The year was 1997.
West Bengal and Manipur were up against each other in the final match of the Senior Women’s National Football Championship. Bengal had lost to Manipur in the last three finals of this annual inter-state tournament, but they were standing tall in their yellow and maroon jerseys now. Footballer Bandana Paul was on home turf at Durgachak Stadium in Haldia city of West Bengal.
The whistle blew and the match began.
Earlier, the 16-year-old striker had scored a hat-trick in the quarter-final match of the championship. West Bengal won against Goa in that match, but it left Paul with a left ankle injury: “I had still played in the semi-finals [against Punjab] but I was in pain. When we reached the finals that day, I could not even stand.”
Paul, West Bengal’s youngest player, watched the championship finals from the bench. There were a few minutes left in the match and neither team had scored. The West Bengal coach, Shanti Mallick, was not happy. And adding to her stress, the state’s chief minister and sports minister were among the spectators crowding the 12,000-seat stadium. Mallick asked Paul to get ready. “‘Look at my condition’, I told her. But the coach said, ‘If you get up, a goal will happen. My heart is telling me’,” says Paul.
So after two quick injections to reduce the pain, and a crepe bandage tied tight around the injury, Paul kitted up and waited. The match was drawn and extra time was called for the golden goal – whichever team scored first would win the championship.
“I aimed at the crossbar, and the ball swung towards the right. The keeper jumped. But the ball flew past her and bounced into the net.”
This is where Paul pauses, with the ease of a seasoned storyteller. “I had shot with my injured leg,” the footballer says, smiling. “However tall a keeper is, crossbar shots are difficult to save. I scored the golden goal.”
A quarter century has passed since that match, but the 41-year-old Paul still retells it with pride. A year later, Paul had made the national team, who would soon be on their way to play at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok.
Up to this point, it was a dream run for this footballer from Ichhapur village in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district: “My grandmother was listening to the commentary [of the finals] on the radio. No one in my family had reached this level of football before. They were all proud of me.”
When Paul was young, the family of seven lived in their home in Ichhapur, in Gaighata block, where they owned two acres of land on which they grew rice, mustard, green peas, lentils and wheat for their daily sustenance. Parts of this land have been sold and divided between the family now.
“My father worked as a tailor and my mother assisted him with sewing and embroidery. She also made pagdis [turbans], rakhis and other things,” says Paul, the youngest of five siblings. “We had been working on the land since we were small.” The children’s duties included taking care of roughly 70 chickens and 15 goats – for whom grass had to be cut before and after school.
Paul completed Class 10 at Ichhapur High School. “There was no girls’ football team, so I played with the boys after school,” says the former footballer, stepping out of the room to bring back a pomelo (Citrus maxima). “We call this a batabi or jambura . We didn’t have money to buy a football, so we would break this fruit from the tree and play with it,” Paul says, “That’s how I started.”
On one such day, Sidnath Das, fondly known as Buchu da (elder brother) in Ichhapur, watched the 12-year-old playing football. Buchu da informed Paul about football trials taking place in nearby Barasat town, who followed up and made it to the Barasat Jubak Sangha club team. After an impressive debut season with them, Paul was signed up by Itika Memorial, a club in Kolkata. Then there was no looking back.
Paul was selected for the national team to play in the 1998 Asian Games, and the footballer’s passport and visa applications were rushed through. “We were at the airport, ready to leave,” the former player recalls. “But then they sent me back.”
Players from Manipur, Punjab, Kerala, and Odisha had noticed Paul’s performance while they were training together for the Asian Games. They were suspicious of Paul’s gender and had brought it up with their coaches. The matter soon reached All India Football Federation (AIFF), the sport’s governing body.
“I was told to do a chromosome test. At the time, I could do this only in Bombay or Bangalore,” says Paul. Dr. Laila Das from the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Kolkata, sent Paul’s blood sample to Mumbai. “A month and a half later, the report cited the karyotype test that showed ‘46 XY’. For women it should be ‘46 XX’. The doctor told me I cannot play [formally],” says Paul.
The rising football star was just 17 years old, but a future in the game was now in doubt.
“I had a uterus, one ovary and there was a penis inside. I had both ‘sides’ [reproductive parts],” says the former footballer. Overnight, the athlete’s identity was questioned by the football community, the media and Paul’s family.
“At the time, no one knew or understood. It is only now that people are speaking up and LGBTQ issues are being highlighted,” says the former footballer.
Paul is an intersex person – the ‘I’ in the LGBTQIA+ community – and goes by the name Boni Paul now. “My type of body exists not just in India but across the world. Athletes, tennis players, footballers, there are many players like me,” says Boni, who identifies as a man. He speaks about his gender identity, gender expression, sexuality and sexual orientation to diverse audiences, including members of the medical community.
Intersex persons , or persons with intersex variations, have innate sex characteristics that do not fit medical and social norms for female or male bodies. The variations could be in external or internal reproductive parts, chromosome patterns or hormonal patterns. They could be apparent at birth or later in life. Medical practitioners use the term DSD – Differences/Disorders of Sex Development – for persons with intersex variations.
“DSD is often wrongly termed as ‘Disorders of Sex Development’ by many in the medical community,” Dr. Satendra Singh, a professor of Physiology at University College of Medical Sciences, Delhi. Because of ignorance and confusion regarding intersex people’s health, he says, there is no certainty about the number of people who are intersex.
A 2014 report on issues relating to transgender persons, published by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, notes that at least one in every 2,000 children is born with sexual anatomy “that mixes male and female characteristics in ways that make it difficult, even for an expert, to label them male or female”.
Despite this fact, “standard textbooks [in India’s medical curriculum] still mention pejorative terms like ‘hermaphrodite’, ‘ambiguous genitalia’, and ‘disorders’,” adds Dr. Singh who is also a human rights activist and disability rights defender.
After being removed from the women’s team, Boni underwent physical examinations sanctioned by Kolkata’s Sports Authority of India (SAI) and was not allowed to compete in any women’s football team. “When football went away, I felt as though my life ended. An injustice was done to me,” says Boni.
He says a Supreme Court judgment in 2014 gave him hope. It said, “Recognition of one’s gender identity lies at the heart of the fundamental right to dignity. Gender constitutes the core of one’s sense of being as well as an integral part of a person’s identity. Legal recognition of gender identity is, therefore, part of right to dignity and freedom guaranteed under our Constitution.” The judgment was given in response to petitions filed by National Legal Services Authority and Poojaya Mata Nasib Kaur Ji Women Welfare Society for legal recognitition of persons who identify as ‘transgender.’ The landmark ruling discussed gender identity at length and was the first to legally recognise non-binary gender identities and uphold the fundamental rights of transgender persons in India.
The judgement validated Boni’s situation. “I felt like I belonged in the women’s team,” he says. “But when I asked AIFF why I couldn’t play, they said it’s because of your body and the chromosomes.”
Despite multiple messages sent to SAI Netaji Subhas Eastern Centre, Kolkata, and the All India Football Federation, seeking information on the process of sex and gender testing policies for players with intersex variations, this reporter did not hear back from them.
Determined to make a difference, in April 2019, Boni became a founding member of Intersex Human Rights India (IHRI) – a pan-India network of intersex persons and their supporters. The network promotes the rights of intersex persons, offers peer counselling, and highlights their challenges and needs through advocacy.
Boni is the only person with intersex variations in this network who actively works with children. “Boni’s timely interventions through government healthcare and childcare institutions in West Bengal have helped many young people with Differences in Sex Development in understanding and accepting their bodies and sexual or gender identity, and their caregivers to provide the necessary and possible support,” says Pushpa Achanta, a supporter-member of IHRI.
“There is an increase in awareness among young athletes about their bodily autonomy. For Boni, this just wasn’t there at the time,” says Dr. Payoshni Mitra, an athlete rights activist. As CEO at the Global Observatory for Women, Sport, Physical Education and Physical Activity in Lausanne, Switzerland, Dr. Mitra has worked closely with women athletes across Asia and Africa to enable them to address human rights violations in sports.
“When I came back [from the airport], local newspapers tortured me,” remembers Boni. “‘In the women’s team, there is a man playing’ – these were the sorts of headlines.” He recounts his return to Ichhapur in painful detail: “My parents, brother and sisters were scared. My two sisters and their in-laws felt insulted. I came back home in the morning, but had to run away by the evening.”
Boni fled with about 2,000 rupees in his pocket. He remembers wearing jeans and sporting short hair the day he left home. He wanted to find a place where no one knew him.
“I knew how to make murtis[idols] so I ran away to Krishnanagar to do this work,” says Boni, who belongs to the Pal community. “ Hum murtikari hai [We make idols].” His experience of helping out at his uncle’s idol-making unit in Ichhapur village while growing up, had given him the skills he needed to get the job in Krishnanagar town, famous for its clay idols and dolls. As a test of his skills, he was asked to make an idol with dried stalks of rice and jute ropes. Boni got the job, which paid Rs. 200 a day, and began a life in hiding.
Back in Ichhapur, Boni’s parents, Adhir and Niva, were living with their eldest daughter, Sankari, and son Bhola. It had been three years since Boni had been living by himself, and remembers it was a cold winter morning when he decided to visit home: “They [locals] attacked me in the evening. I was fast and managed to run away. But my mother was crying when she saw me go.”
This was not the first time, or last, he had had to physically defend himself. But he made a promise to himself that day. “I was going to show everyone that I could stand on my own feet. I decided whatever problems there are in my body, I would fix them,” he says. Boni decided to seek surgical intervention.
He searched for doctors who could operate on his reproductive parts, and finally found one in Salt Lake, near Kolkata, which was four hours away by train. “Each Saturday, Dr. B.N. Chakraborty would sit with around 10 to 15 doctors. They all checked me,” Boni says. He did multiple rounds of tests over several months. “My doctor had done three similar operations on people from Bangladesh and they had been a success,” says Boni. But he adds that all bodies are different, and he had to have many conversations with his doctor before going ahead with this process.
The surgeries would cost him nearly Rs. 2 lakhs, but Boni was determined. In 2003, he started hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and spent about 100 rupees a month to buy 250 mg of Testoviron, a testosterone-inducing injection. To pay for the medicines, doctor’s visits and save up for the surgery, Boni turned to daily wage labour like painting jobs in and around Kolkata. This was in addition to his idol-making work in Krishnanagar.
“A person I knew was making idols at a factory in Surat, so I accompanied him there,” says Boni. He worked six days a week and earned Rs. 1,000 a day making idols for festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi and Janmashtami and others.
He would return to Krishnanagar every year for Durga Puja and Jagadhatri Puja, usually celebrated in October-November. Things continued this way until 2006, when Boni began to take orders for idols on a contract basis in Krishnanagar. “In Surat, I had learned how to make murtis that were 150-200 feet tall, and these were in demand here,” he says, adding, “I would hire a worker, and we managed to earn a lot in the busy festival season between August and November.”
Around this time, Boni fell in love with Swati Sarkar, an idol maker from Krishnanagar. Swati had dropped out of school, and made a living decorating idols with her mother and four sisters. It was a stressful time for Boni, who recalls, “I would have had to tell her about myself. But I had the doctor’s word [about the success of my surgeries], so I decided to tell her.”
Swati and her mother Durga were supportive, and Swati even signed the consent form for Boni’s surgery in 2006. Three years later, on July 29, 2009, Boni and Swati were married.
Swati remembers her mother telling Boni that night, “My daughter has understood the problem in your body. She has decided to still marry you, so what can I say? Tumi shaat diba, tumi thaakba [You will be by her side, you will stay].”
Boni and Swati’s life together began with being displaced. People in Krishnanagar started saying nasty things, so the couple decided to move 500 kilometres north to Matigara in Darjeeling district, where no one would recognise them. Boni sought work at the nearest idol-making workshop. “They saw my work and offered me daily wages of 600 rupees. I agreed,” he says. “The people of Matigara gave me a lot of love,” he adds, recalling how the men around him accepted him as one of them, and they would hang out together at tea shops in the evenings.
But the couple could not return to Ichhapur as Boni’s family were not ready to accept them. When Boni’s father passed away, he was not allowed to attend the funeral. “Not just sports people, there are many other people like me who don’t leave their houses because of the fear of society,” he points out.
The couple felt their struggles were recognised when a documentary made on Boni’s life, I am Bonnie won the Best Film award at Kolkata International Film Festival in 2016. Shortly thereafter, Boni was offered a job as a football coach at Kishalaya Children’s Home, a child care institution for boys in Barasat town run by West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights (WBCPCR). “We felt he could be an inspiration for the children,” says Ananya Chakraborti Chatterjee, chairperson of WBCPCR. “When we hired Boni as a coach, we knew he is a very good footballer who has won many laurels for the state. But he was without work. So we felt it was important to remind ourselves of what a good sportsperson he was,” she adds.
Boni has been coaching there since April 2017, and he is also an instructor of painting and sculpting. He speaks freely to children about his identity and is a confidante of many. But he still worries about his future. “I don’t have a permanent job. I am paid only for the days I am called to work,” he says. He usually earns about Rs. 14,000 a month, but after the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020 he had no income for four months.
In February 2020, Boni took a five-year loan to build a house, just a few steps away from his mother’s house in Ichhapur, where Swati and he now live with his brother, mother, and sister. It’s the house that Boni had to run away from for the majority of his life. Boni’s earnings as a footballer were spent on building this house, where he and Swati now occupy a small bedroom. They are still not fully accepted by the family, and cook their meals on a gas stove in a small area outside their room.
The micro home loan of Rs. 345,000 was to be repaid with money that Boni expected to earn by selling the rights to a film on his life. But the film maker from Mumbai has not been able to get the film off the ground, and so Boni’s debts remain unpaid.
Seated in front of a showcase full of certificates and shining trophies, Boni’s recounts his life as an intersex person. Despite a life full of uncertainties, he and Swati have carefully preserved newspaper clippings, photographs and memorabilia in a red suitcase, which is placed above the showcase. They hope the house they began to build two years ago will have a permanent place for it.
“Sometimes, I still play friendly matches with clubs on August 15 [Independence day] in my village,” Boni says, “But I never got the chance to play for India again.”
Riya Behl is a photo-journalist and content editor at the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). She is based in Bombay.