Breaking the Shackles- A short Fiction

by Chandrika R Krishnan

Nilesh absent-mindedly smiled his thanks as Anil, his co-worker, placed a glass of tender coconut water by his side. He played around with the Excel sheet, inserting a few formulas until the errant error was ferreted and rectified. He took pride in maintaining the daily accounts of Le Café, the exclusive coffee shop run by the marginalised community. It was half past twelve. The evenings would get busier with the discerning young making their way to enjoy the easy ambiance of Le Café off the Doddaballapur Road, located on the fringes of Bengaluru. This IT city was like a distastefully expanding oil slick, straining the aging civic infrastructure and people wanted to explore the outskirts. The pandemic and the aftermath had been difficult. But, now with traveling opening up with a vengeance, Le Café was once again turning into a “must-visit” haunt for the young and not-so-young crowd who were on the lookout for good music, conversation, reading and some fantastic food before calling it a night.

There was a concerted effort to overcome age-old barriers and embrace the ostensibly different. Historically and culturally, the community of hijras* was far from marginalised. They were invited to give their blessings, be it a wedding or the birth of a child. Yet down the centuries, they were kept at an arm’s distance by both state and society and slowly, they became a target for a few laughs and pleasure.

Running an expert eye around the café, Nilesh straightened a few cushions and replenished water for the vases which held fresh flowers. Post the pandemic, the café had added more outdoor seating under colourful awnings and it turned more popular than indoors. He was ahead with his chores as he wanted to spend time with Sonal, who had promised to “drop by on my way from the airport for a bite, before battling the infamous Bangalore traffic.” It was more than a year since he had last seen her. Having Sonal as his protector helped him during her transition, for which he was ever so grateful. The band around his chest tightened when he realised that she was weaning off his dependency on her. It cut him deep, the all-too-familiar despair of abandonment.

The likes of him never had it easy. Besides fighting the ignorant and the self-proclaimed messiahs of Indian culture and traditions, they had to wage an ever-present war against the Jamaat* support system too, which never was easy. A refusal to pay taxes to their Nayak,* often meant death. Without familial and societal support, they had no choice except to go with the cohabitation rules and be reduced to beggars and sex workers. And Sonal had been by his side, picking up pieces of both their lives.

Whenever Nilesh revisited his past it was with a she. She remembered the kindness of the elderly lady, who handed over some food items despite protests from her immediate family members stating quite firmly, “One banana or one cup of tea to someone needy is not going to make us poor!”

“Hey, Nilesh… planning to have your lunch or stand there looking pretty?” Brought to the present, Nilesh smiled at the good-natured guffaws that followed the remark. He glided into the kitchen where the rest of the staff were having lunch while getting prepped for the evening rush, “Sonal is stopping over, so was getting things ready,” he replied as he smiled his thanks when Padma handed over a full plate of his favourite Rajma Chawal – his ultimate comfort food and a throwback to his home.

Padma’s face showed the scars of the brutality from the man who took her for an evening of pleasure, leaving her with a broken mash of flesh, blood, and bones.

Her cooking was one of the reasons Le Café was a hit among its clientele. She still covered her face with a scarf and was rarely seen without one.

Sonal was a familiar name in their circle. She was there fighting the system or took on the long legal battle before the decriminalization of Article 377.   No number of threats and beatings stopped this fire-brand from fighting the cause.

“How did you come in contact with Sonal?”

Taking time to drink water to dislodge the lump in his throat, Nilesh answered the young girl undergoing the painful gender reassignment process. “Rohit, my brother’s friend… right from getting me tickets for the train, penning down a note with the escape plan and Sonal’s contact details, he did it all.” He paused, and then continued with a pained, “My own brother was ashamed of me… but Rohit wasn’t. I celebrated my thirteenth birthday partying with the rats and sharing their space in a shed in the far end of our garden!” None were surprised, for they all had faced something similar at their own homes.

Nilesh remembered the Nita in him fleeing, keeping to the shadows leaving behind the only world she knew towards a strange world that awaited her. Yet, she knew that staying behind was not an option if she had to stay alive and sane.

It was with some pain he remembered how her father, Sanjeev Sharma, used to announce with a decided cadence of pride, “I have two sons! Though Nita is a mere girl; she is equal to Manu in every which way and even my one and only wife agrees with me!” His belch punctuated his oft-repeated joke that it ceased being funny. To give her father due credit, he never paid heed to his “traditional” parents’ frequent lament, “Sanjeev, tell your wife to control Nita. What will her in-laws say if she gets married tomorrow? She is not at all like a girl. Our family honour will be spoilt.” Lots of importance and many a death happened over this abstract form of family honour and “family’s pride” was concerned.

From childhood, Nita hated being dressed as a girl or playing with one. She found it easier to hang out with her brother and his friends though it irritated her brother, Manu.

Nita’s mother tried to unsuccessfully tame her recalcitrant daughter. Living in a joint family, she faced the constant haranguing from her in-laws and was reminded of her ineptitude as a mother.

As time passed, Nita became a loner knowing she was different from other girls. She found herself avoiding the mirror. Her body felt alien when she soaped herself. She wanted to share with her mother, but what could she say? Ma, I don’t know what I feel… but I feel a fake, an impostor. I feel like ending it all.

She buried her nose in her studies to escape the relentlessness of being. If there was another thing more sacred to Indians than familial honour, it was academics. The more she studied, the more marks she fetched, her teachers and parents loved her alike. This was another point in her favour as Manu just about managed to scrape through examinations. He often had to hear the words, “Why can’t you be like your sister?” Nita cringed as Manu smarted.  But all that changed on the day Manu at a “chauvinistic and nasty” fifteen saw her sneaking out of the boys’ washroom in school. She avoided washrooms and felt more of a voyeur in girls’ washroom as they adjusted their skirts or she caught on some intimate details of their relationship with other boys. She had sneaked in when she did not see anyone.

He had visibly backed off, his face reflecting the horror, disgust, and pride inherent in most boys in his community. Petrified, she reached out awkwardly, for she could never remember sharing a sibling moment with him. But, he viewed this as an opportunity of getting back at Nita for all his “imagined slights”. He felt that as a boy who rightfully carried forth his family’s lineage, he deserved more support and didn’t appreciate the fact that she was more beloved to his father. He loved the way the derogatory term “randi”,* rolled off his mouth and his voluble and torrential words emptied the classrooms of its teachers and students alike. He felt all grown up as he hurled abuses at his sister who stood sobbing in mortification, confusion, and an inability to explain, particularly when she did not know how to explain the changes happening within her body and mind. There were furious whispers as she was dragged into the principal’s room. The only person standing in the shadows feeling her pain was a dark-eyed boy who felt a keen moment of déjà vu. He wished he could punch Manu on his nose and hug Nita, but he wasn’t that brave.

A week before her thirteenth birthday, Manu finally came out of her shadow and Nita’s life, as she knew it, ended.

The doctor’s, “One extra chromosome can have this impact where it leaves the person aligning themselves to the gender opposite to what they were born into,” added to their confusion. He liberally sprinkled words like “transgender,” and “gender expression,” and “androgynous,” but they were way beyond the purview of her parents’ understanding and acceptance. They neither knew nor did they care. They went with the belief that any anomaly could be beaten into submission.

“One slap that would make her see stars would rectify her,” the father thundered.

“I have always been warning you in not giving girls far too much freedom,” said the grandmother with the glee that comes from being proved right.

The only consensus the family reached was that Nita was born imperfect and had to be hidden from family and neighbours as it was a question of family prestige. There were continuous visits to the “Swamiji” and “Maatji” in and around Lucknow. She was taken to temples, dargahs, gurudwaras and churches. Nita’s problem was such that it needed concerted and multi-pronged efforts of all Gods across faith and nothing like the present upheaval to lay the religious differences to rest.

She was subjected to innumerable “conversion treatments” all done by quacks. She endured the prying, prodding, pricking, and ingesting all kinds of vile concoctions. The so-called “holy men and women” subjected her to indignity and pain and all under the aegis of her parents. Bruised and broken, she had none to speak with or give an ear to her woes.

When nothing worked to their satisfaction, she was “jailed” in the shed to “tame her out of her wilfulness”. Sanjeev found himself ashamed of his daughter and had to slink away from all relatives and neighbours, who were wide-eyed with relentless curiosity, as not much can be hidden in a country like India, given its close-knit family and population density.

Despite Nita’s tears, supplications and entreaties to be understood, he stood firm that she “had to mend her ways or”… the rest of the threat was left unsaid. Her mother did nothing except sob bitter tears and she was made to feel that she was responsible for Nita’s failings as a woman- not even noticing that her girl had not got her first period.  No body heard her whisper that she herself got it only when she was fifteen.

The day she was left alone in the shed to shiver in the dark and cold was when she knew she was abandoned. She realised that for her parents, her death was more acceptable than having a eunuch in their midst.

Nita’s heart banged at her rib cage as she heard the scurrying sound of the mice outside the shed. She screamed. But what came out was a weak mewl thanks to the minimal food she was served. She felt, rather than saw, an envelope being pushed in from under the door. Peering into the note, she realised she had no option except to abide by Rohit’s detailed escape plan. The other alternative was certain starvation or worse – a fatal accident orchestrated by her father.

The train departs at eight in the evening, the note had read. Leave home a little after the evening Azan*. That way, you will know the time. Try to blend in with the crowd or be with a big family traveling together. Remember, this is your only chance to escape.

As she sprinted like one possessed towards the station, holding onto her meagre possessions, she knew it was the  beginning of another ordeal.

As the train chugged out of the platform, she muted her sobs with her palms, as she lay in a fetal position on the upper berth of the second-class compartment of ‘Lucknow – Yeshwanthpur Super-fast Express.’

She had little money besides the ticket and yet another set of telegraphic instructions from the note. Pretend to be confident and not show your nervousness in the new city or on the train. Yet no amount of pretence or her studious silence prevented the nosy, old, kind-hearted woman from being kind to her and wanting information till her adult son shushed her down. He did not want any “disruption” to their “tightly-packed itinerary.”

As the train settled down for the night, the mentally and physically bruised thirteen-year-old cowered under a thin shawl to protect her from the cold both from the outside and the inside. Mortification and bewilderment vied with one another as she wondered why she was made the way she was trapped in an alien skin. She felt like a rat for not being the kind of daughter her parents wanted. She carried with her, her father’s venomous words, “I would rather have a dead daughter than an in-between like you.”

Amidst this all, she wondered why the dark-haired boy helped her when her own brother abandoned her. Sonal had been strangely evasive on the topic of Rohit. Still, today, Nilesh was planning to get some kind of closure and an answer to many “whys.”

A little after five in the evening, Sonal got off the car, looking resplendent in red. She greeted each one of them with a ‘Sonalesque’ hug that warmed the dead and managed to extricate herself to make a trip to the kitchen to chat with Padma.

“Hmmm, this is heaven,” she said, tasting the new dish that was made in honour of Le Café’s Friday special and soon after, she suggested a stroll around the grounds. She chatted about his work, his plans and also was cautiously optimistic about the new relationship that she was in. “I hope to be an equal partner rather than only servicing the needs of another human being.”

The matter-of-fact disclosure brought a sting to Nilesh’s eyes for more reasons than one.

Together they made their way to the quaint bench overlooking the rock garden and continued, “You were a very frightened thirteen when you called me. I tried to keep the Jammat* bigwigs away from you.”  At that Nilesh remembered his broken nose and scars left behind on his arms. “Your FTM too did not come cheap.”

Brushing aside his stammering thanks, she continued, “I am not saying this to make you feel beholden to me. I would do it all over again if Rohit sends someone to me. Even as Nita, you were a strong person. It is not easy traveling the length of the country when you are that young. Each time you help one of our own, it is an indirect payment to me. That is all that I expect from you.”

Once again, he was being abandoned. Sonal kept a friendly arm around him while he struggled to control his churning emotions. “Trust me. Your present feelings for me are stronger and deeper because of convenience and comfort. A few years hence, I hope you will find yourself at peace with or without anyone by your side.”

“You are serious about this special person?” Nilesh asked, wondering what his name could be.

“Manas? I hope so.” She laughed and the hard lines she had embraced over the years melted away, leaving her face soft and luminous. “He is heterosexual. So, we do have our challenges with his family. Nilesh, other people’s lives might be a series of commas. But ours is more of an ellipsis, an unfinished business, people leaving something unsaid when they meet us. It is better we accept that.”

Glancing at her watch, she took out her phone and swiped across. Tousling his hair like any sister would a brother, “Call Rohit, have forwarded the number. He too would like to hear from you. He might come for my wedding.” Giving him a quick hug, she took leave of him.

Riding an emotional roller-coaster, it took Nilesh a few minutes to come out of his stupor to call out, “Sonal, what’s Rohit to you? Why did he help me?”

With tears glistening, she said, “He is my brother. He was just ten when I was thrown out. He might have understood me better after seeing you.”

Through a kaleidoscope of images, Nilesh re-lived Nita’s life as she knew it then, remembering how her father’s pride turned to confusion, then to seething anger at both her and her mother. Her brother’s status as a ‘male child doing no wrong’ was restored after the fallout kept his distance. Above all, he remembered the dark-eyed boy, his glance of understanding, his way of ensuring her escape as she clutched the note in her hand. He owed this stranger a call.

The turn of ignition brought Nilesh from his reverie and he was left looking at the tail lights of the car that was taking Sonal towards the beautiful hues of the setting sun.

 

Glossary:
Beta: child/ endearment
Randi- derogatory for female with ‘loose’ morals
Azan- Evening Islamic call for prayers over the loudspeaker.
Hijras- transgender
Jammat- a support system for transgenders that keeps their people bound in that system
Chelas: New entrants into the fold.

FTM- Female to Male surgery

This blog post is part of the blog challenge ‘Blogaberry Dazzle’
hosted by Cindy D’Silva and Noor Anand Chawla
in collaboration with Dr. Preeti Chauhan.

This story was a part of the anthology published by HydRaw in their collection Ellipsis 

Loading

Don’t miss the posts!

We don’t spam! Please make sure to verify subscription via email.

You may also like

30 comments

Preeti Chauhan June 22, 2024 - 11:38 am

The story of Nilesh and hundreds of other nameless marginalized people in our society was so thought-provoking and I am sure, everyone who ha been treating them badly might feel a tinge of empathy after reading this work. Great work Chandrika!

Reply
Chandrika R Krishnan June 26, 2024 - 12:13 pm

Thank you Preeti. glad you liked it

Reply
ambica gulati June 23, 2024 - 7:45 am

I’ve heard many stories about the abandonment of queer children. And have always wondered why people must sit on judgement on Nature’s ways. I guess, we will never know the reason, till then we can ponly spread awarness about it, like your story does.

Reply
Chandrika R Krishnan June 26, 2024 - 12:07 pm

Yes. I too heard about it. Thank you so much

Reply
Ratna June 24, 2024 - 10:28 am

Beautiful, warmhearted, and hopeful story. It is tales like this that give courage for people to come out of their closets and embrace who they are!

Reply
Kaveri Chhetri June 25, 2024 - 3:08 pm

hmmmm… I feel so bad and sad but also a little hopeful after reading your story Chandrika. It already is a difficult life plus the taunts, judgements, harshness, hatred and abandonment that they have to encounter.

Reply
Chandrika R Krishnan June 26, 2024 - 11:53 am

Thank you so much. Yes, they are often subjected to taunts. I wish people were kinder and more accepting of people

Reply
Chandrika R Krishnan June 26, 2024 - 11:56 am

Thank you so much. I am glad you liked it

Reply
Meetali Kutty June 24, 2024 - 11:41 am

Wow, Chandrika, this story is so powerful and inspiring! The way you captured the struggle and eventual triumph resonated deeply with me. It’s a beautiful reminder that we all have the strength to break free and redefine our paths. Thank you for sharing this!

Reply
Chandrika R Krishnan June 26, 2024 - 11:56 am

Thank you so much. I guess, it is easier in fiction than in real life. But more power to those who want to bring about change

Reply
Vidya Sanath June 24, 2024 - 11:56 am

The beautiful story leaves behind a trail of hope and positivity. The apt use of vocabulary made the story come alive. Well crafted.

Reply
Chandrika R Krishnan June 26, 2024 - 11:55 am

Thank you so much Vidya. I am glad you loved it

Reply
Pamela Mukherjee June 24, 2024 - 7:06 pm

Wow, I loved the story. It was very thought-provoking, powerful, and surely inspiring. The characters of Nilesh and Sonal are definitely worth remembering. I loved the way you ended the plot with an open-ended question to society.

Reply
Chandrika R Krishnan June 26, 2024 - 11:54 am

Thank you. Yes the ending is very special to me too. I didn’t want the usual cliched love but a moving on kind

Reply
Samata June 24, 2024 - 8:35 pm

The story is absolutely a thought provoking one and the way you crafted the characters small and big in this short fiction turned the story very emotional and touchy for me. I really feel bad about the thought process of the society. why cant they live and let live everyone in the society. Its our life and so it should be our choice the way we want to lead.

Reply
Chandrika R Krishnan June 26, 2024 - 11:54 am

Thank you so much Samata. I too wish people were more accepting. I have often noticed people laughing. I wish they didn’t do that.

Reply
Varsh June 25, 2024 - 4:15 pm

This is such a beautiful and heartbreaking story. If parents could accept what their children felt and wanted to be there wouldn’t be so many lonely people like Nilesh in the world. It was good to see him become independent and people like Sonal holding their hand while doing it.

Reply
Chandrika R Krishnan June 26, 2024 - 11:52 am

Thank you so much. I guess it is very difficult choice for most of us to embrace fully and completely. Yes, the world of Nita and Nilesh is indeed lonely.

Reply
Harjeet Kaur June 26, 2024 - 12:07 pm

Very well written story, dear. It evokes empathy and sadness but there is a glimmer of hope too. I wish people would understand and not treat their own kids as a quirk of fate. Your story highlights the age old turmoil of acceptance the transgenders are seeking from family or society.

Reply
Chandrika R Krishnan June 26, 2024 - 12:21 pm

Thank you so much Harjeet. Yes, a difficult time for everyone-family and the transgenders themselves

Reply
Manali June 26, 2024 - 8:58 pm

What a beautiful story of inclusivity and acceptance. In my mind, I see Nilesh and Rohit finding a HEA after this.
You made me aware of so many terms associated with the transexual and transgender community, so firstly thank you for that. You’ve put in details even about supporting characters like Padma whose story I found the most moving, and Rohit, who doesn’t even appear here. That’s the mark of a good storyteller. So kudos for that 👏

Reply
Docdivatraveller June 27, 2024 - 11:50 pm

Excellent piece of writing Chandrika! Really loved reading it!

Reply
Neeta Kadam June 28, 2024 - 11:44 am

Beautiful story. I hope after reading this story people may have changed their perspective towards queer children. I saw personally one of this queer child in my childhood. They have to go lot of through this bad world and people. Hope people will be acceptable.

Reply
Janaki June 28, 2024 - 1:07 pm

Despite all the awareness, people still believe that sexuality and feelings around it is something one can control and alter. That’s sad. Why can’t we just let people be the way they are comfortable? I know it will take a good many number of years befre anything positive happens in this country around LGBTQIA rights.

Reply
Madhu Bindra June 28, 2024 - 2:56 pm

Beautiful story. The community still does not get the respect it deserves. It is like the old saying, what people do not understand, they try to destroy it. Families are the first to abandon them.

Reply
Caroline June 28, 2024 - 3:59 pm

A beautifully crafted story with good characters and through provoking. So many pride stories to read this month.

Reply
Ritu Bindra June 28, 2024 - 6:48 pm

A beautiful story with hope. Instead of trying to “fix” the LGBT community, they need to be embraced and brought into the mainstream. For every Lia Thomas, there are countless who suffer in silence.

Reply
Aditi Kapur June 28, 2024 - 11:19 pm

Very few people discuss gender change and related issues. I’m glad that you wrote a beautiful story that brings hope and acceptance.

Reply
Felicia June 29, 2024 - 7:16 pm

Beautiful. I’ve learned that true strength comes from the bonds we forge.

Reply
Jeannine July 4, 2024 - 5:47 pm

This post is a powerful exploration of identity and resilience. Nilesh’s journey is heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful. The ending leaves you wanting more, especially about his connection to Rohit.

Reply

Leave a Comment