“Shaming and insult were always a regular experience for me. I took every insult as a new learning, every rejection as a strength.” So writes Santa Khurai in her memoir, The Yellow Sparrow, which takes its title from a poem she wrote during her adolescence after an argument with her father. It tells the story of a sparrow born with yellow feathers hidden away by its mother and not allowed to leave the nest unlike its siblings. Once it discovers its unique identity, it joyfully embraces it in spite of the mother’s worries about how it would be treated in the outside world. Santa is the titular bird here. In her own words: “My desire to be a woman, a beautiful, fashionable woman, was so strong that I was not afraid of challenging anything that came in the way… I felt that I could bear anything but I could not live like a man…”
The challenges in her life have certainly been many. From within the family at home and the society at large in Khurai where she lived to the violence meted out by repressive state apparatuses and the rejections she faced from within her community, Santa has had to overcome a lot to be where she is now. She faced numerous barriers when it came to education and employment, particularly since she wanted to live her truth without any secrets or subterfuge. She writes: “The woman in me could neither be vanquished nor hidden somewhere in order to adjust myself to a world that was replete with selfish people and their selfish criticism.” Her father was firmly opposed to her way of living and she was considered to be the black sheep of the family. While her mother did support her in some ways and shielded her from her father’s anger, she also failed to truly understand her and often caused her anguish.
Community came in the form of fellow “homos” and a realisation about their shared identity at the age of sixteen. “‘Homo’ [in Manipur],” as Santa writes, “was a derogatory term, associated with all kinds of obnoxious characters, like men whose behaviour, physical features and character was deviant from the conventional idea of manliness or masculinity.” There was no distinction, as such, between gay men, trans femme people, or those who were non-binary. For the most part, this generalisation is maintained in the memoir although she also uses native terms such as “Nupa Maanbi” and “Nupa Maanba” to show differences. Since Manipuri is a gender neutral language, gender is assigned through names; pronouns themselves do not indicate identities. In this engagin English translation by Rubani Yumkhaibam, “he” is used for “homos”, be it ‘feminine’ men or transgender women, to maintain that neutrality.
So, Santa began to seek out friendships with the people similar to her who also could not shed the self that was at odds with society’s strictures: “It was a period of vital importance in my life, it seemed that the seeds of the future were sown in those moments.” Santa Khurai perfectly describes the inner worlds of queer people, their ingenuity and enterprising, their resilience, the bonds they form with each other as found families. This is not to say that they were all one-mind on every issue and there were no disagreements or fights. In fact, Santa got a lot of flak from the community for being intentionally ‘provocative’. She was frank in both dress and dialogue, not willing to make any compromises with her identity in order to draw less attention. She wore feminine clothes and makeup in public, refusing to keep conforming to her male assigned at birth identity, and their frequent criticisms hurt.
Santa states, “To conform to society’s expectations, at the cost of banishing my own self and the desire ingrained in my blood, was a form of slavery to me.” Such an assertion, accompanied by her bold attitude and forthright behaviour, came at the cost of alienation. The alienation was also coupled with violence in some cases, especially at the hands of other men who were probably threatened in their masculinity or did not like the disavowal of social norms, be it insurgents, police and army men, or just thugs encountered late at night. Restrained by the shackles of society, Santa and her fellow “homo” friends were always on the lookout for a place of their own where they could freely be themselves without judgement. There was no public space that was there for them, at least for long. They often resorted to deserted places and odd hours or visited each other’s homes or spent time together at small shops and vendors.
Love and romantic relationships were also out of reach for someone like Santa. She frequently saw her friends get into relationships with men who would later break their hearts and abandon them for more ‘traditional’ marriages. Her infatuation with a boy much younger than her ended in chaos and pain. Later on, her marriage to a cis heterosexual man turned abusive and she eventually left him as things escalated. It did not help that she was frequently in dire straits in terms of money and lived in precarity since she was not interested in the jobs afforded by her education. Her beauty parlour business, while an initial success, also folded after her partner left to start on their own and she became increasingly addicted to painkiller meds. But this proved to be another hurdle in her path which she overcame with sheer will. When she was successful in fighting off the addiction, a new phase of her life began.
“I want to be somebody with some worth,” Santa writes, “able to command respect from society.” An oft-repeated sentiment in her memoir, this is perhaps what draws her to people work and human rights activism when she begins working at All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMaNa) and Solidarity and Action Against HIV Infection in India (SAATHI). She clearly also has a lot of love for her homeland even though her life there has been rocky. The memoir showcases a strong sense of place about lived realities in Manipur with detailed descriptions of traditional festivals and celebrations. The political upheavals in the state also directly inform the narrative and are not relegated to just the background. Santa has become increasingly aware of how the Northeast is continuously sidelined in mainstream/mainland conversations around gender and sexuality. She does not claim to know everything and highlights her new learnings throughout the book. In her turn, she wants to strongly “advocate for a more democratic and secular transgender and queer movement.”