Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Geisha of Purple Lounge

It’s evening in Paro town. In the backdrop is Ringpung Dzong, shining like a beacon upon the hill. The symmetric fortress overlooks the town below, majestically illuminated by the floodlights around it. The museum above it is similarly lit up; there is an unmistakable sense of grandeur about it all, which is both inviting and enticing.

Downtown, under the gaze of the magnificent monuments and next to the gas station, is a bar-café called the “purple lounge.” Another form of revelation in splendid colours is about to display herself here. Her name is Dechen Seldon, she is about 5:6” tall in stilettos. Dressed in a black skirt with long slits, a soft t-shirt over a visible blouse and a light scarf adorning it all, the lounge is where she spends most of her time. She helps out in the kitchen and keeps the regulars entertained, with her easy charm, uninhibited innocence and graceful dances. She is, in all her artistic displays, a Bhutanese geisha.

The irony is that she is not really a girl, not in the biological sense. The memoirs of this young geisha were not all roses and petals. It seems like a fairy tale, but it is anything but a fairy tale. There was a time when she went by a masculine name, Dechen Phurba. The second youngest of four siblings, he is fifteen years old. His tender years have seen him spar with his military father, a conservative mother (who he now says is supportive) and a society that defines specific roles for a man and a woman. He was neither, for he was born a boy who felt more at home hanging out with the girls.
“I feel like this is who I am supposed to be,” he says in a soft tone that has obviously become a theme in his life.
He says he felt like a girl as far back as he could remember. That he never dealt with boys, preferring naturally the feminine side of things; dolls, make-ups, dressing up and the like. This was in stark contrast to the conventional world at large. His father gave him lectures on how to “behave like a boy,” his mother chided him for his love of things “girlish.”
Going to school was not all that pleasant. The boys teased him, the girls could not get around to accepting his feminine personality and the gho made him feel uncomfortable. 

The teachers lectured and advised him to become a boy.

The external pressure of accepted conventional behavior collided with his own sense of who he really should be. Hence, not too long ago, Dechen Phurba decided the time was right for him to come out of the closet and declare his true physical identity. He changed his name to Dechen Seldon and started dressing as any young girl her age does. Now he’s transformed into a charming fifteen year old teenage girl, with a passion for dance. She says she can dance the Baeda, sungdra, rigsel, dzongha, Hindi, Nepali and Tibetan.The music blares and she suddenly transforms into a graceful dancer, her gestures paint the beats of the music in the air, with her body in perfect sync. She takes everyone’s attention away. An admiring patron says “she could easily become a choreographer.”
She says dancing comes naturally to her. There’s no doubt about it. She can more then shake a leg.
She can spin a wool too, mainly the thitha. She weaves keras and presents them as gifts to family members and friends.Though the going has been tough and traumas have been aplenty, she talks optimistically about her troubled childhood, her present sense of relief and freedom and in hopeful tunes of the future.

In time, her parents and siblings have come to accept her as she is. She still lives with them. Her dreams, she says righteously, are to send her parents off to a trip to Bodhgaya and then get herself “upgraded.” She says the finances of undergoing such an operation is an obstacle but she is hopeful that she can start a business of her own, a bar, she says, and perhaps save enough money to finally become what she was born to be;
A woman in all her effeminate biological glory.
But before she can undertake the bodily transformation, she would like to have some stones in her heels thrown out. One of which is the gender tag. 

She says the “boy’s room” never made her feel comfortable. She lingers in the past for a moment and talks about her memories of the commode she would rather not talk about. The rest room seemed like a symbolical and a literal image of her dilemma. She neither fit in the “girl’s room“nor the boys’.
When she comes of age at eighteen, she says she would like to have her gender documented as a “female.” There is an air of hope and optimism when she delves into the future. Asked about marriage, she says she is not contemplating it, that she would rather look after her siblings and her parents.
Asked what made her come out of the closet, she says it was the “right thing to do.” And that she could not go on wearing a boy’s gho and pretending to be one when all her instincts told her otherwise. Then comes the bombshell, she says she left school about “two weeks back!” and the reason she decided not to show up at school anymore was because she had to wear the gho, which had assumed a dual symbol of entrapment and freedom.

She finally chose to set herself free from the entrapment of the gho and its shackling bearings. She says she just could not do it. Asked if wearing a kira would persuade her to go back to school, she says, “absolutely, if they let me wear a kira, I'll go back to school and complete my studies.”She hopes that her decision to be true to herself would also encourage other closet-transvestites to come out and proudly demonstrate their inner yearnings as who they are, not as how society would like them to be.

It’s now late in the night and there’s talk about another entertainment complex, called the Gaadhen. Some of the “purple lounge” patrons make a move for the other joint. The place is bigger and swankier. It is filled with people, a good mixture of locals and tourists are enjoying a medley of songs belted out by the in-house band. The place is abuzz with sensual excitement. Everyone’s staring at the little stage where the performers are, and then comes an announcement. The name Dechen Seldon is announced by the house M.C.
She comes onto the stage, fearless and confident. Once the music begins, she takes the audience away with her solo-virtuosity. This girl can dance or this boy can out do the girls is the murmur among the viewers.

The audience is all applause and she’s back mixing among the crowd. It is not a bewildered crowd, It seems like everyone knows her and have come to accept her as who she truly is. A little girl trapped in a little boy. As the night wears on, you begin to forget the little boy and realize this is indeed a girl in every sense of the word.
The only thing you hope comes true for her is that “upgrade.” It seems cruel not to have it done, and it seems natural that that should be done.Then the fairly tale could end as all fairy tales do. Where the frog becomes a handsome prince, Cinderella finds the other sandal and Dechen Seldon is finally combined, in body and in spirit.

Back in school wearing a smile and a kira

Observer’s Jurmi Chhowing follows up on the Geisha of Purple Lounge and finds a transformed young student who wants to continue her education

It’s been about two weeks since Dechen Seldon, “The Geisha of Purple Lounge,” was reinstated back in school. She now attends Shari HSS, in a kira. I'm back in Paro looking for her. I hear good things about her, that she stopped being the “geisha” and doesn't lounge around anymore. 

I go to her school at Shari. It’s a day- school. The premises are deserted; it’s a holiday. Some day-scholars staying in rented houses around the school say she’s gone home to Shaba. There’s a nice little cottage overlooking several other beautiful cottages that make up Shari HSS. It’s the principal’s house. He’s younger than I expected; polite and approachable. 

He says it’s too early to comment on Dechen’s adjustment, progress and overall circumstance in her new environs. He does stress the point that she’s been well received and welcomed by the school community. He’s personally happy Dechen’s chosen to continue her studies. He said, “As a teacher, I was really thinking of helping her.” He’s glad the opportunity presented itself. He’s even happier talking about how she has brought about a sense of “joy,” since she joined the school. The principal’s a man of principles; his thoughts about how such unconventional misfits could be transformed into good students and decent human beings, with the right counseling, are reassuring and inspiring. He talks about Dechen in the warmest of tones, admires how she managed to get herself acquainted with the students in such a short span of time; though the fact that he prepared the school for Dechen’s arrival did help. 

It’s been three weeks since she joined school. Dechen stays in a house next to the school. She shares the house with three other students. They pay a rent of Nu 200 a month. The principal says he arranged the accommodation so that she could resist the temptations of her brief stint as an entertainer in town. There’s a lot the principal would like to improve; not only academically but through other creative and holistic means. Unconventional students might present obstacles but as he says, “the obstacles are a challenge,” in changing the mindsets of students, teachers and parents, toward how education should be viewed; an institution that not only teaches and preaches but one that builds knowledgeable and compassionate beings. He gives me directions to Dechen’s house. I’ve a spring in my steps as I head towards the house. The principal is just the kind of people we need in schools, I’m thinking. Dechen is not home. She’s gone to her parents’ army quarters in Shaba. Her flat mates are a bunch of giggly students. They are happy Dechen’s in school. One of the flat mates was a childhood friend from Wangduephodrang. He’s particularly glad she’s decided to continue her studies. 

He says she was always a girl since they were little kids. The others like her company. I ask them if I can take a look at Dechen’s room. They open the doors to her dwelling. It’s a little room. There are the bare essentials; a thin mattress on the floor, an old black suitcase, a little rice and curry cooker and a hole in the wall she’s converted into a Choesum. There are also lesson charts and other text books. On my way to Shaba, the sentry at the gates gives me directions. Everyone knows her. Some folks are a bit dismissive about the boy/girl. I carry on. The encampment is a typical army housing. There’s a boy lying in a bed outside a door. He’s got a stomach problem. He says Dechen’s his sister. I knock on the door. A woman opens it timidly. She’s Dechen mother. And there’s Dechen. It’s good to see her. The feeling is mutual. I tell her about the meeting I had with her principal, and how lucky she is to have someone like that. It suddenly strikes me that she’s still a young girl. She looks more natural without the wig and the make-up. The family is preparing for a Rimdo tomorrow. The mother is worried about everything. Her husband had been sick. Her younger son has a perpetual stomach ache. The eldest daughter has two children from a former husband. They all live in the little quarter. She says though it’s a hard life, she has reasonable expectations from Dechen. She’s very thankful to the school for taking her in and giving her good guidance. 

It’s a small flat. Dechen ushers me in to another room. She seems happier and more at peace with herself. The entertainer is replaced by a young girl who wants to excel in whatever she does. She says she loves the school and everything about it. Its tough trying to catch up on the three and half a months’ syllabus she missed out on. She does a lot of homework. The principal also mentioned the need for extra-tutoring for her to catch up on the subjects. Dechen doesn't seem deterred. She says she can do it, and move onto college and graduate. We wager on that. I tell her the temptations might sway her back to her neon life. She says she’s determined to finish her education. I leave her hoping I lose the bet.

Ps: HereIsYourLustForLifeStartRightNow!