Nandini Krishnan, Penguin Random House committed serious breach of trust, ethical lapses in publishing book on us, charge trans men

At least 22 trans men featured in Nandini Krishnan’s recently released book, Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Network, have accused the author of committing serious ethical transgressions

Greeshma Kuthar February 04, 2019 14:08:11 IST
Nandini Krishnan, Penguin Random House committed serious breach of trust, ethical lapses in publishing book on us, charge trans men
  • Charges include the author’s use of conversations that were off the record and that she failed to provide a translated version of their interviews

  • Some of the complainants say they have been misgendered, and referred to by dead-names despite their express instructions against such labelling

  • Six of these trans men (and a cis woman partner of one of them) have provided their testimonials by way of a video sent to Firstpost

At least 22 trans men featured in Nandini Krishnan’s recently released book, Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Network, have accused the author of committing serious ethical transgressions and breach of trust in her portrayal of these individuals in particular, and the community in general.

Their charges include the author’s use of conversations that were off the record, her failure to provide them with a translated version of their interviews in the language in which those exchanges took place – many of the trans men that appear in the book have little or no command over English; some of them are only lettered in their native tongue – that they have been misgendered, and referred to by dead-names despite their express instructions against such labelling, and that email communication with one of them has been tampered with to suit the author’s purpose.

Six of these trans men (and a cis woman partner of one of them) have provided their testimonials by way of a video sent to Firstpost. The other 12, from several parts of the country, and all of whom also make an appearance in Krishnan’s book, spoke to this correspondent over the phone, and exchanged notes over email. Firstpost also reviewed a series of emails, text messages, and parsed certain sections of Invisible Men to verify charges made against the author, and her counterclaims.

These individuals have demanded that the book be withdrawn from stores, and both the author and her publisher, Penguin Random House India, issue a public apology to the community.

The first concerted opposition to the book came by way of a video testimonial, which was mailed to us on 28 January – following an interview with Krishnan that Firstpost published in November, 2018. In this footage, six trans men and one woman voice disappointment at the transphobic ways in which they have been represented in the book. Those who make an appearance in the video are C Priyan, Kiran Nayak, Gayatri, Sunil Mohan, Rumi Harish, Gee Semmalar and Selvam. The footage was captured on camera by Christy Raj (a trans man and participant in the book). The full video is here:

Both Krishnan and Penguin Random House India have denied all wrongdoing. The publisher told Firstpost in an email that it adhered to accepted industry practices in editing the book. This is their statement in full: “Penguin Random House India follows extremely thorough editorial processes, in line with international standards of trade publishing. We work closely with our authors to ensure that the content of our books is valid and authentic. We strive to practise the most stringent due diligence required to publish books. Invisible Men by Nandini Krishnan has been treated no differently. We have followed established processes to ensure consent from all parties involved, and only approved and verified inputs from interviewees have been used. We aim to preserve the integrity of the content of our books alongside the author’s own vision.”

As this did not fully answer the questions we put to the publisher, Firstpost sent Penguin Random House India a follow-up mail stating that we were in possession of video testimonies from trans men in which they alleged that they weren’t provided translations they could read and understand. The publisher wrote back:

“We would like to reiterate that all due diligence were met with in the publishing of Invisible Men by Nandini Krishnan, as per our statement. In order to ensure that all information in the book is valid and authentic, we confirmed that consent was obtained for all interviews, playbacks were shared with all interviewees in the book, and the author has evidence to support this. We are surprised to learn of the complaints received by First Post on this matter. We can confirm that no complaints have reached the author or us. Should we receive any, the redressal policies are in place which we will address directly with the complainants.”

Firstpost rang Krishnan on 29 January to obtain her response to the allegations. However, she was unable to talk on the phone as she was on her way back to Chennai from the Jaipur Literature Festival. We then mailed her questions based on the video testimonial and sought the author’s reply. Krishnan recorded her response on video, in which she flatly denied all charges of misgendering or breach of ethics (and trust). Instead, she expressed surprise, claiming that these same people (in the video) had expressed appreciation about the book (to her). She also claimed to possess evidence that counters their accusations. She did not provide Firstpost this evidence in order for us to verify it. Her full, unedited testimonial is here:

At the end of the video, Nandini Krishnan posed three questions to Firstpost:

1. Have you checked with all the trans men quoted in this statement whether they actually said this and of their free will?

2. Have you checked with the tens of other interviewees what their opinion of the book is?

3. This book looks at trans men across the country, of various religions, various ages, various ethnicities, do the people quoted in your statement represent those or are they part of a single organisation?

We spoke to each of the six trans men featured in the video (all of whom are in the book), and asked them to qualify their allegations with proof. Apart from them, Firstpost attempted to get in touch with every other trans man identified in Invisible Men (there are 35 in all, of whom 22 have been named, and the remaining 13 are anonymous). This correspondent spoke to all 22. Firstpost also spoke to people quoted in the book who are not trans men: Santa Khurai, Sowmya, Subbalakshmi, Aarti, Gayatri (the cis woman partner in the video) and Kiran Nayak’s partner (she does not want to be named). We then rang Living Smile Vidya, parts of whose book, I am Vidya: A Transgender's Journey, have been reproduced in Invisible Men.

Some of the trans men quoted by the author in her book have already made public their disagreements with it. Vihaan Peethambar put out a note on Facebook, Bittu Karthik has written his critique for Firstpost, Gee Imaan Semmalar has reviewed the book for The News Minute and Jamal Siddiqui’s opinion is hosted on Feminism in India.

Nandini Krishnan Penguin Random House committed serious breach of trust ethical lapses in publishing book on us charge trans men

Collage of some of the persons interviewed by the author. Firstpost/Greeshma Rai

All seven people in the video were appalled at being asked if they spoke against the book and its author “of their free will”, and denied being part of any single organisation, as Krishnan has suggested they are. “If the author thinks a 35-year-old trans man cannot say something out of his own will, then that says something about the person in question,” said C Priyan, who chose to remain faceless in the video out of fear that any visual markers revealing his identity would cost him his job. “Does somebody who has written an entire book about us think we are not capable of speaking of our own volition? What does it say about her?”

Gee Semmalar said that to suggest members of the transmasculine community were not speaking of their free will was, in itself, transphobic. He said, “When I wrote a detailed critique of her book, she responded that I only ‘claimed’ to have read her book. When trans men speak against the book, she asks if they are speaking of their own free will. Does she assume we cannot read, think, speak or act and are abject victims waiting for her to speak for/about us? She tries to conjure up a conspiracy theory saying that we are part of a single organisation when this is an independently put together articulation of our issues with the book.”

“Alleging that an organisation of trans men is ganging up on her is funny,” said Kiran. “Who are we and who is she? For a month, we’ve been crying ourselves hoarse about the gross mistakes in the book. Has the publishing house raised a finger? That is her privilege. Come see my house. You will understand.”

Priyan added that the author has refused to engage with any of them following the book’s release: Krishnan was invited to attend a panel discussion at The Indian Institute of Human Settlements in Bengaluru on 10 February, during which she was meant to share the stage with two trans men; she backed out citing “safety reasons”. “She is telling the world that the people whom she interviewed have leaked her number and she is getting threat calls. I am a cab driver. She came to my house and ate food in my house. I don’t even know where she lives. She can’t allege victimhood and lie her way out of this,” said Priyan.

In Krishnan’s response to Firstpost against the charges made in the video, she denies misgendering and using off-the-record conversations in the book.

Rumi Harish, who is seen in the video, was mailed a copy of portions pertaining to Harish in the book. “I saw the portions where Nandini had referred to my dead-name over and over again. This triggered me as I had already told her not to do this. I stopped email interactions with her after this. This implies that I do not consent, not the other way around,” said Harish, who does not subscribe to gender-normative pronouns.

Nandini Krishnan Penguin Random House committed serious breach of trust ethical lapses in publishing book on us charge trans men

The book contains multiple mentions of Satya Rai Nagpaul, a cinematographer and founder of Sampoorna, a support group for trans and intersex Indians. “Given my work schedule, I end up doing mostly email interviews and my only condition is that the final copy of my quotes be approved by me before publication. Without this condition being agreed to, I do not participate. I followed the same process with Nandini Krishnan,” he said. “No consent form from Penguin was signed. Neither was it brought up by Nandini Krishnan.” He added that Krishnan had reproduced his quotes correctly.

He went on: “What I would like to share here is an incident around the book. One of the interviewees approached the Sampoorna Working Group, asking us to intervene on his behalf. He shared, via email, that he had not agreed for his story to be published anywhere other than the book, and despite that, his story was put up on a newspaper [The Indian Express] website.” Nagpaul was referring to Priyan, who appears as a faceless voice in the video testimonial. “The interviewee stated that this visibility would harm his livelihood and that on approaching Nandini, she told him that she had nothing to do with it and that it was a matter between the newspaper and Penguin. We wrote to The Indian Express (Nandini was copied in this email). The newspaper took down the article immediately. But there was not a single word from Nandini on the matter. This has left me really disturbed about Nandini's ethics.”

In her video, the author responded to his allegation thus: “This is why a fact check is important. It was an excerpt from the book which was published and if Firstpost had gone to the link and checked what it said, they would have realised that it did say ‘excerpted with permission from Invisible Men published by Penguin Random House India’.”

While it is unclear as to the arrangement The Indian Express had with the publisher – the newspaper took down the article before Firstpost could verify if it was indeed excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India, Priyan’s fears remain unaddressed. A cached version of the article that was pulled down by the newspaper is readily available on Krishnan’s website (Firstpost has a time-stamped screenshot of the page.)

Priyan says in the video: “After Nandini Krishnan published my interview online in a newspaper without my permission, my employment is under risk. I might lose my job.” When Firstpost rang him, he told us: “The reason I agreed to be interviewed for the book was because I was under the impression that only a few would read an expensive book. But this changes when it is available for free circulation on an online website. I did not approve this. When I tried to contact Nandini about it, she alleged that the email she had sent me mentioned that my interview, after being published in the book, would be released to the media. I was sure I hadn’t seen this in the email. As I couldn’t pull out the email immediately, I asked her to forward the same email to me. Before I received her forward, I managed to fish out the mail she originally sent me. When I received the same email as a forward, I noticed that this email had been tampered with. She had added two lines at the end, one, offering translation which she didn’t in her first email and two, mentioning that the book would be shared with print and digital media. I have a copy of the email I sent her with the identical time and date stamp without these two lines as is, in my inbox. Can she produce the same for this forwarded email that she sent me?”

Firstpost has copies of both emails (written in Tamil) with time-stamps and can confirm that the mail the author forwarded to Priyan contains two additional lines (in purple, as is the case when text is added to a message in Gmail). The first email, sent on 23 April, 2018, states: “Dear Priyan and Gayatri, I have written down our conversations and notes about you in this document. I have also translated Priyan's poems into English. Read them and let me know if there are any changes.” The second email, forwarded on 17 January, 2019, has these lines added: “If you'd like, I can translate these into Tamil and read it out to you. Or you can show to your friends too. This book will be available in both paperback and electronic formats.” (Name changed from the original email on request)

Priyan and his partner allege in the video that intimate exchanges about their lives have been reproduced in the book. Some of these conversations, they say, took place off the record. To obtain their consent, Krishnan mailed Priyan a 47-page document on 23 April. Her message to him was composed in Tamil, a language that Priyan can read. The excerpts from the book that he was meant to scrutinise were in English, over which language Priyan has little facility.

We asked him why he did not raise concerns when this document was mailed to him. He said: “She seemed so friendly. Though we met only once, she used to send WhatsApp messages wishing us for festivals. We trusted her and didn’t want to offend her. We told her, ‘You have written well and thank you’, without reading the copy. That was my mistake. The copy was in English and there were 47 pages. I read a few lines with great difficulty and then gave up. I have studied only till class 12 in Tamil medium. Only when my interview portions were circulated in audio and text form in social media websites did I begin to question my trust because I had already told her that I don’t want this to be done. That is when I sought translations for my portions from friends. I was shocked to hear how she had written about me, especially about certain incidents in my life. My mistake is trusting her, I agree. But can a writer misuse the trust of somebody she interviews like this? Shouldn’t she give me full knowledge of what was written in a language I could understand?”

Christy Raj, the video journalist from Bengaluru who compiled the seven testimonials, and who appears in the book, said he agreed to be interviewed by Krishnan after being told by Priyan about the author’s research on the community. Raj told us Krishnan mailed him a copy of the chapter in which he features, in April, 2018. He didn’t respond as the contents were in English, and the author had not translated the section to Kannada, a language Raj can read. “It is her duty to send me a translation, not mine to ask for it. This is basic ethics that one should have if they are writing a book,” he said. “I didn’t feel like telling her, ‘I am unable to read what you sent’. I just left it at that.”

The book talks of Raj, his partner Sowmya, who is an activist, and their roommate Subbalakshmi. Sowmya and Subbalakshmi, both trans women, told Firstpost that they were neither sent a translated version of portions that pertain to them nor were they contacted by the author following their only meeting, during which the author interviewed Raj.

Kiran Nayak is one of the seven people in the video. Unlike many of them, he has had experience dealing with interviews and playbacks; he had multiple conversations with the writer and trans activist A Revathi for her book A Life in Trans Activism. “Revathi amma has known me for a long time. But still, she did her interviews over a few months and then would visit me with her team to finalise my story. After this, a translation was given to me. I sat with her team, checked the translations and made corrections,” Nayak said. “This is the extent to which some writers go to ensure the stories they are telling are authentic. Meeting me once and then sending me a mail in a language I don’t understand is not acceptable. That is insulting.”

He went on to add: “What I absolutely cannot digest is how she [Krishnan] took the liberty of mentioning details about my partner without asking her permission.” His partner, who prefers not be named, told us there was no form of communication between her and the author. “We [my partner and I] live together. She is around all the time. She served Nandini food and interacted with her out of respect for a guest who is in the house. Does that mean she agreed to be in your book? Does that mean you can mention her real name without her consent in your book?’ asked Nayak.

We also spoke to trans men who are not in the video, but are quoted in the book. Jovin, who lives with his single mother in Pondicherry, was one of them. He is out of work. Jovin doesn’t recollect meeting Krishnan, though he says it is “probably because” he is “forgetful and that many such researchers keep popping in and out”. What he does remember is a phone call with Krishnan that lasted an hour. After this, he said the two did not speak. “I don’t know what details are there which are wrong but I don’t have the time to get them verified. My mother has taken a loan and if I don’t find work, I can’t pay it back. Now this has come up,” he said. “As if we don’t have enough to deal with, we have to bother about this book, which isn’t even in a language I can read.” Jovin knows no English and conducts all conversations in Tamil.

Unlike most of the people Firstpost interviewed for this article, for Vihaan Peethambar, a media professional from Kerala who finds mention in the book and who posted his objections to it on Facebook, a playback wasn’t the problem. He told us Krishnan conducted her interview over the phone, for an hour. “This was just after I had publicly come out about my gender identity,” he said, adding that the author mailed him a copy of the story following which he suggested changes. “As far as my portion is concerned, there were no problems or misquotes,” he said. “But I can read English. My privilege sees to it that only what I want goes into the book. But this is not the case with my trans brothers, especially those who don’t speak English. The manner in which she has gone into their personal lives and narrated their ordeal, without providing them with copies of the same in languages they can understand so that they can fully decide if they want to be portrayed this way or not, reeks of voyeurism.”

On 16 June, 2017, Krishnan circulated a message on the Sampoorna listserv; it has over 200 trans members. In it, she introduces herself as a journalist and writer. Semmalar, who is on the list said: “She sought interviews from trans men on our stories or issues that we face including discrimination in healthcare, employment etc. In the email, she wrote, ‘On my part, I can promise that the book will not be sensationalist. I want it to be a nuanced look at negotiating the world as a trans man. Confidentiality is assured where requested, and I will not reveal names, ages, locations or any other identifier if anonymity is requested.’ After pitching herself in this fashion, now she claims that the book is about her own prejudices. When did this shift happen? The most important questions is: is such a shift ethical, when she has pitched herself as somebody writing about the transmasculine community, which is the basis for which we opened up access to a group of 200, most of whom are still not open about their identity.” Firstpost has reviewed Krishnan’s message on the listserv.

Sunil Mohan, who is in the video, and who co-authored Towards Gender Inclusivity: A Study on Contemporary Concerns Around Gender with Rumi Harish, poses the following questions to the author: “After these interviews, how have you translated what you’ve written back to them (those who speak only in their native tongues)? How have you explained it to them? How have they understood it? Have they understood it? Have they read it?”

He said marginalised communities “are not very forthcoming in talking about their struggles and what goes on inside”. But when they do so, they do it when the institution (or person) which accords its imprimatur to a particular project is credible and trustworthy. “Nandini Krishnan used established support networks like Sampoorna to reach trans men. When she emailed me, she told me she got my reference from a mainstream feminist author. This is how she contacted others she interviewed. While she couldn’t breach the trust of English speaking persons, it was the opposite for the rest.”

Invisible Men reproduces portions from another book, I am Vidya: A Transgender's Journey, by Living Smile Vidya. But the manner in which this was done, the author told us, was problematic. “She didn't contact me even once to understand the context in which she has quoted me,” Vidya said. “Because the context is completely wrong.” Apart from dead-naming and referring to Vidya by male pronouns while describing her past, the author quotes portions of the book in which Vidya refers to a colleague (who was not trans identified at the time) of hers at a bank in Madurai. Krishnan writes: “Strangely, she (referring to Vidya) did not seem to sense he [the colleague] was a trans man, though she describes her colleague as a woman who would ‘only wear pant-shirt’ and had ‘a boy cut. In the book, she says Sairam [the trans man] planned to write the Indian Civil Services recruitment examination, and join the police. Sairam had ambitions of becoming a Kiran Bedi, she writes, and is, in all ways, the ‘pudumai penn’ – modern, empowered woman – whom Bharathiyaar had envisioned in his poetry. Sairam had not always wanted to join the police, though.”

“What does she mean that I couldn’t sense that he was a trans man?” Vidya said. “When I am writing a book which will be in the public domain, should I write what I sense or how that individual is, to society at large?”

We rang Sairam, who told us Vidya wrote nothing wrong. “At that point, I had never articulated my gender. It was something I hadn’t understood. I didn’t want to get into it as I was very focused on my career. As Kiran Bedi was well spoken about at that time and many called me Kiran Bedi, Vidya referred to me as Kiran Bedi,” he said. He clarified that Krishnan mailed him portions of the book in English, which he read and approved. “But they didn’t contain these references to Vidya,” he said.

Of the multiple people we interviewed, two trans men were appreciative of Krishnan’s book. Both can read and write English. One was Aryan Pasha, a bodybuilder, model and trans rights activist. He said the author mailed him portions that pertained to their conversation and gave her consent to reproduce them in the book. Pasha is yet to read Invisible Men. The other trans man, Krithik Shiva, an engineering student, told us the author “was very professional” and sent him portions so he could suggest changes. “I was mailed five pages initially. There were some bad experiences mentioned in it which I didn’t want to put out there. So I requested her to remove them and she removed them promptly. She also changed the phrases wherever I wanted her to. Now if you see the book, it has only about two pages about me. She removed whatever I didn’t want,” he said. Shiva then offered his sense of why the book had created an uproar. “Within the community, there are people who are from marginalised backgrounds and we are trying to help them. There is constant talk about upper caste domination. Unfortunately, Nandini was born in a Brahmin family. She is also a cis woman. I think this is why she is being attacked,” he said.

Others weren’t as forgiving. Invisible Men quotes 15 individuals from Manipur, almost all affiliated with Empowering Trans Ability (ETA), an organisation led by Hemabati Oinam. On 10 January, ETA, All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMANA), Socialist Students’ Union of Manipur (SSUM) and Manipur Students Association Delhi (MSAD) organised a protest against the book at DM University of Imphal, during which they burnt copies. The group was incensed by the author’s “attempts to replace the indigenous history of Meiteis with references from Hindu mythology”.

Hembati told Firstpost that the author visited them once. “She did not have a Manipuri interpreter with her and most of us are not fluent in English,” he said. Hembati put her in touch with a trans man named BD, who helped Nandini translate from Manipuri to English.

None of the participants from Manipur were provided Manipuri translations of the sections pertaining to them. In April, BD and Hembati received a mail from the author with a PDF containing an English version of their interviews. “She wanted me to check if the parts of close to 15 people interviewed was okay. How can I? I was there only for two days to help out with the translation, because of my organisation. The rest of the days, I don’t know who said what. How can it be my responsibility to check with everybody? Isn’t it the author’s job?” BD asked.

Santa Khurai, A Meitei trans woman who was among those interviewed, told Firstpost that she was contacted by the author for permission to use her voice in a podcast. Khurai agreed. “But she never shared anything with us which mentions that she will be using Hindu mythology, which has nothing to do with us, to introduce us,” she said. “We have our own indigenous history. We would have never consented to this if we knew this was going into the book.”

One of the trans men who plays an important part in Invisible Men is Selvam – there are at least 150 references to him in the book. Krishnan writes (and has stated in interviews) that he is the first trans man she met in India. He is a well-known activist in Tamil Nadu. Selvam is also one the seven people who mailed Firstpost the video testimonial.

He told us the two met for the first time in 2006. They next spoke 11 years later, when Krishnan contacted Selvam about a story she was doing on trans men. Following this chat, she told Selvam that she would be writing a book about the transmasculine community and that she wanted to include aspects from Selvam’s life. Selvam said this led to several interactions – one or two a month – during which he spoke of his life, with the author recording “most portions” of their conversations. “She would also come home once in a while,” he said. “I trusted her with very personal details, like stuff about my surgery, and didn’t enquire too much into what she was writing.”

“She called me a few months before the book was published and said she has included portions from her recordings about me. I agreed verbally. Over a call, she read out some portions of the book. They seemed okay. This was the only phone call where she discussed what is in the book,” Selvam said. He later attended the release of Invisible Men in Chennai, with Krithik Shiva by his side.

A few weeks later, Selvam received calls from friends who had read the book. “They told me that there were references to me as a corporation school student wearing khaki shorts and yellowed white shirt,” he said. “After this some of my trans brothers have been reading out portions of the book to me and I am disappointed that I was taken for granted. The worst of it all is that she has revealed certain details about my surgery. This broke me.”

The book references personal communication, to which Selvam is opposed. “I didn’t even imagine that she will use my personal WhatsApp voice notes or my interactions with her in the book. Only after people started criticising the book did she call and ask if I want everything about me to be read out,” he said. “It is too late now, isn’t it? The book is already published, everything is already out there.”

He points to one such section in the book, which describes Selvam being kissed on the cheek by a trans woman named Sonia. “This didn't happen. Nobody kissed me. I don’t let anybody get this intimate with me and this definitely didn’t happen,” he said, adding that the person to whom Krishnan refers in this segment is not called Sonia. “Her name is Trisha,” he said.

This episode takes place at the home of Aarti, a trans woman from Chennai, who gave Selvam refuge when he moved to the city. Krishnan quotes Aarti in the book. Firstpost asked Aarti if she recalled the episode. “Enakku theriyadhe ma. Enna puthagam? Yaru Nandini Krishnan? Apdi yarum enakku theriyadu,” she told us. (I don’t know. What book? Who Nandini Krishnan? I don’t know anybody like that).

Update We asked Penguin Random House India if they wished to add to their statement following the publication of the seven testimonials. An official spokesperson sent us this response: “Once again, we wish to confirm that we are in receipt of the necessary documentation from the author that she had the consent of the interviewees listed below. If, however, anyone would like to bring any specific grievances to our attention, they are free to contact us or the author directly. We believe that the editorial and legal diligence with which this book was undertaken is of the highest quality. Constructive feedback enhances our understanding of a complex issue, and we will continue to engage with an open mind.”

Updated Date:

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