This is Chapter III of Kate Sarah’s novel TABOO. Please read previous chapters first by clicking the links below.
CHAPTER III : AIZAWL HIJRA
The Kohlapuri slippers on her feet were glued, sewed. The ridge further supported the sole with the help of a fatal safety pin. This did nothing to dwindle her confidence. Her slender body moved with the rhythm. Her hair was long till her waist, a black veil that one could see at the exaggerated shampoo ads. Her black jeans further diminished her limbs to a woody menagerie. Her waist had suffered a massive change, anyone could have easily mistaken her for a woman.
Well, she called herself a woman. The world called her Aizawl Hijra, like she didn’t even have a family name to continue.
It had become her identity around Darjeeling town.
She had a voice of a woman and did everything to train her vocal to appear it more feminine.
“Bhijeo Sirani Raat ma” she hummed. The red dupatta slipped purposefully through her narrow shoulder. A scene from Bollywood was recreated. She wore a red tika at the middle of her forehead that had evolved from the black and a loud red lipstick. She loved everything bright. Her Kohl eyes had a language of their own but there was something, the shape of her face that was still masculine. Maybe it was her daily ritual of shaving the beard off her face that gave her beautiful face its controversial appearance.
Whatever the case was, she loved herself and wasn’t bothered if others failed to do so.
Aizawl Hijra didn’t beg money at the trains or Mandirs. Gone were the days of begging. She however borrowed cash and rations from her best friend Kalawati, her neighbour and one of the most famous prostitutes of the town.
Kalawati was a case of an unfortunate war story. She married young and was widowed young, her youth thus became a cancerous existence to her in-laws. She could’ve been a wealthy widower because her young husband was killed in action but the jealous in-laws denied her such joy and luxury that only some widows could avail.
She was accused of fornication, stripped of her pension. Disowned by her own family, she lived with her lover, a pimp and a son, whose father’s name on the certificate was still blank.
Kalawati had a latest cellphone but she still preferred her 1100 phone because the modern technology was all Greek to her. Besides, she was very good of the digital Snake game, which much of Adil’s annoyance had become her obsession.
She usually sat without make up, at thirty five she was plump in the middle, with saggy breast and wheatish pale skin. Her eyes were the colour of brown wood, small at wide distance yet they brought a pleasant appeal to the face she was born to. Her lips were faded pink, as the weather was cold she spread herself on the high bed with her Nokia 1100, playing the same game. She wanted to beat her own high score.
The knock on the door, distracted her and the snake ate its own tail.
“Aish, Yo Didi Pani” she murmured to herself.
Adil, her lover sat at the sofa scrolling down the Facebook of pretty school girls with weird account names and pouted profile pics. He glanced at the door to see Aizawl, his body language changed and he sat up to exit.
“Arey” Aizawl looked dramatically at Kalawati. “You didn’t go today?” , the question was unnecessary as she knew it was that time of the month for Kalawati.
“Didi, Sit down”, she pulled Aizawl on the bed.
Both Aizawl and Adil flinched a little at the touch.
Adil never understood the audacity of Kalawati touching Aizawl, an AIDS patient.
They say it’s not contagious but precaution is always better than cure.
Aizawl dreaded the touch of Kalawati because of it disgusted her. No doubt, Kalawati was a good friend but Aizawl never liked being touched by pimps and prostitutes. Well, rumours had it, Aizawl was born at a brothel in Aizawl, where she was given a name, she avoided Kalawati’s touch but she did it subtly.
Kalawati always thought Aizawls’s seclusion was because of the disease she carried and she tried her best to make her feel at ease. Or maybe She liked Aizawl’s coyness because Aizawl Hijra was the only person who denied her touch, she was the only one who didn’t want to grope her or have her for money. Adil had passion but she knew his greed. Aizawl was different. Kalawati could see the androgynous friendship in her.
So she had decided to financially help the poor fellow. A charity to wipe away the sins that Kalawati performed daily.
“Kina Nagako (why didn’t you go?)”, Aizawl asked her again. Her eyes dancing around the neat house of her friend. There were figurines of different gods and a crisp 10 rupees note rolled and stuck in one of the corner of golden Buddha. An altar at a prostitute’s home! Gods must’ve been very upset, to be a hostage at an adulterer’s house.
“You know well, Didi. Nothing is hidden from you. Second days are the worst, I tell you. Being a woman is a curse in itself…”
“Hernuna…” Adil added uncomfortably. “A client just called and she rejected. Seasons. you know Didi, loaded one” he lit a cigarette and got an excuse to exit the room. The smoke served as an essence stick. The room was too polluted for him to breathe.
Adil was Half Nepali from Doors. He had ran away from home for Darjeeling. He worked few years as a groomsman at the famous horse stable of Darjeeling. The second wave of Gorkhaland andolan stopped tourists from entering the small district. The peak season of Spring and Summer flush tea couldn’t bring the tourists. When the season went down, the locals had no desire to mount a dark horse around the mall.
He met Kalawati at Siliguri and She came to Darjeeling with him. He liked to call himself an agent. There was a nice ring to it.
He had a business in mind with the money he had saved. He hunted for clients. Rich ones like the one he had found today.
“Gora?” Asked Aizawl to Adil.
“Bengali” Adil replied.
Aizawl rolled her eyes. Adil continued in between the warm puff “Didi… He was ready to give ten thousand in cash.”
Aizawl sighed “people getting paid just because they have a V..”
Kalawati roared loudly and slapped Aizawl’s hand, she choked and laughed again.
Unable to bear the touch, the latter stood up. She sighed again, “I’ve got to go home. The sky has darkened. Luga sukhako chu.” she announced and gave her best friend a flying kiss.
Kalawati recovering from her teary laughter wiped out the residue and informed, “Didi, a girl was searching for you. Must be a journalist.” she looked at Adil. “Oi she told me that she was a journalist, didn’t she?”
Adil shrugged and threw the cigarette butt away.
“Uff, you Monkey, you ate up my time, Hai Hai, I hope she finds me. Because I need some money. These journalists they can help a poor soul like me, na. I hope she is one of those emotional ones”.
Aizawl rushed towards her house which was two blocks away. The asphalt road looked black under the grey sky. She rushed and dragged her Kohlapuri, the dupatta fell off her small shoulder. She rushed towards her small wooden cabin and found a young girl with a camera case in her hand. Aizawl’s heart beated its unusual rhythm.
Back at Kalawati’s warm cemented walls, she wiped her tears and continued to giggle at the forgotten joke. How she loved Aizawl’s company.
Adil put on Tom and Jerry show. He sat and pulled another cigarette.
“You are a child.” She played with his hair.
“Don’t touch me. Wash your hands. How many times do I have to tell you not to touch that man?”
“She is a woman” Kalawati retorted.
“We all know what he is.” he murmured.
The girl bowed with a namaste. Aizawl was deeply impressed. Her spine straightened itself and she found a confidence of superiority. The girl wasn’t fair. She was honey skinned but there was something warm pallor about her. She wasn’t dark like Aizawl, the poor kind. Her lavender sweater and grey shirt made her look radiant. She had the presence of a dove. The innocent nervous smile, one could easily guess rich from the poor. She, though tan had a colour only rich people could possess. When Aizawl drew near, he came across the radius of her perfume which was pleasant musk.
“Let me pick up my clothes” she pointed out the clothes at the railing.
“The rain is quite unpredictable in Darjeeling” she continued. The young journalist started clicking her pictures.
“I am sorry, can I?” She asked with apologetic eyes.
“Come let us get inside” Aizawl touched her elbow delicately.
Her abode was nothing like Kalawati’s. She had a 14-inch colour TV with a big black back. She had cane chairs and clothes on top of those chairs. Her nightstand was filled with pills and doctors’ prescriptions. She lived a minimalist life because all she could afford was minimum. Her house never looked this dull but the presence of the journalist made it look more shabby. The girl glowed more inside the dark poverty.
The inside separated her.
Aizawl was embarrassed. She hid her tablets and pills off the night stand. She didn’t want her to know about the disease.
The kitchen was separated by a plastic curtain.
“Sit, I’ll make tea” she told the young girl.
The girl didn’t deny. Most journalists that came to her were snobs, some wouldn’t enter her house, others wouldn’t sit. There were some who wouldn’t drink water that Aizawl generously bestowed.
This one was different. This one sat on her bed, as the cane chairs were occupied. She pulled out a silver recorder and waited for her.
She liked this one.
The tin roof rattled as the sky roared and began to pour, first gently and then in increasing pace.
The fluorescent light flickered now and then. The long tube was successful in brightening this dark space. The sky roared angrily.
She looked at her watch.
The house had two rooms and the other room was separated by a plastic screen.
“Are we ready?” The journalist asked.
” Let me make some tea”, she told her behind the screen, raising her voice as the rain tormented their silence.
There was no corner for Gods unlike Kalawati’s residence. Aizawl was a profound atheist. Yet “God” was always on her speech, specially when she cursed someone. The walls of the house were wood painted faded green. The kind that had lived for a century. The bottom where the walls touched the ground had black masses.
The girl looked up to see the rust infected roof. A drop of cold copper droplet fell on her short forehead. Aizawl was humming the same tune she had hummed all day. “Unko Yaadma, Ah hai… Eklo Raat ma.”
The girl scanned around the cozy apartment. She pulled out her wallet to look at the sepia picture of a lady with a long black hair whose face was burned, damaged by the moisture.
She looked around to find a picture of a man crooked on the wall. It was a badly photoshopped picture with green mountains in the background.
The plastic screen that separated her and Aizawl tasted the warm vapour. The intensity of rain on the roof decreased.
Aizawl placed a tray with La O’pala cups and saucers on the bed, one of the largesse of Kalawati, these cutlery were safely kept inside the wooden almirah of the dark kitchen.
She sat on tiny stool adjacent to the bed where the girl sat uncomfortably.
“My name is Savannah, you can call me Avah”, she smiled and switched on the recorder. The camera lay still.
Usually journalists click the inside of the house and they tell about the organisation they work for. Her short introduction made Aizawl curious.
“What do you want to know?”
To this the Journalist replied, “Everything. I have found that you were born in Aizawl.” She had no notepad, her hands were free. She rubbed her hand on her dark denim out of genuine nervousness.
There was cold that had a bitterness of the winter wind, to which Aizawl was immune.
“I was born in Aizawl back in mid seventies. Who were my parents? I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know. Now I do, sometimes.”. Aizawl broke into a smile and twiddled her fingers. She felt uneasy to talk about her life like that. She had bared herself to numbers of journalists, yet this uneasiness had never lifted.
“Yes, I was raised at a brothel. I called them my mothers, they called me their son. Most of my mistresses were Nepalese from Nepal border. I can speak fluent Nepali, Bengali, Assamese. I can understand Mizo, Khasi and Manipuri.
I ran away from the capital, it was home. A home that I never wanted. I had mothers, their suffocating love spoiled me. But my fate there was marked. I would grow up to be either a pimp or a thief. So I ran away because I had already begun my training as a chai wala. Running errands for them. The pimps at the brothels never liked me. I was someone’s sin. Nobody knew whose.”
“So you were born a transgender?” The question Avah asked demanded confirmation.
“Yes. I was born this way.”
“But… But… You just said that they called you their son”
Aizawl was caught up in his own lies, for the first time he felt exposed.
“My dear I was born a transgender. I look like a man but I have a spirit of a woman”
Avah didn’t mean to offend her. She took Aizawl’s hand on hers as a mark of apology.
“I am sorry I didn’t mean to…” The latter blenched. The touch of a warm soft hands created a ripple of emotions. She hated being touched by Kalawati who was the only person to touch her.
Today this suspicious child touched her and she was hungry for more.
Aizawl took Avah’s soft hand, she wouldn’t tell her about the disease. She wanted to but she was selfish now.
“What soft hands you have.” Her black coarse one looked darker in comparison with Avah’s youthful soft hands.
“Tell me more.” Avah asked about her past.
“I came to this station where I met a Muslim Man. Every body called him Khan Saab. I called him cha-cha. He was a good man. He worked at a tea estate in Assam and had his friends at Darjeeling. When he asked me my name. I told him it was Aizawl”
“Didn’t he notice that you were different?” Avah asked.
Aizawl smiled and took her hands off her “I was a good actor. I wore boyish shirts. I was lanky. My hair was short but I had the rhythm of a girl. He thought I was a tomboy. This town was hellish back in 80’s. Townsmen hungry for the blood of their own people. Luckily the Andolan had subsided. Yet there was a sense of fear and defeat lingering in the air. Politics, I say nobody knows how to play it safe. I heard there were heads hung at the chowk bazaar and brothers killed brothers. Khan Saab was secured because he had connections. People with connections have a different stories about this Andolan. What did they suffer? Some ran away, some stayed and they blame the townfolks, call them savages. Look at the conditions of tea garden people, they still suffer. What do they know about the girls that were raped, mutilated. Fathers burning their sons. Vengeful relatives cutting each other to pieces. Yes these people were savages but who made them that. Nobody’s born like this. Nobody’s born a murderer. Crime is created.”
Avah felt the tension in the air.
She held Aizwal’s hand. “Do you know anyone who went through what you just said?”
“Your tea is getting cold.”
Aizawl didn’t meet her eyes, she freed her hand from her clutch and gave her the tea.
She was guilty of every touch that she received from Avah.
“Yes, I knew someone. That was a long time ago”
Aizawl had never spoken about this friend of hers. It was a sad memory for her. She was a good friend to her. The only friend she had met. She had never mentioned her name to other journalists. The memory was bittersweet.
“Anyway, something good happened. I met him years later.” She pointed at the picture on the wall.
The smiling man with his folded arms and badly photoshopped mountains at the back.
“Who was he?” She asked sipping the tea. The sugary syrup hurt her throat. She gulped it without complaining.
“He was my man.” Aizawl always loved this part of her story. When she found her love. She wasn’t searching for anyone when she met Kishor in Mumbai. She blushed as she narrated their tale, “I met Kishor when I was twenty five. I was working at a bar in Mumbai. Kishor worked at one of the famous Bollywood stars’ house.”
It was love at first sight. I was often called ugly. He was the first one to call me beautiful. I told him that he was blind. He should get his eyes checked. We started out as friends. He was an introvert. He had few friends. His circle was small. All my friends were bar dancers and there was so much competition. He was the first friend I had who loved me beyond lust.”
Aizwal turned her head, “No, he was that second person who loved me without condition”
“Who was the first one?”
“It was a girl.” She watched Avah’s curious eyes. It was the first time Aizawl had opened the old wound. Her hand went across her back. She still remembered the lashes on her back. The cries of help. The scream, the rain and her face. She remembered the past and Her. The lady whom she called a friend, a sister.
“What was her name?”
“It is not important”. Aizawl’s eyes were black coal guarded by bordered black lines. The thick eyebrows on top squinted into thoughts of the past she had escaped.
She leaned forward and switched off the button of the recorder.
Avah looked at her calmly, trusting her action.
This surprised Aizawl.
“Tell me more about your friend.”, she told Aizawl.
“What is important is my journey. My journey began because of her. I owe her my life because she saved me twice. And if I were a man I would have married her. I am woman in spirit but I loved her more than the hundreds of prostitute mothers I was raised with. Maybe we love people because we want to save them. Love is just an evolved emotion, an amalgam of pity and decisions we make over and over again.
“I wanted to save her. I believe she wanted to save me.”
She was the first one to give me a frock. I wore it all day and I got lashes for dressing that way.” Aizawl turned around and pulled her shirt to show the cracks at the back.
There was a design at her back. Like that of roots of a tree. The wounds had healed but the scar was immortal.
“Were you treated badly at Khan Chacha’s place ?” Avah asked.
“Khan was Muslim and when he took me under his wings he asked me to dress like a girl. Since he thought I was a girl. I was just ten years old. He was unmarried and he couldn’t keep me at his lonely house so he gave me away to his friend who had recently married a woman of low birth. She was only a few years older than me. We used to play in the woods and I used to braid her hair. We became best of pals. Her husband hated her. “That coward”, she spat. “At first I used to call her Memsahib. But she asked me to call her Res.”, she stopped in-between but continued
“When Saib and Nani was not around. I became her confidant and she became mine and one day she discovered my secret. I was a man in body”
Avah didn’t blink. She looked at Aizwal.
Aizawl didn’t know the veil of his lie that he had covered the truth had been lifted by himself, she continued, unknown, “I told her not to tell Saib, that night she stitched a frock for me from her saree. I loved dressing like this. This was my freedom. I told her if I were a man enough greater than the man she was married to, I’d take her away. But I am a woman and I could only love her from a distance because of the norm of this society. She would crush me under her embrace. She smelled just like you” she turned towards Avah, “You smell like her, warm summer rain. A musk. Just like a comfortable home. A fragrance that you want to snort in and be addicted to. “
“Your master, her husband hated her? Was she treated badly?” Avah asked her face changing colours.
“Badly?” She laughed “Worse. He didn’t beat her, physically. But her abuse was worse than any physical wound. His words were enough to cut deep. She was an insecure woman in love with a man who never loved her but she waited for him. He was a snob belonging to English talking society that believed that they were direct descendents of the Goras. His grandfather was called Rai Sahib. He was so full of himself that most of his friends talked behind his back. He didn’t even grace her with second glance. So she spent most her time with me. I read her stories from his libraries. She used to visit local schools in search of old history books but that’s again a different story. Where was I? Ah yes. I met this man?” She pointed at the picture.
“My life changed. He and I, we lived a good life. But God has always been cruel to me. He took him away. Cancer. It was cancer.” she lied.
Avah still at her tranced state rubbed her forehead.
“Tell me more about Resham and your master. What happened when they found about you.”
Aizawl looked at Avah.
“I never told you her name, Did I ? I must have. Do you know how I was caught?”
Avah’s cheek turned colour. Aizawl didn’t notice the hue, “Anyway, it was monsoon, the rain was cruel. The servant toilet was far away and mostly I slept with Resham. So I… Hmm… I was peeing from the balcony when that wretched wench Nani caught me. That God forsaken hag, I heard she died a terrible death. Her sons abandoned her, she lived with Resham’s Husband because she was a companion of his mother. Master and Nani never liked each other yet he considered her his mother. Some people said she was master’s father’s mistress. God knows the truth and maybe that is why there was so much friction yet a bondage of love between the two. His father was dead and gone. And Nani’s sons had also abandoned so the pieces fit together.
“I asked Resham to… to run away with me to Kolkata. She had come too but she was in love. That’s again a different story.” She looked at Avah who had coloured face and teary eyes.
“Why are you asking about Resham? Isn’t the interview about me?” She watched the ticking clock beside the TV.
“I hope you know the rules, I charge money of my time and I have used an hour of my energy. Five hundred.” she opened her palms in front of Avah.
The latter took her hands and held her tight between her soft warm hands. “I want to know more about your friend, Resham. Please help me. Only you can help me with the truth. But give me truth not a fusion of your version of truth don’t save me from the truth. Even if it hurts.” Avah broke down into tears, the warm droplets rolling down her warm honey skin. Her voice barely a whisper. “Even if they are things that hurt, you have to tell me because I want to know the truth and only the truth. All of it that you know”
Aizawl looked at Avah, now she studied her face. Her hands between her clutch. She cried uncontrollably, Aizawl studied her eyes, her lips and her face as a whole. There was something familiar in them.
She felt something inside her gut, a feeling, a revelation. She freed her self from her clutch. The girl stopped crying and rubbed her eyes dry. Aizawl watched her studying her face again. She knew she had seen her before.
The girl nervously smiled and blew phlegm on the tissue.
“I am so sorry for that.”, she said masking her emotions.
Aizawl searched for her answers on that girl’s face. She was too afraid to ask why.
The girl smiled again. That same smile Aizawl had seen before. She boldly held Aizawl’s hands again, “I should have introduced myself properly. If I am asking for truth I should have given you the truth instead. The complete truth. I am sorry.”
I am your best friend’s daughter, I am your Resham’s daughter. I am that master’s daughter that you hate the most.”, she smiled. The traces of her sadness gone. “I am sorry. I am hearing her name after a long time. Somebody’s speaking about her and giving me accounts of her life on Earth.”
Aizawl chest heaved up and down as she touched Avah’s face. How was it possible? How can this be real?
Then she realised the mistake she has made. If the girl was asking for truth then she should know every ounce of it.
“Don’t touch me” she warned with fear and distress. Aizawl teared up this time bowing her head low. She didn’t pronounce her disease loudly. It was the last gift from the fifteen years of relationship has brought her. She wasn’t angry with him. He must have slept with numerous woman. Aizawl had only one lover and he died on her lap that February morning and death was culturing inside her too. She went to the hospital every weekend to collect the medicine and woke up every morning with disappointment. She was enduring life as lonely as it was. Painting her face, lips and eyes with odd colours. Some days shutting inside this cave like hole she called home.
She sometimes sang herself to sleep. She had his shirt and sometimes clutched it and smell him in his clothes. She had kept his ashtray that had his last cigarette. His shoes and the rolled up socks inside that shoe. His tea mug and his shaving cream. She used them to smell him.
This house , this girl in front of her suddenly made her miss him because now she was describing her the fatal disease.
“Don’t touch me, child” warm tears rolled down her cheeks. Her heart ached as she hugged herself, Avah looked at her with pitiful eyes. Confused as why such change of moods.
“I… I.. I am sick. Don’t touch me. This disease is dangerous. It’s a sin to touch a person like me. I have AIDS… I have AIDS. Don’t touch me.”
She hugged her self and cried.
Her body cold, she wanted to save the child of her best friend. How selfish she had been all evening letting her touch her sinful body. Her sick body. She wept bitterly.
She remembered Resham’s face the last time she had seen her. That short hair, her swollen eyes and the train whistling away to its destination. Aizawl had called Rehsam but she had bid her friend farewell on that platform.
There were many things to tell her but they all vanished inside her with the tears that were unstoppable.
“Don’t touch me” she whispered to herself until she felt her cold body pulled by a pair of hands.
Avah embraced her tightly into her warm chest and whispered into Aizawl’s ears, her voice barely audible in her choking voice.
“I know. I know that. I am here. I am here. It’s okay”
And for a moment Aizwal felt Reshams warm arms.
They both emptied their tears.
It was six thirty in the evening and the night was long.
The tea on the table had gone cold.
Rehsam’s photograph fell on the damp floor. The black hair in the picture touched her knees.
Her story had just began.