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In a man’s role

  • Published at 12:00 am January 2nd, 2019

There are many different ways of being masculine

It was an evening in late October. I was browsing through books at Shahbagh’s Pathak Shamabesh, a prominent bookstore in Dhaka -- when this conversation caught my ear. 

A man in his late 60s was talking about the book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. No, he was actually talking about the book’s author -- Yuval Noah Harari. 

The man was telling his two friends that the Israeli writer Harari has dedicated the book to his husband. The writer is a male. So how come his better half, who is also a male, is Harari’s husband? 

The man went on, saying that last week he came across this puzzle. Then, he had left it with one of his junior friends to do some research on the writer. Harari must have had a gender reassignment was his junior friend’s finding. So after surgery, the international best-selling writer Harari has now become a female.

Oddly enough, I was glancing over the same book at the moment. I flipped back through pages to check the dedication section of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. It said: “To my husband Itzik, to my mother Pnina, and to my grandmother Fanny, for their love and support throughout many years.”

The elderly man’s intriguing chatting with his friends at Pathak Shamabesh reminded me of Rituparno Ghosh’s 2012 film Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish. In the film, Rituparna plays Rudra Chatterjee, the protagonist of the story who develops a relationship with another man and eventually decides to go through a sex change surgery to become a woman.

Chitrangada, in the epic Mahabharata, is a princess of Manipura. Soon after Arjuna sees her, he falls in love with her. In his dance drama Chitrangada, Rabindranath Tagore gave a fascinating twist to this ancient tale. 

In his melodramatic version of the story, Chitrangada is raised as a boy since her father has no sons. But the moment she meets Arjuna, she has a crush on him. Her true womanhood comes out. 

Though the film, Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish, didn’t characteristically mirror the narrative of the life of Rituparna Ghosh, who died in 2013, his lifestyle was never a hush-hush affair in Indian media. Rituparna was pretty open about his sexual identity.

At Pathak Samabesh, when the conversation on Yuval Noah Harari was happening, Dhaka Lit Fest was merely two weeks away. I knew the British writer Philip Hensher was coming to attend the 2018 festival. 

I had read his novel Scenes from Early Life which is set in East Pakistan, and written in the voice of Hensher’s partner Zaved Mahmood. The book won the Ondaatje Prize in 2013. The Guardian ran a delightful article on the news, with a compelling title: “Philip Hensher wins Ondaatje prize with the novel on husband’s childhood.” 

Later, I was in the audience in one of Hensher’s sessions at the Dhaka Lit Fest. During his conversation with Khademul Islam, Hensher mentioned that his husband is Bangladeshi.

The moment he said that, I noticed some faces in the audience concealed silent chuckles. I am not sure whether Philip Hensher afterwards had come across the jaded yet embarrassing question: “How can he be your husband?” 

Unsurprisingly, it’s not only in Bangladesh, but even many citizens in the Western countries find themselves asking the same question.

Eric T Shoen-Ukre and his partner David live in New York. Eric is white, David is black. The couple married in 2016. Last year, they were invited to the School of Public Health for the State University of New York at Downstate (SUNY Downstate) to speak to a class on sex, ethnicity, race, and gender. 

Later, in an article, Eric T Shoen-Ukre wrote: “David and I both identify as men. We are both attracted to other men. We are both husbands in our relationship. Every relationship is different. In some relationships, one person of the couple identifies as the wife and the other as the husband.

Other relationships have partners who identify as dominant and submissive, masculine and feminine, or male and female … we want to be seen as two people who love each other and are in a committed relationship.”

In that article, Eric also explained a grave issue: “David and I consider ourselves masculine, but we sometimes can be feminine too. We both cook, we both clean, we both care for each other, do the laundry, iron.”

And that’s that. That answers everything, doesn’t it? 

Rahad Abir is a writer. He is finishing his debut novel.