Invisible Men By Nandini Krishnan is a poorly written book on trans men in India that would just about pass as a racy, voyeuristic thriller the privileged pick up in airports during long transits. In comparison, A Life in Trans activism by A Revathi, published by Zubaan in 2016, has poignant narratives of five trans men, some of who are also part of Invisible Men. The treatment and portrayal of trans men in these two books is markedly different. While A Revathi has spent years with the men she accepts as her sons, and transcribes their life stories in their own words, Nandini Krishnan in her book Invisible Men, dissects and lays bare, in transphobic ways, the lives and bodies of the men with her voice-of-god narrative throughout.
This problematic portrayal of trans men by Nandini Krishnan in her book has been strongly criticised by trans men, many of whom generously lent their voices to the book in good faith. I was asked to be interviewed by the author but turned down the offer for reasons the reader will hopefully understand by the end of this review. The book, apart from being a thinly veiled ethnographic account replete with caste prejudices and transphobia, makes factually incorrect statements. For instance, in the Preface itself, the author claims that 2016, which was when she met Selvam (one of the key participants in her research), is when transmasculine networks were beginning to be formed in India. We have had trans masculine networks in India for more than two decades. A fact that the author herself mentions in the book when talking about Sampoorna, a network for trans and intersex people being formed in the late 1990s.
It begins with the chapter Blue Lotus, and at the end of the chapter, the author links the Hindu myth of Shikhandi to those who millenia later are “born with the anatomy of womanhood and the conviction of manhood”! The author for the rest of the book transforms into a detective constantly viewing and describing our bodies/gender expressions and giving her own unsolicited opinions on how “feminine” or “masculine” we are, with a generous topping of caste prejudices. If the author would like to make a career move, she must apply to be part of the BJP government’s district screening committees that are to ascertain and hand out transgender certificates.
The foreword by Manu Joseph titled Fluid has Direction, is uninformed at best and transphobic at worst. He begins with that tired and tiring ethnographic trope of aravanis, steeped in Hindu mythology, breaking bangles at Koovagam festival. He goes on to say with the audacity of a cisgender, dominant caste heterosexual man, who, by his own admission has had limited interactions with trans women on trains and at traffic signals, “Transition is not a spectrum; transition is movement towards certainty. We imagine the people in transition as a single collective organism in weird clothes, whom we then place in our minds as the middle-people. What does not occur to us is that the transition is not only continuous, it also has a direction. To be precise, it has two directions.” Apart from not being able to comprehend who the “we” he uses to collectivise his own individual prejudices are, this was a revelation to me as a trans person. It would be great if Manu Joseph can provide us trans people with a road map to these “two directions” so we are not stuck in transition without a GPS signal to show us the way.
This is the first warning we get of what is to come in the book. “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.” Even a layperson who respects the dignity of other human beings and knows nothing about trans experiences would know that this is a creepy, violent and voyueristic description of trans men.
Here are top 10 reasons why Invisible Men is a problematic book on trans men.
1. Misgendering and deadnaming: (Deadnaming is a dehumanising device used by cis people including our families, in which they refer to us by given name rather than by our chosen names, to deny our personhood and dignity). Living Smile Vidya, well known writer, theatre artist and activist is deadnamed and misgendered in the book. The author paraphrases from Living Smile Vidya’s autobiography I am Vidya, in a section and uses her deadname and male pronouns to talk about her in the past. The author misgenders Rumi, a trans person who insists that no pronouns be used in the book for Rumi. The author writes Rumi’s dead name multiple times in the book and misgenders as “she” when talking about the person in the past. She goes on to say, “On the day of our meeting, 30 June 2017, *insert deadname* [the author has deadnamed Rumi in this sentence, I have withheld the same in this review] had become Rumi Harish.” A simple google search of how to write on trans folks would have revealed to the author that misgendering and deadnaming a person under any circumstances, including to talk about their past, is unacceptable.
2. Infantilisation of trans men: The book refers to trans men in infantilising terms such as “Peter Pan-like”, “cherubic” etc. Her description of a Dalit trans man as “like a student from a state corporation school”, is imbued with casteism, among many other such examples. This infantilisation is culpable in the context of many participants in the book who have spoken about it as the reason for getting paid lesser than other male labourers, and as an added vulnerability to sexual violence. Men in their late 20s and 30s do not want to be infantilised paternalistically.
Screenshots from Invisible Men
3. Transphobia: Like a character in a bad Manoj Night Shyamalan film, she looks at trans men to imagine ghosts of our past and conjures up images that violently deny our identities. She sniffs out her own perceptions of femininity in the faces of her “subjects”, according to the binarian gender system she is trapped by. She obsessively describes hormone treatments or surgeries we have undergone, and hands out her own progress reports of whether we “pass” as men or fail miserably.
Meanwhile, here is a feminism 101 class for the author who writes: “Did I dismiss the possibilities of sexual violence from them because they lacked the organ most women have been taught to dread?” Sexual violence is a crime of power. Not biology. “Most women” dread which organ? Damn “most women”, you better make a lesbian island soon. Oh, also, trans men don’t lack anything. We are strong. We are beautiful. We are enough.
And then she places her sixth sense on an unnamed watchman and tries to displace her own transphobic lens onto him.
And then wonders why Living Smile Vidya doesn’t share the same sixth sense when she meets a person who was not identified as a trans man at that time!
4. Poverty porn: The author would put Levis Strauss to shame with her anthropological study of dosa and poverty. She says this person never went hungry, and yet pulls out a theory about the thickness of dosa and poverty at his house. Dominant caste researchers routinely access the homes of marginalised people to narrativise their own prejudices, all the while maintaining the privacy of their own households and families.
5. Attempts to saffronise trans communities: At a time when trans, gender non conforming and intersex communities in India are putting out statements against saffronisation of our representations and politics, the author imposes a Hinduised past on us throughout the book. She begins the book with a reference to Shikhandi, gives a Hinduised introduction to Manipur through the myth of Arjuna-Chitrangada, which the trans communities who lent their voices to the book have strongly protested as an erasure of their indigenous histories.
The author at one point wonders whether “another category of neither-man-nor-woman” (apart from trans women) were waiting for a mythical Ram to return from a mythical forest for 14 mythical years! Once again, she sets aside trans men as being not men – this is a fundamental form of transphobia.
6. Violent nationalist fantasies: Apart from the attempt to Hinduise the history of Manipur, she writes a chapter titled, Why didn’t the Indian Army want to search me? In this chapter, a Kashmiri trans man says nothing close to the violently nationalist fantasy imposed on his narrative by the author. His account in this chapter is, “We were kids, right? I mean, now I understand how horrible everything was, how people used to disappear,’ he said. ‘But back then, I didn’t know much. My family didn’t suffer too much, but then yeah, searches used to happen.’ He laughed suddenly. ‘It used to bewilder me when they would ask all the boys to line up and take them to the fields, and I was not asked to come with them. My father would look mournful, and my brothers would look important when these ID searches happened. I was too young to know why they were going.”
This atrocious title is not some ignorant blunder by the author because in the same book, there is an extremely troubling account by a trans man from Manipur about body searches by army personnel while travelling by road.
7. Brahmanism: All of this is not surprising considering the brahmanism throughout the book, but in case you had even the slightest doubt, there is an entire chapter devoted to three cis Brahmin women saviours (the author, A Mangai, Mina Swaminathan) talking about trans men and our bodies in our absence. Details like that of a trans man who gets his periods and breaks down on stage, unable to wear a skirt as a prop, is shared by them in this chapter titled Voicing Silence. One of them says, “His was an interesting case because he was this biological woman, surrounded by aravanis who were very protective, who looked after him,who saw his plight as worse than theirs.” The chapter ends with them discussing his plans for bottom surgery and how he doesn’t earn enough. In her narrativising of trans men through her own voice and through the voices of the cisgender women in the book, she denies agency to the very men her book is about, treating them as “subjects” of a study throughout.
The author while attending a pride march as an “ally” discloses how disturbed she is by placards held up in Bengaluru and Chennai pride marches against the beef ban and wonders, like a confused cow, whether intersectionality symbolises the NGO-isation of the movement! The self-confessed vegan author of the piece does not mention the lynchings of Muslims and Dalits getting beaten up in the name of cow slaughter/beef trade/eating beef, but makes a mockery of it by comparing beef eating to a choice of cooking cabbages or brinjal. The ghost of 16-year-old Junaid who was stabbed to death on a train for being a “beef eater” should haunt her for the rest of her life while she makes difficult choices over cabbages and brinjals.
8. Sympathy porn: In his own voice in the book, Kiran comes across as a prominent disability rights and trans rights activist from an Adivasi community. And that’s how we know him – as an indomitable and proud brother who has won the Karnataka State Award for his amazing work in disability rights activism. But the author places a victim narrative on him and blames his parents for their “failure” of not administering polio vaccines. This is an atrocious accusation that erases the structural exclusions in healthcare Adivasi communities face. Throughout the book, the author cries into the night about our trauma, with a pillow as the only audience for her Stanislavskian acting techniques.
9. Necrophilia: Her curiosity around our bodies and our “vestigial uterus” continues in a sick show of necrophilia even after our violent deaths on operating tables of inept medical care professionals.
10. Dehumanisation: There is an entire page [pg 22] when multiple trans people are named as kothi, chela 1 , chela 2 etc rather than by name. On the same page, the author refers to a trans person multiple times as “it”, claiming that it’s the translation of adhu from Tamil. But anyone familiar with non-Brahmanised Tamil would know that it is used regularly to refer to people. The author herself in the footnote cleverly says “she” would be the politically correct term but that unnamed trans women (a device used to blame and hide behind the very community she dehumanises) have told her about rituals that are required for a kothi to become a thirunangai and “earn the female pronoun”. She hence problematically justifies using “it” instead of she/they as pronouns for the trans person in question. The same person is mentioned again in the book [pg 182] as asking, when not allowed to carry the author’s luggage, “Is it because I am not yet a ladies? But think of me as a ladies.”
Why the author would misgender and dehumanise a person, who is clearly female identified, and place the decision on unnamed trans women who apparently instructed her to do so, is incomprehensible.
The author’s attitude to her participants in the book is apparent when she describes a person with an intersex variation as a “golden goose” who had been through many forms of discrimination. She uses the archaic term of “hermaphroditism” to describe his variation – something that intersex activists globally have condemned as a term of reference.
It is baffling why a book on trans men written by a cis author with no understanding of trans experiences got published by Penguin. Everyone involved in the publication of this book including the editor and copyeditor have clearly been sleeping through this, because the entire book has “transman” as a single word, has major sections in italics which makes no editorial sense, is poorly researched and executed, apart from being grossly violative of trans experiences and narratives.
My verdict? The book Invisible Men is as good as toilet paper and it would be apt if the readership is limited to the eight dogs and three cats the author has named in her list of dedications.
And lastly, I cannot help but do this.
I TOLD YOU SO.
Views expressed are the author's own.