invisible Men

The Colonial Lens of an Ethnographic Research: A Note on Nandini Krishnan’s Invisible Men

invisible men


Arpita Jaya

Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Network, and its author Nandini Krishnan’s remorseless responses to the serious objections raised by quite a few transmen and transwomen activists, is yet another page in the genre of ‘sweet-tempered liberal’ transphobia.These volumes of academic and non-fiction literature produced in India, which while claiming to depict the ‘real’ lives and struggles of transgender persons, in the name of a perverse ‘ethnographic objectivity’, ends up producing works that are deeply dismissive of trans-political struggle and its articulations.

invisible men

As most mainstream academic and non-fiction writings are either not in the public domain due to exorbitant prices or are largely shelved in inaccessible libraries or are published in paid journals, these writings do not come under public scrutiny. These genres of liberal-apolitical, voyeuristic and exotifying writings however, are hegemonically part of shaping the discourse on transgender lives and struggle, in Indian academia and the civil society at large.

The contribution of liberal writer Nandini Krishnan to the civil society discourse is a high-handed philanthropic attempt to make transgender persons’ lives ‘recognizable’ for the cis-heteronormative mainstream. Like every such patronization, it ends up becoming an exercise in violating, distorting and misrepresenting the lives, struggles and resistance of the marginalized population.

To cite an example, apart from Nandini Krishnan being extremely self-centred in her writing, she applies double standards in depicting the lives of transmen and transgender persons in general. While she insists on employing the word trans as an adjective, she entertains Manu Joseph’s recurrent use of ‘transgenders’ to refer to ‘them’, which has been considered highly objectionable and pointed out by several transgender activists time and again. Further, she allows Manu Joseph’s voyeuristic description of a transwoman as “those amiable muscular ‘eunuchs’ in saris” to be in the foreword of her book. Besides, Manu Joseph’s bigoted and patronizing behaviour is explicit in the way he projects Nandini Krishnan’s “sympathy for the unlucky”, of the struggle of transmen in the cis-heteronormative society. In his words,

This exquisite book tells the stories of some of those women as they begin to transform – the hope and force of inevitability that subsume the torture of it all. You will read about women who use the latest medical advances to liberate themselves from their gorgeous female shape, who will cut away their breasts, destroy their long flowing hair, make stubbles spring on their faces, and fix agonizing penises.

Nandini Krishnan’s insistence on mentioning the word “pre-operative” to define a trans identity and the use of phrase “disguised as a boy” to convey how a transman is struggling to self-identify and in another instance, the use of “it” as a pronoun to refer to a transgender person are few among countless offensive descriptions that are indicative of the extent of hypocrisy in her intent and actions. It also reflects how her language is unapologetically, deeply enmeshed in the dominant ideologies of the distinctions drawn between ‘sex’ and gender, the biological classification of gender relations and other-ing.

This book falls into line with all those mainstream writings, the priority of which is to address the contradictions, complications and conflicts among transgender persons and their communities. Steering clear from perspective or politics of justice, it remains purely an ethnographic endeavour. Such an approach is usually undertaken with a complete obscuration of the urgent need for providing a forceful critique of the violent and coercive nature of the cis-heteronormative power structures that govern our everyday social lives, and especially the lives of those who are pushed outside its ‘standard’ framework.

It is indeed appalling to see her take a righteous stand in defense of her factually incorrect, offensive and unscientific writing. The trans community of Manipur provided a detailed criticism against the offensive description of transmen, their lives and the imposition of a Hindu narrative. Gee Imaan Semmalar’s (a trans-activist associated with Sampoorna network) scathing review of the text, justly pointed at various offensive narratives and mis-representations in the book, along with several other trans activists – few of whom were interviewees themselves, have also made public their dissatisfaction and opposition to the book.

Nandini Krishnan however, denounced the criticisms as “unqualified…personal attacks”, and not surprisingly expressed “great respect” for Manu Joseph. In her response to these criticisms, she wrote that,

Transpeople don’t need a cisperson to interpret transmasculinity. But laypeople do. And the only way to start a dialogue is to lay it all bare, expose our understandings and misunderstandings, our prejudices and realisations, our learning and unlearning.

But, this prompts the question of her self-authorization. Who is she to interpret transmasculinity? Especially when several transgender people including few transmen who participated in her research, have denounced her analysis and interpretation astransphobic and politically problematic to say the least. As most mainstream academic and journalistic writings that claim to “lay it all bare” in relation to the life-politics of the marginalized communities, the Invisible Men reduces her research subjects to ‘ethnographic objects’ asif they merely exist for the ‘educational pleasure’ of the voyeuristic mainstream. This task is carried out by undermining the political antagonism, subjectivity and narratives that undergird the trans struggle for survival, dignity and liberation. The criticisms that have been raised by few transmen and trans activists at large, have been precisely pointing at this fact; the exploitation of the narratives and stories of transmen in the context of a daily political struggle, for an apolitical ethnographic curiosity.

While she argues adamantly again and again that her analysis is ‘balanced’ and ‘objective’, her writing still borrows largely from a transphobic narrative that is already present in the portrayals in movies, TV shows, writings (fiction and non-fiction), academics, media etc., of transgender persons as subjects of ridicule, criminality or exoticism. Her writing does not do anything new except in the rehashing of these typologies. However she defends herself and thewriting by appealing to her “friendship with trans men.” But, it does not really answer the question how the rephrasing of age-old transphobic descriptions and narratives are a way to reach out to “laypeople” to ‘sensitize’ them about trans discourse?

It is needed to point out that, while she has authorized herself to form a ‘bridge’ and ‘sensitize’ “laypeople” about transmen, several trans activists have meticulously explained how she lacks sensitivity in the first place. She has attempted to bypass such criticism by putting the burden on the interviewees, while not at all taking responsibility for her problematic interpretations and self-narrations.While Nandini Krishnan want to highlight intra community ‘issues’ and ‘prejudices’, she does not examine her own and refuses to even acknowledge the serious mistakes she has committed in her writing.

This is again a classic instance of the violence of ethnographic research that still has not outgrown its colonial roots and mentality; a presumption of an automatically objective educated researcher-saviour and unthinking primitive savages in need of rescue and reformation. She has been defending herself by reiterating that she had the consent while interviewing her research subjects and therefore, any of these criticisms concerning how the quotes of transmen interviewees have been presented in the book or the ‘pure as-it-is’ analysis she has about trans lives, to educate and ‘sensitize’ the cis-heteronormative mainstream, are not ‘qualified.’ Her approach to the question of consent is quite revealing of her refusal to self-examine her own claim to objectivity and the retaining of its automatic presumption.

Consent is not a natural or self-evident reality that authorizes itself through mere formalities.Consent is always ‘taken’ on an unequal footing and therefore, should be revisited again and again to minimise the impact of researchers’ power position in the study. Otherwise, consent can be manipulative and obscure the power of the researcher from the participants. She has been manipulative not just because she did not translate back into local languages for the interviewees; but also because the trust they had on her, theaspirations and struggles that transmeninterviewees shared with her,turned into mere raw datawith the problematic interpretations and political positions.

Here, her philanthropy turns into an act of violence against transgender persons. Her responses to the objections raised in fact, has exposed her understandings and misunderstandings, her prejudices and adamant refusal to unlearn and learn. The so-called mainstream progressive, liberal and feminist movement in India scarcely addresses the questions of caste, gender binary and gender hierarchies. Nandini Krishnan’s book is a testament to this structural ignorance and sheer apathy.

I agree with transgender activists that as long as transgender persons are not granted legal right to self-determination and reservation in education, university spaces, publishing houses, all such ‘objective positions’ will remain inaccessible tothem.Till then, the literature depicting the lives of transgender persons will inevitably be caught up in the suppression of political subjectivity of the transgender community.

However, as long as these centres of knowledge production remain agraharas, their contribution towards social violence, in the name of research and objectivity, needs to be resisted.This is not just the task of marginalized activists but every researcher who is committed to a genuine and transformative knowledge production. I extend my utmost solidarity in doing the same and appeal to all cisgender persons/researchers to hold transphobic researchers and writers to account, and as well as avoid the rhetoric of objectivity. In the face of oppression and social violence, the idea of a ‘balanced’ research is the fantasy of the privileged few. The critical tradition of the global liberation struggle teaches us that one can be either with the oppressive violence of the status quo or the transformative struggle of the exploited and marginalized. Thus, any study concerning the lives of transgender persons must make this choice.

This is not to say that one must idealize the marginalized and conceal all contradictions. Rather, any critical study of the marginalized subject, true to the spirit of critical research, has to internalize the transformative spirit and political antagonism of the marginalized position towards the oppressive organization of society. The dire conditions under which transgender persons are forced to engage and negotiate with the cis-heteronormative mainstream must be investigated and challenged. Otherwise, any analysis of the transgender lives that does not move away from the social organization of cis-heteronormative mainstream as the frame of reference, will only obscure the reality of social-structural violence on transgender persons and undermine the trans-political struggle.

In Manipur, the transgender community protested against the imposition of Hindu identity and erasure of their indigenous cultural histories in the book by burning it. Nandini Krishnan responded to her critics in the article titled No one who has ever loved a book could burn another. Such is the dominant caste liberal understanding of knowledge production – a sacred isolated object that needs to be protected. Whereas, for the tradition of the oppressed, knowledge is part of the social struggle and any knowledge production that betrays the social struggle has to be disavowed and burnt down! Finally, for my political ethnographic curiosity, I would like to know Nandini Krishnan’s thoughts on Manusmriti Dahan!



Arpita Jaya is a PhD Student at the University of Hyderabad.

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