Selvam’s Story From Nandini Krishnan’s Invisible Men

Nandini Krishnan

In Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks Nandini Krishnan burrows deep into the prejudices encountered by India’s transmen, the complexities of hormonal transitions and sex reassignment surgery, issues of social and family estrangement, and whether socioeconomic privilege makes a difference. An excerpt: 

Selvam has a gift for narration. In person, he would tell me a linear story, leaving out the most dramatic elements. Then he would leave me voice notes and text messages with snippets. ‘Appodhaan “effect” irukkum,’ he would say. His anecdotes were designed to have ‘effect’. Usually, the most dramatic of these were relayed to me under the most casual circumstances, as he was adjusting the air conditioner from the passenger seat of my car or screaming into my helmet while riding pillion on my scooter.

He had ‘nearly died’ often, and he told me he liked the expressions of abject horror with which I greeted his accounts of narrow escapes. He would credit these escapes to his determination to live, and credit this determination to the love of his life. Without her, life was nothing, he said. ‘I don’t know why I’m alive now,’ he would say with a sigh.

18 December 2016

WhatsApp Voice Note 1:

‘Hi, how are you? You asked me to tell you my story bit by bit.’

I was the third of a family that would expand to six children, and then reduce to five. My younger brother, born a year after I was, was my best friend. He loved dogs. He once brought a puppy home, and it was everything to him. He would spend the entire day with the puppy, feeding it and cleaning up after it. When he was six years old, the neighbours gave my brother poisoned milk. I think they were jealous that there were six of us—three boys, two girls, and me, the one on whom biology had played a trick—and they didn’t have children. I still remember the way he died. His head literally burst. I remember the boils on his head, the way he would cry all day and all night. Since then, I can’t bear to be around dogs, because they make me think of my brother and the way he would play with the puppy.

People ask me how I remember so much from events that occurred when I was not even seven. I remember everything. Sometimes, I wish my memory were less vivid. I wouldn’t have had to start my story with such a sordid incident. But mine is a sordid story. Perhaps the episodes I treasure are sweeter for the bitter notes, like sugar after neem leaves.

20 December 2016

WhatsApp Voice Note 2:

‘Hi! How are you? It’s raining. Do you like the rain? I like the rain. It makes me think of love. I feel sad. But I feel happy too.’

I remember the first time I fell in love. I was four. She was four. She was my teacher’s daughter, and I think I went to tuition only so that I could see her. I don’t remember her name now, but I remember how pretty she was in her pink frocks and the red ribbons that always hung loose on her little plaits because she liked twirling them.

Real love happened much later, when I was fifteen. I’m still in love with her. Nothing mattered to her. As far as she was concerned, I had always been a man and would always be one. Every kiss from her was like a shot of Boost. I was a labourer, but if you saw me stride through the fields after meeting her, you would think I owned all the land you could see, and then some. Perhaps that’s how people remember me, as the guy who walked like Rajinikanth in Ejamaan through the fields. I can’t go back there any more. How can you go back to a village where a girl who loved you and whom you loved once was, and keep from killing yourself?

WhatsApp Voice Note 3:

‘It’s still raining. I’m still thinking about that girl. Do you know how much drama there is in my life? I became a man because of my girlfriend. I also nearly died because of her.’

I was always a man on the inside. But then I became one to the world the day we decided to run away. The plan was to change into a man’s clothes, lop off my hair, and then become that most romantic of things—a couple on the run. It was the closest we had come to living the celluloid life we had so admired, but the guy who was to become its hero very nearly became a victim of the villains.

It was the closest we had come to living the celluloid life we had so admired, but the guy who was to become its hero very nearly became a victim of the villains.

I went into the gents’ bathroom near the bus stop, and changed into the clothes I had stolen from my brother earlier that day. I came out in men’s clothes, and found myself surrounded by a group of rowdies.

‘What’s going on—you went in wearing a paavaadai, and you come out in pant-shirt?’ one of them asked.

I knew I was fucked.

I could smell the sweat and alcohol on all of them, five, six, seven, I didn’t know how many.

And here they were, towering over me.

 ‘Oh, it’s nothing, brother,’ I said, calmly—I’m always calm when I know I’m fucked, because it’s the only real option—and gathered some phlegm to make my high-pitched voice deeper. ‘There’s been some girl trouble. I’ve had to run away with her. So I wore women’s clothes, and put on this wig. I’m going to remove it when we’re far enough out to be safe from her family. They’re following us with sickles.’

Now, their leers morphed into empathetic expressions.

The one thing you can trust our rowdies to understand is the unfairness of the world where love is concerned. ‘Love’ probably didn’t have the same connotations to them as it did to me—with rowdies, love is usually one-sided; the girl’s consent is of no consequence. What they do know is that outrunning an angry family armed with sickles requires ignominious improvisation, and passing off for a girl is as clever a disguise as any.

Love’ probably didn’t have the same connotations to them as it did to me—with rowdies, love is usually one-sided; the girl’s consent is of no consequence.

They told me where the first bus would come, and also suggested I wear my disguise a little longer, until we had switched buses at the next junction.

We shared a few beers, and then I went on my way.

I’d had the foresight to stuff a sock into my trousers.

Excerpted with permission from Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks, Nandini Krishnan, Penguin Random House India. 320 pp, Rs 699

Photo credit: Stalin Raghu

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