Interview: Pooja Pande on her debut biographical title, Red Lipstick

 

Red Lipstick: The Men in My Life (Penguin Random House India, 2016) is a delicious tell-almost-all about transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, co-authored by Laxmi herself and Pooja Pande, Lead Reportage Editor at Papercuts. This interview, which started at the end of August 2016, happened to fall through the cracks midway and was revived almost a year later, which created an interesting opportunity for the author to look back at her debut published title in the context of the ongoing conversation on transgender rights in India.

 

At the Delhi launch of Red Lipstick: The Men in My Life (Penguin Random House, 2016)

At the Delhi launch of Red Lipstick: The Men in My Life (Penguin Random House, 2016). Pooja sitting on far right, in black.

 

Congratulations, Pooja! This is your first book. How does it feel?

Like The Lego Movie song – everything is awesome! Ok, not everything!

So on a serious note, yes, it feels great. To see such a tangible, beautiful “product” come out of all that activity and madness – the late-night writing, the 5 am revisions, the endless chatter in my head, the pendulum-swinging days that went from the hyperbolic (‘Oh, this will be path-breaking!’) to the paranoid (‘Oh, this will sink like yet another trite cliché!’), and all the other challenges and clutter that are inevitable part of anything creative one does – was deeply gratifying. To be able to see it, hold it, read it like anyone else, like any other book – now that’s something.

I did stare at my name on the title page for quite some time.

 

How did this collaboration come about? What were your initial sentiments when the idea came up?

The idea itself – of doing a book on the men in Laxmi’s life – was envisioned by Laxmi herself, as far as I know, along with her then-OUP editor Premanka Goswami (they brought out Me Hijra, Me Laxmi, Laxmi’s first book). Premanka, who’s since moved to Penguin Random House, commissioned me for Red Lipstick – we met Laxmi together, Laxmi and I connected, and it started off from there.

I’ve written about my first meeting with Laxmi in my note in the book, where some of the initial sentiments are discussed as well. But mostly, I think I was riveted by the idea itself – the opportunity to explore so many questions, especially those concerning gender, through a hugely interesting person was a killer one.

 

How exactly did this work? Tell us about the writing process and your role in it.

The writing process came almost at the end, I’d say! It went through several phases.

I like to absorb and observe especially since getting into Laxmi’s headspace was an essential for this book – I knew I would be writing as Laxmi. So there were several meetings with her, which involved hours of proper interviews of course, but also a lot of time just spent chatting with her about all and sundry stuff, shooting the breeze, and maintaining fly-on-the-wall status as she went about living her life. Then came the transcribing – technically, the most arduous task because I tend to assemble and order thoughts with the final end in mind as I go about transcribing, a task I chose to do myself because it’s a foolproof method for the immersion that was called for, something I learnt in my years spent at First City Magazine, writing cover stories.

Working on transcripts was another phase – though it often co-incided with more meetings and interviews and conversations with Laxmi – and this was also the time I was re-reading, maybe for the 5th time, her first book, just so the facts of her life became commonplace knowledge for me.

And then I was finally writing!

Red lipstick at home, red lipstick at work. Pooja and Laxmi while working on the book.

Red lipstick at home, red lipstick at work. Pooja and Laxmi while working on the book.

 

Wow, that sounds intense. Tell us more about the rapport and the synergy you built up with Laxmi during the time you spent with her. What made it easy to work together? What were the challenges?

 I mostly went about it in an ultra-professional manner, and so did Laxmi – we both knew we were in it for a specific reason. But, the tangibility of the “project” aside, we bonded too – inevitably, perhaps given the intimate nature of the subject of our book, but perhaps also cosmically? We’re both born in the same year (as are you, Aaf!), and I’d like to think that that has something to do with it!

Laxmi speaks about my non-judgemental stance as a huge plus – she really felt she could tell me anything, she maintains – and that really made me happy, because I like to think of myself as a non-judgemental person when it comes to peoples’ personal choices and preferences: Live and let live, we have enough other problems in the world that are so much bigger! So I think her complete trust in me and me being able to inspire that trust in her made the working-together a smooth process.

My challenges were creative, I’d say: How to make the narration work for the reader and for Laxmi; Finding the right voice – or voices, as it turned out!; ensuring it’s true to the larger “cause” of the book i.e. a belief in equal rights for all, irrespective of gender, sexuality etc.

 

In what ways did working on this project challenge you personally? Did you doubt yourself or question your approach at any point in the process?

You know, in all the conversations around and about gender I’ve been having – several of them with myself for a huge chunk of my life, and a lot of them with my husband and co-parent ever since we had a daughter together, and with some of my fab girlfriends – I never realized that I’m practicing (what I now know can be termed as) cis-gender sexism! It was not deliberate, of course, but by virtue of identifying as a straight woman – an orientation that is also the accepted social norm – I was only ever stuck in the binaries of male and female and what that meant, how unfair that was. Meeting and working with Laxmi shattered those binaries as well – and threw them aside, to look at it all over again, and with new sensibilities.

I don’t know about doubts and questions like that, but I was severely conscious of the sheer responsibility of my task: This is a real person and what/how I write will portray her to the world. Since Laxmi is an inspiring figure for so many, the seriousness of this knowledge was even more severe!

 

Bombay launch of Red Lipstick: The Men in My Life (Penguin Random House, 2016). Pooja on far left, in yellow.

Bombay launch of Red Lipstick: The Men in My Life (Penguin Random House, 2016). Pooja on far left, in yellow.

 

It’s going on a year since Red Lipstick was released. Looking back, what kind of perspective have you gathered in these many months on the impact of the book? Has it influenced the larger conversation? Did you receive any interesting reader responses?

I think it has, in some ways. At the book launch in Delhi, we fielded a few questions on the fluidity of gender that seemed to be coming from a seriously curious and aware perspective. Everyday, I see conversations going on around the big question of Identity linked with sexuality and the myriad expressions of it, especially among youth-oriented and youth-driven social media platforms, for instance. Bad example, but – If people thought it was cool to sleep around sometime back, now asexual is the new sexy, in some ways.
But, more seriously speaking, the only way attitudes and most importantly, legal rulings, are going to change for anything and anyone that/who doesn’t conform to the norm, is visibility. And that’s what I’m most glad about, proud even – that Red Lipstick, thanks to Laxmi being at its centre, has added to the visibility. It’s the first step towards acceptance. Hopefully, one day, it’ll reach that place best exemplified in that wise meme – You step out on the street and can’t figure someone’s gender? Follow these steps: 1. Don’t worry about it.

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