I get out of the bus near the halwa shop and carry my frayed duffel bags. It’s late in the evening so there are few people around. Since this is Tirunelveli, all of them are men. As I walk, I become awfully conscious of a man in the corner chewing paan and observing me. Once, a creepy guy on a scooter followed me along an entire stretch of the IT corridor in Chennai. I finally stopped and screamed at him. After that he continued following … at a respectable distance. I adjust my sari around the waist. I love orange and gold shades but today I opted for the relative anonymity of a sober blue.
I walk down the road on which my grandfather taught me to ride Appa’s scooter. I was seven and I begged him to let me take it to school but Thatha refused. When you turn eighteen, he patted my head, grinning. Of course, that turned out to be a false promise. Neither of us knew the direction our lives would take. The heirloom now sits rusting outside my grandparents’ house.
I finally see the tiny two-storey complex. It had permanently taken on the air of a mausoleum. The last time I had entered the place was three years ago when my entire family wordlessly agreed that death suited Amma. Finally, her body mimicked her spirit.
I open the creaky gate and wait a minute before knocking. The door opens with a dramatic flourish. When my grandmother sees me, she grimaces and quickly lets me in. Her eyes dart around to see if the neighbours are in sight. ‘Fine?’ she asks nonchalantly while closing the door. ‘Yes Patti, I…’ She cuts me off before I can finish. Making Kapi for Thatha. Want?’ My grandmother hasn’t lost her gift for swallowing words. ‘Ok’ I say.
I deposit my bags near the door and look at the grizzled old man, with his back hunched on his cane chair. His eyes are glued to the television, seemingly oblivious to the woman who just entered the house. The house was far too tiny for this kind of charade but the old bastard was a ‘cold shoulder’ master. Several years ago when Patti’s sister and husband visited, he successfully ignored them for an entire week.
‘Thatha!’ I gush, a little too cheerfully. He cranes his creaky head and turns towards me. ‘The truant grandson returns’ he grunts and laughs loudly. I can see that he’s lost a few more teeth since the last time I saw him. I chuckle along because that’s who I’ve always been, ever-eager to please. It was why I’d even let my brothers take over most of our parents’ inheritance. Eager to agree. Eager to laugh. Eager to fuck.
‘What are you going to do Anjan?’ my grandfather gruffly demands. Flecks of spit fly out of his mouth and land on my cheek. Even when his mind was sharper, he had a way of physically attacking me with his words. I answer his question at face value. ‘Thatha, I will be working as a schoolteacher at Sishya Vidyalaya’ I answer calmly, a wide grin plastered across my face. I will be the epitome of dignified grace.
‘What are you doing?’ he asks me again. His hearing has gotten worse. I laugh and repeat my answer verbatim, wondering when Patti will emerge from the kitchen and save me from this awkward interaction or at least launch me into another one.
That question is posed to me two more times before Patti emerges from the kitchen with three steaming cups of filter-coffee. By then it has become an existential one. ‘What am I going to do?’
As I stand up to help Patti, I almost trip over the hem of my sari. As I straighten myself, I barely see any concern on their faces. As far as they are concerned, their grandson is still method acting the part of a woman.
Our family would be right at home on a Sun TV reality drama. Dramatic beats come on as a TV therapist with more degrees than hair on his head psychoanalyses a dysfunctional family and concludes that the truant daughter was where it all went wrong. Tears would be shed, lessons would be learned and the girl would return to the warm cocoon of patriarchy, tail between her legs.
We eat dinner, mostly in silence. Thatha and Patti are too scared to ask what I was up to in Hyderabad. It didn’t matter what I said though. They would have made up their minds anyways. I later sleep on a moth-eaten mattress in the living room. As I drift in and out of sleep, I can hear my grandparents argue loudly. No prizes for guessing who it is about.
In the morning, I wake up early and go to the shower constructed in the courtyard. I take off my clothes, wearing only my blouse and petticoat and wash myself. As I dry myself and come inside, I’m suddenly reminded of a moment in childhood. Coming out of the outhouse and thinking no one was around, I wore my towel as a dress. I wanted to look as beautiful as Madhoo dancing in the river in Roja. I didn’t realise the neighbour’s boys were hiding nearby to playfully scare me. What they saw served them with ammunition for life. I sashayed around moving my hips and had an imaginary conversation with someone where I responded to female pronouns. When Thatha found out, he was furious and thrashed me with his belt. I still remember that day vividly. I was hunched over the bed, Thatha’s hands firmly grasping my hands and his belt lashing my back. Years later, I almost wished I could feel the familiar sensation of his fingers on my wrists during my sex reassignment surgery.
I look at myself in front of the mirror. It’s still a strange sensation at times. My comb gets caught in my hair. It’s far too long. I want to get one of those stylish Western bob cuts. My Guru would have been scandalised, saying I would relinquish my femininity. ‘Womanhood lies in your hair’, she used to tell all of us. Shame that the household that helped me transition to womanhood never felt like home.
I put on a bright gold saree. At breakfast, Thatha and Patti are still sticking to their vow of silence, though they make their distaste for my clothes clear. After I clear my plate, I clear my throat. ‘Thatha, I wanted to know…’ Oh this would be hard. ‘… to know if I can borrow Appa’s bike. Atharva Anna was telling me you don’t use it anymore.’
Thatha looks up as if I have asked him to find me a groom. For a second I think he hasn’t heard clearly. ‘That’s a men’s scooter’ he tells me in a pointed act of cruelty. My gender is malleable, always malleable. I look to my grandmother for support but her sallow face barely moves a muscle. In my teenage years when my grandparents found out I was hanging with a group of Hijras, Thatha got into a screaming fit and Patti stood by with that same inscrutable expression on her face.I don’t say anything more as I walk out. They don’t give me blessings for my meeting at school. It’s a hot day and the bus will take at least forty-five minutes.
As I get on to a bus going that way, I move towards an empty seat. I get stares from everyone around. It’s like a dark mirror image of my childhood fantasies. I always imagined myself as a dignified, beautiful woman, noticed by everyone around her. These days I resent the feeling like I’m on stage all the time. At the bank, everyone hunches forward to hear me speak. In the bus a kid sitting on an adjacent seat notices me. He elbows his friend and slyly points at me. ‘Ombothu’ he loudly whispers. I give him a dirty look.
When I reach the school gate, the watchman eyes narrow. ‘No begging,’ he squeaks. He tries to shoo me away but I tell him that I have an appointment with Vasantha Jayakumar. He’s surprised but directs me into the principal’s office. She’s a mousy woman with round spectacles.
‘Good morning sir ... ma'am’ she says and beckons me to sit down. I’m already fuming but I know I have to pick and choose my battles. ‘Good morning ma’am’ I say softly, making sure the pitch of my voice is turned up.
‘So Ranjini madam had wonderful things to say about you. I met this amazing woman Anjali in Hyderabad. She'll be a good fit for our school.’
‘Yes. She was saying that she wanted Sishya Vidyalaya to become more modern’
‘Modern. Yes. Yes, but at the same time we have to be aware of our culture.’
‘We have to teach women to respect our elders, not to be obscene and dress modestly.’ The last part of her sentence seems directed at me.
I nod curtly. At least she felt like I was letting down the female gender. We talk for a few more minutes while the principal ascertained my moral character. Finally, I take her leave. We agreed that I would start taking English and Tamil lessons for students from tomorrow. I walk out with a spring in my step.
On the way I notice a flyer on the message board. A room for rent. It was next to the Nellaipar Temple, not too far away. Maybe this was a heavenly message. I give the person and a call and she agrees to meet me. When I turn up, her face falls. I’m used to this though. Thankfully because she’s god-fearing, she reluctantly agrees to try me out as a tenant for a month. Near the Nellaipar temple, we become religious apostles. Deny us, especially in the month of Aani and you incur Shiva’s wrath. Quite convenient for me.
I finally go back to Patti and Thatha’s house in the evening and tell them I’ve found a place to stay. Thatha scoffs. ‘Once the neighbours start complaining, she’ll kick you out.’
Something breaks and I have a realisation I've had multiple times before. I can’t stay in this house a minute longer. I get up quietly and start packing my things. I ignore the taunts of my grandfather and the complicit silence of my grandmother. When I walk to the front door, I see a pair of keys in a bowl and quietly pocket it.
I walk outside. My grandfather follows. He unleashes a stream of insults. ‘No family deserves to have someone like you. Woe was the day your mother gave birth to you…’ I quickly realise this is a public performance, aimed at the neighbours. In the morning all of them will visit in solidarity, bringing fruits and exchanging horror tales of daughters who crossed the limits and sons ‘pretending’ to be daughters.
I open the gate and then place my bags in front of the scooter seat. I take out the keys and defiantly stare back at him. That’s when he stops his diatribe. In front of him, I kick-start the scooter and zoom out, all in the matter of seconds.
The bike is old and clearly needs to be serviced but none of it matters. As I accelerate, I feel the night wind whip my face. I zip across the road where Thatha taught me to ride the bike years ago. Maybe this is what it feels like; to live your own life, rather than feeling like a spectator in it.
Karthik Shankar is the editor of Karadi Tales, a children's publishing house based in Chennai. He was previously a Young India Fellow at Ashoka University for the year 2015-16. In 2015, he was among a hundred young leaders selected for The Third Hague Peace Conference. Karthik has written for The Times of India. In addition to that, he has contributed to Scroll, Youth ki Awaaz, South Asia Monitor, Observer Research Foundation and Chennai Centre for China Studies.