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“It’s embarrassing, but life before the conflict wasn’t as rosy either” she says.

Written by Mesak Takhelmayum (He/They)

Queerspeak 1.0

The conflict in Manipur is a complicated subject that even the people of the state have not been able to entirely grasp due to the many nuances. The violence brought me to work as a Trauma Response Volunteer in a relief camp situated at Moirang, Manipur. 

As a queer individual, I often found certain spaces intimidating even as I continued to work for the well being of others because I understand that fear is a common language to everyone in the state, especially because I am queer and many would choose to hate me. In the midst of all the tedious work and the fanfare of conflicts, I was unable to fathom what it meant to be queer until I met Sanamani; An internally displaced trans girl living in the relief camp. 

Our work in the relief camps mostly dealt with providing children a temporary space to inculcate academic and psycho-social learning. I headed to work early in the morning and would often first head to the Keithel (market) deity’s temple by the gate of the market turned relief camp. After closing my eyes in prayer, I sighed and gazed into the dark alleyway ahead, a silhouette of a girl covering herself with a long shawl appeared- frantically running towards my colleague who was a trans woman and called her ‘Eche’ (sister). My colleague had identified the trans girl prior to our meeting and had promised to bring her garments suitable for her, since the relief distribution of clothes was gender based and some inmates despised her for not adhering to the binary.

I introduced myself to her though she barely removed the shawl covering her face. However, as the sorting of the clothes began taking time, she eventually removed the fabric and lent me a smile. I called her ‘Nii’. 

Nii and I eventually met more often and opened up to each other regarding our experiences as queer people in the midst of conflict, a very strange time to be alive and a strange way to survive. She intended to resume her 12th standard classes in a new institution but said she couldn’t afford the uniforms and the travel expenses though everything else would be provided free of cost. I worried for her because the repercussions of the violence had taken away so much, not only homes and entire towns but also the access to education. I contacted Api, who is a friend of mine and the founder of Manipur LGBTQ+. Furthermore, as a core member myself, we decided to come together and do something. We decided to initiate a fundraiser for her and took up the initiative to understand her needs better. 

We collectively informed Nii about it and she was immensely elated, reckoning how important it is for her to be able to complete her education. I met her in the relief camp around late October and decided to hear her narrate her story. “It’s embarrassing, but life before the conflict wasn’t as rosy either” she says. Nii, like many other meitei trans girls, was very passionate about the traditional arts. Prior to the conflict, she longed to visit Moirang town to offer a dance to the deity of Mount Thangjing (one of the most powerful deities in the Meitei pantheon). Her inability to afford the traditional Meitei attire made her resort to saving up money by working as a labourer.  Nii conveyed that ‘It at times felt humiliating’, the constraints of looking at herself not as a tender girl but a woman mixing raw cement and sieving the sand for countless hours, while bricks tore through her delicate 17 year old skin , the only reminder that she is a teenager. 

“On the 3rd of May-3pm, we heard blaring noises of stones hitting against the electric poles of our village, these were warning signals informing the people of our village to run for their lives. People unanimously continued crying how the other community was approaching us and that we must flee. It was intensely excruciating because I was still clad in my labour clothes but had to find my mother so that we could take to our heels. Eventually, it seemed like things would be controlled but the ungodly sight of the neighbouring village being lit up in flames with smoke rising up to the mountain peaks made me surmise- we had to definitely leave“. 

Nii relays how tensed she was for her mother who survived an almost fatal electric shock the previous year, hence, she has been facing difficulty in her mobility. The chaos amidst the glaring red lining the horizon and the smoke that dwarfed the villages ensued from the ethnic conflict that began from a protest that went awry in the town of Churachandpur. Now, to ensure her and her family’s security they could only head towards the Meitei dominated regions up North. Nii is finally with me in Moirang, a town where she envisioned she would offer a graceful dance. Unfortunately, she isn’t here at the deity’s courtyard to showcase her performance, she is here to perform survival. She said “And all I can think of is returning’’ as she shares the tale of her recent but age old pain- the feeling of uncertainty, of being ignored. Her melancholic story is a song of loss and pain as we both weep embracing the human experience.  


On an optimistic note, the fundraiser was a success and we were able to raise around 10,000 rupees which also allowed us to support a trans girl in another relief camp. Nii continues to attend college on days when it’s possible amidst the various curfew impositions and bandhs. She continues to also think of other ways to support her family during their hapless ordeal. As people left homeless by the violence, her ambition is all that she has for home is simply ashes in the wind now. 

I made an appointment with her to conduct this interview and we had to navigate between her busy schedule because she now works as a seamstress. When I finally met her, her words and gestures respectfully gave me her attention but her eyes and her fingers were focused on the fabric that she continued to embellish with sequins and pierce with needles. I initially recounted the series of the events I mentioned above leading up to the first time I saw her, her hair wasn’t as long but the shadow of her shawl-covered silhouette made it seem like she was the goddess herself. “How beautiful you are!” I exclaimed, and she grinned. 

“This never ending conflict...You heard about the deaths yesterday?” she asked me, I could only nod my head because I was still processing how blunt the conflict has made us. Nii tells me that before the conflict, all she could think of was leaving home and exploring the world, but now that she is certain home is just a memory engulfed by the flames- she’s unable to suppress the pangs of returning, almost like an unquenchable thirst. I ask her if she wishes to go on a ride and we head towards the shores of the Loktak lake, an ancient body of water whose beauty could relieve our sadness. “Do you feel better?” I ask her, she remains silent. So many feelings regarding love and life, small stories like ours that convey friendship made possible by violence. The possibility of finding home and belonging because we’re both ostracized but can also rely on each other because we’re queer, and it gives us purpose. 

We returned soon after and I dropped her in the relief camp where she immediately began tending to the fabric again. I asked her, “What are you making?” She smiles and lets out a sigh, then informs me “It’s a traditional attire for dancers, but it’s not mine”. A strong gust of wind blew as I bid farewell to my friend, right before she was out of sight I glanced behind once more, she waved goodbye with the fabric being lifted up by the breeze as she tried to contain it.

I could smell smoke in the air, something must be happening somewhere again, or maybe it’s those ashes that call her. This painful but blissful feeling, home is in the wind for us.

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