India's first transgender college principal

Manobi Bandyopadhyay Image copyright other
Image caption Manobi Bandyopadhyay has been appointed as the principal of a women's college

Her Facebook page is overflowing with messages complimenting her for her new job.

Congratulations, you have hit the headlines, writes a student, attaching a newspaper story headlined "Bengal college to have India's first transgender principal". "We salute your courage," writes a friend.

"Yes, it has taken some courage. It's been a struggle to be accepted as a transgender professional," says Manobi Bandyopadhyay, 51, shouting over the din of heavy traffic down a telephone line from Kolkata (Calcutta).

Born into a lower-middle class family - her father was a factory worker, while her mother is a homemaker - Ms Bandyopadhyay went to school on the outskirts of Kolkata before heading off to a prominent city college to study Bengali. She wrote a paper on women's rights and joined a college in a remote village in a Maoist-affected region in West Bengal to teach Bengali.

In 2003, she says, she decided to go in for hormone replacement and surgery to change her sex. At work, she completed a dissertation on the role of transgenders in West Bengal, where their population exceeds 30,000.

She says her troubles began when she changed her gender and her name in 2006. Authorities refused to recognise the change, and she was denied pay rises at college "because they could not come to terms with my altered gender".

"There were taunts at work about my sex change. At home, my parents and siblings were worried sick whether my body would be able to cope with the changes." Her life - and identity - went into limbo.

It took five years and a new government in West Bengal - led by a feisty woman politician herself - to "recognise my status and give me my identity", Ms Bandyopadhyay says. "I have always been popular with my students, but my colleagues and peers were not always so favourably disposed after I changed my gender."

Image copyright otyher
Image caption Manobi Bandyopadhyay (right) says she has endured broken relationships

Most of India's estimated two million transgendered people face discrimination, live on the fringes and often languish in poverty. Many are forced into sex work and suffer ostracisation because of their gender.

Things have been getting better though.

In 2009, India's election authorities allowed transgenders to choose their gender as "other" on ballot forms. Last year, the Supreme Court declared the transgender community as a third gender and ordered the government to provide transgender people with quotas in jobs and education in line with other minorities, as well as key amenities.

India now has a transgender anchor on a TV news show and a popular talk show host. Earlier this year, a transgender woman became the country's first to win municipal elections and be declared a mayor. At least two states - Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra - have government-mandated transgender welfare organisations for their social inclusion.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Things have been looking up for India's transgender people

Authorities in West Bengal have also had a welcome change of heart.

A government minister has welcomed Ms Bandyopadhyay's appointment. The vice-chancellor of the university to which the college is affiliated has described her as a "fine human being, a good academician and an able administrator". A newspaper wrote about her visit to the college on Tuesday "sporting Raybans glasses, curly hair done up in a careless coiffure".

It's been a long, strange trip for Ms Bandyopadhyay: a life-altering sex change in the middle of a teaching career, broken relationships, adopting a favourite student as her son, writing an exhaustive account of her life, a fun gig on a Bengali version of the popular reality show Big Brother. She loves going to the movies, and lists Michael Jackson as one of her likes on Facebook. Now she wants to run a women's college, and look after her 92-year-old father, who lives close to her new workplace.

"This is a new chapter in her life," Debashish Gupta, her adopted son, tells me. "We are happy and we are tense. People can be very cruel, and want to trip her. Life as a transgender can be an eternal challenge."

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