An Interview with Bhumika Shrestha
Meet Bhumika Shrestha, Nepal’s all-time favorite poster child and LGBT rights activist who hopes to come back as a transgender woman in her next life too. Going by her feisty temperament, it appears she wouldn’t have it any other way.
‘Born For SEX — with no other capacity!!’
‘This is what society thinks of us teazzies’, exclaims the gorgeous Bhumika in mock fury as we sail through Kathmandu’s cafes, beauty salons and surreal cityscapes. Under her influence, I too slip into the rhythm of referring to transgenders as TGs (pronounced ‘teazzies’ by her).
— It’s early August in Nepal’s historic Basantapur Darbar Square, and dark clouds race across the monsoon skies. A legion of taxi drivers instantly recognize this demi-celebrity of sorts and begin to holler for her attention, ‘Bhumika! Oh yes, it’s you!’
Their tone is neither derisive nor humiliating but the woman herself is nonchalant. She has grown oblivious to stares from both men and women who are taken aback at the spunky woman before their eyes who breaks out into a male voice without a care. Clearly, they are not used to seeing TG women in this avatar. After all, in this part of the subcontinent, the word ‘transgender’ conjures up images of a hijra or eunuch begging at traffic signals, and surely not of a woman who looks like she stepped out of a Vogue cover.
So yes, the 27-year-old Bhumika Shrestha is a revelation of sorts. She states dispassionately, ‘Ask me anything you want, Nicola. I’m ready. I’ve given so many interviews to Nepali and foreign journalists that I can now predict the next question.’
With an afterthought however, she adds, ‘You are a woman so I am at ease with you. I often go through interviews where male journalists ask for embarrassing details on how transgender women have sex with their boyfriends. I am shy and I don’t like it as I know these questions are targeted specifically at me. When I counter-question by asking if it’s important to the story, they laugh it off citing a general curiosity but I know it’s not. This has landed me in trouble before as I’ve been misquoted.’
She tells me that while male entitlement imposes itself most naturally upon biologically-born women, it does not spare transgender women either. We spend the afternoon in a beauty salon where she gets her highlights done, and hands me her mobile phone so I can look through her videos. Through the mirror we continue our conversation on love, life, God and most importantly, on being Bhumika Shrestha.
When Kailash gave way to Bhumika
Bhumika recollects a distinct childhood memory when her now deceased father took her to the village toy shop. But wait — it wasn’t Bhumika as we know her but a headstrong five-year-old boy called Kailash Shrestha who marched in and threw a tantrum much to his father’s chagrin. Little Kailash insisted, ‘I want a doll, not a ball! Doll, doll…’
And this set the ball rolling…
It was a matter of time before Kailash shook off his male identity and became Bhumika. A star was born — one that fell from grace after an expulsion from school in grade 9 for turning up in girl’s clothes. The authorities could not afford this abomination in the midst of the other impressionable teenage boys. The years that followed were harrowing for both Bhumika and her mother as villagers lined the streets and called out to each other to ‘come watch the hijra passing by’. It was more than just ridicule — there was a hint of fascination too.
Today those same people rush to clasp her hands — after all they are in the midst of an elected representative of the Nepali Congress Party! She adds with a cheeky grin, ‘I also acted in a Nepali feature film Highway but it was a flop, you know!’
On gender and sexuality
Taking a deep breath, she explains, ‘Gender orientation and sexuality are two different things. I was assigned male at birth but was never attracted to women. But this did not make me a gay man. I felt like a woman trapped in this male body. Today as a transgender woman, I am attracted to straight men but not to Tomboys or gay men. It’s difficult for people to understand this. Sometimes I am aghast when they ask me questions like, ‘What do you eat? How do you dream? Do you dream?’ I tell them I am a transgender, not an alien. I am just as human as they are.’
On being TG in Nepal
‘Well, most of us are school dropouts so this immediately disqualifies us from the job market too. In fact, in Nepal there are no jobs for the first and second gender. What chance does the third gender stand? A few TGs wait until they complete their education before coming out — this is a wise decision that prevents premature rustication at school. Other than this, our community faces serious issues when asked to show our ID cards because our gender presentation does not match our male photo identity. We need to get new citizenship cards quickly or the humiliation won’t stop. This aside, I am grateful to be living in Kathmandu where I can walk through the streets safely at most times. I’m not sure I would be able to cross the land borders to India alone and travel through the Uttar Pradesh hinterland as I am. So I will never take my country for granted’.
Sex reassignment surgery?
‘I’ve already got silicon breast implants done. It’s kind of strange actually — now that I have them, I ask myself if it was really necessary. It’s not that I regret it but it’s confusing, you know. Also, if I had the money, I’d do the sex reassignment surgery but sometimes I’m skeptical. I watch videos on Youtube of the live operations, and I freak out. Ugh! Recently one of my TG friends who had the surgery in Thailand showed me her newly-constructed vagina. It was horrific and didn’t look normal somehow. I’m not convinced that life is a bed of roses after the surgery. I find it strange and unfortunate that most transwomen who have the surgery don’t reveal the complete truth to others who are too afraid to take the plunge into this irreversible decision. Instead, they insist that sex is now so wonderful, and there are no complications whatsoever. I have my reservations on this.’
‘Yes I am. I am! And I don’t deny it. I am aware that a lot of people think I’m high-handed but this has always been part of who I am. Also, I’ve come so far and done so much. I am a public persona now and have to maintain a certain level of distance. Perhaps this is perceived as arrogance. I do lose my temper very quickly but I don’t mean what I say.’
What is Love?
Love is friends. Love is work. Love is office. Love is family. Love is progress. I love you. I love her (pointing to her friend Pushpa). There is no life without love. I do not restrict my idea of love only to a man.’
Is Love Forever?
I can’t speak for others but I don’t think I could do it. I have been controlled in love and it’s not enjoyable. In a relationship, I can’t dress sexily and I must not look too good! Two of my mobile phones have been broken by my exes because of suspicion and insecurity. It’s a constant struggle that is too energy-consuming. My mother has never controlled me so how can I live with a man controlling me now? Why should I compromise who I am when the man doesn’t compromise a thing. We are in the 21st century. I work as a human rights activist. In our line of work, we encounter dominance and violence everyday. It would be sheer hypocrisy if I counselled other women while going through the exact same abuse. Also when a relationship is over, it’s over for good. I may talk to my exes but I can never feel the same away again.’
‘No, I won’t marry because I can’t imagine myself moving into an in-laws house and washing vessels. Marrying a rich man who has his own home and household help is not written in my destiny. Till now, I have always financially supported my boyfriends. Men stay in the relationship for a while but eventually leave to marry a normal woman who will bear them children. It’s physically impossible for me to carry a child even if I have a surgery, and these men know it. There are times when my exes have refused to take my phone calls saying that are with family or in family events. It is these instances that appear harmless but which have made me realize that I’m destined to stay a hidden secret who will finally be left alone to pick up the pieces when they have left.’
Faith, Hope or Love?
‘Without a doubt its Faith. It’s only when you have faith in someone, you have the capacity to love them. Men come and go. They never stay. They are not what they seem and you can’t trust appearances. In love, you need to believe that someone will be there for you always. But if you live in the constant fear that they will leave you when the novelty has worn off, it creates a block and you are unable to love fully and without reserve.’
Coming back as TG
‘Yes, I want to return as a transgender woman in my next life too but this time into a richer family as there are so many dreams I haven’t been able to pursue because of my economic status. Also, it’s only because I’m transgender that I have introspected so much. We TGs face the mirror each day literally and figuratively; we are forced to. We know ourselves better than most normal men and women do. I look back at the guys I went to school with. Most of them today are unemployed goondas (wasted violent guys), losers or petty thieves. They haven’t done much with their lives despite being blessed with a body they identified with. They took this privilege for granted while I grew up with nothing but taunts and cruelty from a world that hated what they perceived as different. But I’ve come this far today only because I’m a transgender. Or I would have probably ended up like them too. Who’s to say? So how could I possibly reject this identity that has defined who I am today?’
‘I used to curse God when I was younger and ask why He made me this way. So different, so wrong. I thought these feelings would change as I got older but they didn’t. They just got worse. But today I have made peace with my identity. I believe in God but I don’t know if he loves me.
…. I’m not sure he loves me.’
With this, Bhumika trails off.
And I am humbled.
Nicola Desouza – Published previously in December’s issue of Transliving Magazine