The first time I read Kanak Shashi’s Guthli Has Wings, I cried. Not a solitary tear nor a gentle whimper, but a full-blown outpour.
The book is a beautifully simple tale of a girl who just needs for everyone else to see her as she sees herself.
Guthli is a young girl who lives with her parents and siblings. When festival season comes, Guthli looks forward to a beautiful dress as she’s excited to be a fairy like many young girls. After being told she is not permitted to wear a dress, Guthli is heartbroken and can’t understand why.
Guthli insists she’s a girl, but her mother calls her a boy. Guthli grows sadder and sadder by the day and her lively presence is replaced by gloom. Finally, her mother sees what’s happening and puts an end to it by allowing Guthli to flourish just as she should.
In our world, we are neither encouraging of trans people, nor in any way allowed to see them as anything but a class of oppressed people who steal children, curse you and are ‘men pretending to be women’.
This is usually the limited narrative that subverts gender normativity in India of transwomen of the hijra community.
But from the 2019 movie Super Deluxe and it’s excellent storytelling, to the Vicks ad with Gauri Sawant playing a mother, the hijra community is pioneering its way through a lot of hardships of structural oppression, violence and medical negligence.
But there is very little representation for trans men, non binary, gender fluid, gender queer, agender or even of those trans women who do not belong to the Hijra community.
Trans children are the most vulnerable in regard to mental health and sexual violence, with many not having access to formal education.
Guthli Has Wings is not only a way for parents to understand the simplicity of accepting their child, but also for kids to understand that there’s absolutely nothing wrong in their trans identity. World over, parents are trying to find ways and means to educate themselves and be more responsible for the supported and loved growth of their children.
Some more excellent books for trans children are When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff and They, She, He Easy as ABC by Maya and Matthew. What all these books have in common is familial support – something that can literally be a life-or-death difference in the lives of trans children as they are among the most at-risk demographic for death by suicide, but that likelihood reduces significantly with supportive family members.
Being accepting of a child the way they would like to be accepted doesn’t mean their life would be harder – society has already decided their life will be hard. It just means in the hard life they would inevitably lead, they will have parental love, strength and support. Most intersex children are still medically gendered at birth, except for recently in Tamil Nadu. Most trans adults are ostracised and even disowned.
It’s also essential for cisgendered kids to be introduced to trans children in a way that permits them to accept trans children, as they would any other child who conforms to the gender binary. Children have always had the ability to learn compassion and kindness early on, and the existence of this book gives us the hope that children can grow up with representation of trans children being their new normal.
Growing up in a gender binary society means you had limited choices: either you’re a girl, a boy, or a weirdo. As a non-binary person, I remember hating being called a ‘tom boy’ in school. I hated it because I hated being called anything but the effeminate princess I was told I should want to be – it was a label that came with an implicit understanding of inadequacy. I remember dressing myself in a make-shift dupatta saree for a play, and my dearest friends bursting into laughter because I looked like a “chakka” – derogatory slang for a trans woman from the hijra community.
I remember the strength and power I felt everyday at hockey practice where I was encouraged and appreciated for being slightly masculine, and slightly larger than rest of the team. I remember knowing clearly that I wasn’t going to be as elegant and as beautiful as my mother, the Indian embodiment of Princess Diana, or my sister.
The first time I cut my hair short, my extended family had a fit. My parents are supportive of my gender expression – they know, when I wanted to be femme, I would, when I don’t, there wasn’t a thing that could convince me.
My extended family did not understand, and to this day, react to me cutting my hair as if it’s the first time. They ask me why, when and how, as though they have forgotten I do this every few months. They ask me this as though I am obliged to look the way they want me to, and as though cutting my hair is an unthinkable act, and not an ordinary activity. Every time this happens, I’m obliged to explain for the millionth time that this is me.
My identity didn’t just mean odd hairstyles – it meant that I rejected the guilt and shame that society demands when you do not fit into its boxes. Why wasn’t there a box for both? Why was it that I could understand this so clearly and nobody else did? Why would my family still be the most complimentary of me on performative femme days?
Growing up outside the gender binary means that you know a fact that the world, society, your darling parents, and friends will tell you is not a fact. That fact happens to be yourself – something nobody else will have as much of an expert view on than you.
It’s a phase, it’s a style choice, it’s a mental illness, it’s your confusion. It’s something that is represented in this book when Guthli asks herself why everyone says she’s a boy when she’s a girl.
Unnecessary gendering is a societal issue, and not just a familial one, and it’s one I’ve been able to witness firsthand as a teacher. The constant pressure to adhere to gender norms can go from boys being told not to cry, to girls wearing skirts that they have no idea how to sit ‘appropriately in’. Gendering is an ongoing, lifelong process, and not even parents are spared – even fathers are giggled at for attending parent-teacher meetings.
At a young age, children are forced to not only conform to society’s definition of gender but are also rewarded for this horrible performance. There was, however, one time that wasn’t horrible. Sonu was a four-year-old ‘male at birth’ in my kindergarten class. Sonu insisted on taking another girl’s sparkly pink sandals – with a slight heel – each time he went to the bathroom. Sonu loved those shoes and would take any excuse to walk around in them, very often walking straight into (the shoe free) classroom to show them to me.
Each time, I’d say, “So beautiful!”
Sonu’s mother was not happy about this, but after many a tantrum and conversation she bought Sonu a pair of shoes. Not identical, because how could she allow for her son to walk around in tiny pink heels? Sonu walked in to class proudly with his new bright blue, sparkly shoes with flowers on them. As per usual, I said, “So beautiful.” At the same time, it’s of utmost importance to tell you, his peers thought they were beautiful too.
It’s just that simple.
The world is preparing itself for a glorious new age of gender recognition, acceptance and celebration. I was 23 when I realised my truth, but I’m still learning. I’m non-binary and although the trans community is a safe place for me to be myself, I still don’t see very much representation of my people.
But this book is a start of our society understanding that the trans community is more than our hijra sisters, it’s also children who do not identify with their gender at birth, it’s young men who have been born in female bodies, it’s people who identify as both genders, it’s little girls like Guthli who just want to be seen the true beautifully special little girls they are.
The hope is that this book and the bold and thoughtfully created Guthli will stand tall as a beacon of hope for the trans community. It means that some children will grow up having acceptance in their families and classrooms. It means that the next child might not have to struggle for decades before realising that the only thing abnormal about their story is society’s inability to accept it.
Nikita Barton is a TFI alumni who is passionate about empowerment through education and is currently studying to be a comprehensive sexuality educator.
Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty