Man? Woman? Khuki.

Our house in our native village in Bardhaman marked the end of what my parents called the ‘cultured para‘ (cultured locality). Standing at the border of the upper and lower caste settlements, the house tried to appear – both in its values and attitude – liberal.

My uncles took pride in the fact that unlike in any other upper-caste houses in the village, they employed and allowed “those people” inside our house. Employed as domestic workers and manual labourers who farmed the rice-fields, “they” were allowed up the stairs but never inside the rooms. My uncles were friendly, and also encouraged us to play with their children.

That’s how during one summer vacation, I met Khuki – a free-spirited, lucid, carefree five-year-old child.

She was my age, but shorter, slimmer and smaller. Shocked by my city ways, she taught me essential skills such as climbing trees and stealing fruits. As that summer melted into seconds, we became friends. I returned to Kolkata to a rather mundane life. Khuki had made every other friend of mine seem boring and dull. I longed to go back – not to the house or the village, but to her.

After that, Khuki became an irreplaceable part of my vacation. Years passed by, but we remained the same. She became a part of my life which I concealed from my friends in Kolkata. When the elders denied us entry into certain areas of the house, we played in the fields and would be left covered in mud and sweat.

Over the years, Khuki started dressing like a boy. She cut her hair short, wore her father’s shirts and pants, and pierced her own eyebrow (which later got infected – there is still a scar). With a passion for dancing, she dreamed of flight. But she was mocked and ridiculed. One day while we were playing in the courtyard, one of my uncles asked her, “Tui ki chele na meye? (Are you a man or a woman?)”. Khuki stopped what she was doing, stood up, looked at my uncle with anger burning in her eyes, and said very calmly, “Ami Khuki (I am Khuki)”, and left.

My parents warned me that she was a bad influence. They discouraged me to be around her. But how could I not? She was so much more than they could ever see. She was Khuki – Khuki, with whom I smoked my first cigarette; who kissed me for the first time; with whom I watched my first porn film; whose touch sent jolts of thunder down my spine; with whom I had envisioned a forever.

So, I sneaked out of our house to meet her in open fields, behind old withered trees and in an abandoned cow-shed that she had turned into her home.

We lay on the floor and looked out of the tiny window as music with incomprehensible lyrics played in the background. She taught me the latest choreographies she had mastered and we giggled endlessly for hours. As she embraced me tightly, my head on her chest, her heart thumping, I imagined the world disappearing outside the room. We spent every afternoon together.

When I returned to Kolkata, things felt empty.

While I lived my comfortable teenage life in the city, 14-year-old Khuki was struggling. She finally rebelled and left the village to join a dance troop. I got the news from my father and felt happy, for she had done what I could never.

That summer, Khuki was not there. But I still sneaked out in the afternoons to visit all the places we had made our own. I met her again during the Puja vacations. She told me stories of the places she visited. A sense of ecstasy had taken over her. She was more herself than ever.

One afternoon as I lay on the floor, she sat next to me, looked into my eyes and said, “Ami chele (I am a man).”

I looked at her surprised – not by her confession, but by the suddenness of it. “Ami pagol (I am crazy),” he said, cutting the silence.

I looked at him and said, “Na. Tui Khuki (No. You are Khuki).”

Khuki dyed his hair red that day. He wore a buttoned shirt and a pair of skinny jeans, and danced beautifully on stage in front of hundreds of people at the mela. The euphoria of it all unearthed me and I felt drunk with joy. But the people of the village didn’t approve of what they saw. For a lower-caste trans-man to exist effortlessly and unapologetically amongst them was infuriating. Complaints were made and his father was put under pressure to put Khuki in his place.

Coincidentally, we didn’t visit the village during the summer that year. The next time I saw Khuki was when he came to our house during Puja. Draped in a red saree, he asked my parents for their blessings. He had grown his hair.

I later found out from my mother that 15-year-old Khuki had been married to a widower 22 years older and was pregnant with his child. My mother said, “It’s good for her.”

Horrified by what had come to pass for Khuki, I couldn’t sleep that night.

Now, I see the darkness that has overcome him over the years. Though 22, he is old, grizzled and diminished – as if he has led many lives in just a few years. Gone are his charm and radiance. He has become a creature unknown to me.

As he gets distorted in front of my eyes with every passing year – his original frame fading away in distant memory – all I see is a ten year old looking into my uncle’s eyes and saying without any hesitation, “Ami Khuki (I am Khuki).”

Udhriti Sarkar is a postgraduate English Literature student at Calcutta University. When she is not obsessing over fictional characters, she tends to observe people and write about them. You can find her on Instagram @udhriti

Featured illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty