Review of Santa Khurai’s The Yellow Sparrow — Memoir of a Transgender Woman: Living to fight another day

Santa Khurai has battled for equality for the Manipuri transgender community, a struggle which began with her own rights

Published - May 17, 2024 09:01 am IST

Santa Khurai

Santa Khurai | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

If the status of Nupi Maanbis or transgender women in Manipur has improved for the better, a lot of credit should go to Santa Khurai who has battled her whole life for equal rights for the community, starting with herself. Even to be called a transgender, and not by some derogatory name, was a long fight.

She was 17 when Santa Khurai, born male, and hailing from the majority Meitei community, decided to start dressing as a woman, claiming her female identity. It wasn’t easy. “From my younger years till the present, I have had to face events of a different nature and magnitude,” she writes in her author’s note: “Disappointment, despair, lies, mockery, disrespect have been a constant part of my life.” While her father openly expressed his displeasure at her feminine nature, her mother, she says, felt humiliated to face neighbours, friends and relatives. “None of the hardships the three of us experienced were our fault, each of us was right in our own way.”

Locals fishing in Loktak lake in Manipur.

Locals fishing in Loktak lake in Manipur. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

No shelters

This acceptance — that she was right in her own way — gave her the confidence to fight for her rights and that of other Nupi Maanbis like her. Her incredible memoir is a lesson in the need for empathy; and why it’s important to look out for people considered “different”. The ‘yellow sparrow’ of the title is a poem she wrote about a helpless, injured bird who could not fly away with the pack, and one she rescued. The bird’s plight made her draw a parallel with her own life.

The Yellow Sparrow will remind readers of another poignant memoir, From Manjunath to Manjamma, by B. Manjamma Jogathi, written with Harsha Bhat, in which the transgender folk artist chronicles her difficult journey and shines a light for the next generation.

Growing up, Manjamma and Santa Khurai did not have people like them to look up to, a sentiment echoed in Aditya Tiwari’s celebration of the lives of 19 individuals, from Vikram Seth and Ritu Dalmia to Rituparno Ghosh and Dutee Chand, in Over the Rainbow: India’s Queer Heroes.

Tiwari grew up gay in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, where “you couldn’t be openly gay.” As a teenager, he writes that there weren’t enough people around him in whose shade he could take shelter. In the anthology, he tells the stories of people, some gay, some transgender, some rich, some poor, who have one thing in common: “the battles they faced and won both socially and humanly are immense. Each has made India an easier and a better place for the next generation of the LGBTQ+ community.”

Against all odds

Like Manjamma and the others, Santa Khurai seemed determined to make something of her life too against all odds. While Manjamma took to folk dance, for Santa Khurai, a glimmer of hope came when she got a job at a beauty parlour in her second year of college; eventually she would open her own parlour and do what she loved, be a make-up artist, but disappointments followed. The stress of the business and her own struggles led her to drug addiction, one of the lowest points in her life. The other being the constant scrutiny for HIV. When she saw that there was a wide gap opening up between her on the one side and family and society on the other, she began to get tested for HIV — “the number of my reports could fill an entire register.”

But this hurdle pushed her towards a new direction. It led her to ask questions that were never raised in the past: “I became aware of the oppression around me and the need to fight it.” She began to speak at forums on transgender rights and became a Nupi Maanbi activist in earnest as secretary of the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association. By then, she had successfully beaten her drug addiction too. In her book, she highlights some of the complex issues faced by the community in the State, which is a highly militarised zone.

Kukis look at a memorial wall with  photographs of those who died in the ethnic violence in Manipur.

Kukis look at a memorial wall with photographs of those who died in the ethnic violence in Manipur. | Photo Credit: Reuters

At a recent literary festival, speaking about the conflict back home, she also expressed her fear for Kukis and other tribals who have had to leave Imphal and return to their villages where being transgender will not be easy. In the epilogue she writes on the violence that erupted in Manipur in May last year and its aftermath. “The idea of home has been completely destroyed by the ongoing communal strife,” she says.

Santa Khurai learnt to fly on her own terms, albeit after many ups and downs, and lives to fight another day.

The Yellow Sparrow: Memoir of a Transgender Woman; Santa Khurai, Translated from the Manipuri by Rubani Yumkhaibam, Speaking Tiger, ₹499.

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