Georgia, USA 2012
Rudra and Akash
She was afraid to come out of the locker
Two, three, four, tell the people what she wore!
The music blared outside the apartment. Sudha rang the bell. Akash opened the door. The new multicolour fluorescent disco lights, in the darkroom, were making Rudra’s body illuminate into pink, yellow, red, blue, green, violet. His teeth were shining bright white in the alternate prismatic lights. Rudra was wearing his new V-shaped underwear. Sudha’s bikini was tied around Rudra’s chest. Her stole was tied on his head in a plaited hairstyle. The centre table was shifted on one side to create space for a dance floor. Rudra was jumping, “Two, three, four…” dancing and swaying on the tunes that had titillated Sudha, a few years back. He sang loudly in his childlike voice.
That she wore for the first time today.
Sudha was indignant, “How could you? You’re encouraging him!”
Akash replied, “Calm down Sudha! He’s just four years old. I dressed him in a bikini just for fun. Remember, you also decked him up as ‘Radha’ on Janmashtami for our Indian Community Centre function. You went overboard with make-up, lipstick, rouge, and whatnot! And yes, when he insisted on nail paint, you lovingly applied that too.”
“That’s different, he was dressed as Radha because a taller boy was chosen, beforehand, to play Kanha.” Explained Sudha.
Akash quipped, “So, you agreed to make him play Radha. Was there no other child?”
Sudha: “No, there wasn’t and you know why? You are arguing over an irrelevant issue. My point is, don’t make him wear girls’ clothing.”
Rudra was confused, ‘Why’s Mumma angry? She loves music. She danced with me the other day when papa was out of town. Why does she keep fighting with papa?’
“Rudra!” Sudha shouted, “Take it off and wear your t-shirt.” She switched off the irritating, flickering disco lights.
“But Mumma, we were having fun. I look nice. Please, let me wear it.” Rudra pleaded with her.
Sudha unhooked the red bra Rudra was wearing and pulled it out, “Dare you to touch it, again.”
Akash screamed, “Sudha, are you mad?”
Sudha replied, “Akash, why are you making a Manish out of Rudra? You can’t change the past.”
She marched inside her room muttering, ‘I should have seen this coming. Akash needs to see a psychologist.’
That she wore for the first time today.’
Akash couldn’t say anything. He couldn’t bear to see history repeating itself. He picked Rudra in his arms, kissed him. A tear fell on his cheek. Both hugged tightly. Akash switched off the music.
Two, three, four, stick around we’ll tell you more!
“Ah! Rama, your younger son takes after you. He’ll be a fair and handsome man unlike Akash who takes his father’s dark complexion and rough features. You know Rama, if a son takes his mother’s genes, it brings good luck to him.” Rama’s heart would swell with pride whenever ladies complimented her on Manish’s beautiful fine features. Little did she know that it would soon turn into a bane.
During her first pregnancy, her husband, Tej Pratap, told her to strictly follow all the rituals as suggested by his mother. The firstborn should be a boy. Rama visited the temples, performed all sorts of prayers, fasted, and religiously obeyed whatever was advised by elders. She gave birth to Akash, Tej’s pride. When she conceived for the second time, she secretly prayed for a girl. She observed all the rituals like her first pregnancy, perforce, but in her heart, she wished for a companion in the house of men. When Manish was born, she was a little disappointed but accepted it as God’s will.
There was something different about Manish. He was adorable as a kitten with a ‘touch me not’ attitude. He would keep standing along with her in the kitchen. When Tej called Manish, he would shyly peep to have a look, hiding behind her, holding her pallu.
Manish never agreed to wrestle with the relatives’ children. He loved playing hopscotch with the neighbour’s daughters. Every visitor would admire his cute childish recitations or mild mannerism. Whereas, all relatives were wary of Akash who was naughty and would bully kids.
Manish was growing up. The sweet activities of dancing and singing in childhood soon became a subject of mockery.
Rama’s elder son, Akash, had an athletic body like his father. His broad shoulders, a deep husky voice and a fearless attitude delighted Tej. He was boisterous, would create ruckus at home and get away with it.
“Ah! My lion, go make a kill, cover from the back, yes, give a roll, lift, lift, yes, now, throw him on his back. Yes, that’s it. Keep him pinned. One two…Ten. Bravo! My son. You have won. Rama, bring a glass of milk for my lion. Add a spoonful of pure ghee and turmeric to it.” Tej Pratap would excitedly call for Rama.
Manish was Akash’s opposite. No one could take them for brothers if one met them anywhere individually. Manish was calm and composed. He loved reading, music and playing with stray animals. No one could feel his presence at home except for the music emanating from his room. His favourites were the Beatles, Bryan Adam, Phil Collins and Brian Hyland.
Rama thought, ‘How do children grow up! Same womb, same genes and yet two completely different individuals.’
“Hey! Sissy. Come here. Don’t you know how to kick a ball?”
“Are you a Krishan Kanhaiya, always around girls?”
“Have you seen how girls talk to him all the time?”
“What do you talk about?”
“I think he is a girl. He plays only with girls.”
Manish shook his head, saying a meek ‘No,’ and ran to his house. He would face such questions from his classmates every day. Rama was the silent spectator. She would hug Manish and offer him his favourite food. She considered it to be a phase that would pass. On observing daily harassment, she once requested Akash to take care of him at school.
“Ma, please, he’s an embarrassment in school. Who told him to participate in a group dance? He was dancing like a girl with girls and was performing better than them. Everybody was teasing him, and me too.”
“But isn’t it compulsory to participate in co-curricular activities? Respect each one’s interest. If Manish loves dancing and singing then what’s your problem? Haven’t you seen movies, stage performances by Kathak maestros like Birju Maharaj or our colony’s annual Ram Leela? Your father also performs on stage.”
“Ma! Papa enacts the role of Ravan, not Seeta.”
“Manish’s expressions! He gyrates like girls with strange sensuous jerks. You don’t understand anything, Ma!” Akash was exasperated.
Manish’s petite frame, delicate soft nature became his biggest enemy.
“Rama, don’t shelter him in your lap, he is an intelligent boy, he has to move out to work, face this harsh world.” Tej would admonish her.
Manish excelled in studies and Akash in sports. By the time, both the boys reached classes VII and IX respectively, puberty, raging hormones made them grow farther apart. There were constant fights that ended up with Manish crying and Akash calling him a girl. That would further enrage Manish who would fight back saying that he wasn’t.
That day, they cornered him in the playground.
“Hey! Softie, you are getting so popular with girls. Is it because you secured the first rank or that you are so fair and sweet?”
“Take this letter, pass it on to Supriya.”
“Tell me, does Neena wear a bra?”
Manish kept his head down. Whenever Manish refused to answer or protest against their commands, the boys would hit, kick and abuse. They made Manish’s life difficult.
“Ooff! What a cutie-pie? Hey! Don’t bother him.
Manish, I’m with you. I want to hug you tightly. Come, come forward.”
One of the senior boys pulled his cheeks. “Ah! So soft.”
Another mocked, “Let’s check if he’s a boy or girl. You never know, maybe his parents are confused.”
They all laughed. Manish’s cheeks turned crimson; he could feel the heat warming him up from inside. He started digging the earth with the toes of his shoes.
One of them came forward to touch his genitals. Manish started sweating, he stammered and shouted, “No.”
But the voice didn’t come out in the open. Another started pulling his pants.
Suddenly, Akash appeared and screamed, “You scoundrels, dogs, stay away from my brother!”
Manish ran and hugged his brother.
Akash patted Manish’s back, “Don’t worry, I’m here.”
Manish looked up. Akash assured him, “I’ll always be there for you.”
He took him home and narrated the incident to his father.
Tej Pratap was furious, “Rama, this is the result of your undue love and care. You made my son a damn frightened mouse like you. Dare you protect him again! From now on, he’ll remain in the men’s company and learn.”
Teary-eyed Rama was helpless. She wanted to hug, console Manish but couldn’t.
The next day, Tej decided to send Manish to a reputed boys boarding school.
Rama protested but Tej Pratap had made up his mind.
Kanpur and Dehradun, 1990
“Manish, Manish, where are you? Come out, right now, you idiot!” roared Thakur Tej Pratap. Rama came out running from the kitchen. A few more eyes and ears were making holes in the walls of the huge courtyard of the ‘Thakur Villa’.
“I tell you, he’s a disgrace. I know why he has come back. Shame on him.” Tej was fuming.
“Please, don’t shout. He has just returned from the hostel. He’s already very disturbed. I’ll speak to him.” assured Rama.
“You better make him understand, we don’t run away from the problems. We’re the Thakurs, we fight.”
Rama started leaving for Manish’s room. Tej called to tell her, “Let me know what ghosts are riding on his head. I’ll not sit quietly on this matter.”
Rama knew the reason but revealing it to her husband could lead to a catastrophe. She had to save her son from him, and all men?
She ruminated on the day when Manish left for Dehradun. He hugged her tightly, cried a lot. Even Akash had tears in his eyes but Tej Pratap did not relent.
Manish communicated very little on the phone. He always answered in monosyllables. He would not talk if Rama poked more personal questions. With Akash, he still shared some details. Akash would tell him to be bold and encourage him to play sports.
Manish couldn’t make friends. On his first vacation, Manish seemed subdued. He’d grown up beyond his years. He was sombre and kept to himself. As the time to leave for his hostel was approaching, Manish grew restless. He suffered a mild fever first and then palpitations. The doctor diagnosed it as anxiety. He prescribed a few medicines.
Manish touched Rama’s feet but didn’t look at her directly. He hugged Akash tightly for a while and left without giving a second glance to his home.
At the hostel, Class IX students were shifted to the senior wing. Manish shared his dormitory with his ten other classmates.
The senior hostel, Subhash House, was a double-storey long rectangular building. The chief warden’s room was in the centre, next to the entrance on the ground floor. The rooms opened in the long corridors that had a huge lawn. The bathrooms were at the end of the corridors, next to the exit gates. Each class was assigned an assistant warden who stayed at the end of the corridor, opposite the washrooms.
Manish was uncomfortable with all the boys around him. He would feel shy about changing clothes, talking about girls or listening to boyish fantasies. He couldn’t feel anything as others could. He was rather aroused with boys talking about what they would do to girls. His cheeks would burn, a current ran in his veins, he would shudder with a different kind of excitement.
He dreamt of a different world. He longed to dress like a woman. He wanted to be loved and feel love.
She was afraid to come out in the open
And so a blanket around her she wore.
So in the blanket, she wanted to stay
Two, three, four, stick around we’ll tell you more
He found a mother in his Sanskrit teacher, Mrs Sheila Sharma. She was fond of telling stories from the religious scriptures. It was Shivratri in February. Sheila narrated the story of Shiva’s marriage to Parvati. Their communion as one. Shiva’s dual identity as a man and woman in one body. Shiva is also known as Ardhnarishwar.
Manish loved listening to her. He started visiting her quarters on the school campus on the pretext of studying Sanskrit. Sheila told him about Vishnu transforming himself as Mohini to save the world. Krishna turned into a beautiful girl for a night to marry Arjun’s son. Manish’s specific curiosities intrigued Sheila.
Sheila had two daughters who were studying at the university. Manish loved talking to them.
Sunday was the movie day for the students. All students used to sit on the steps of the open-air theatre on the school campus. It was a comedy, Mrs Doubtfire.
Manish tried wearing a bra in the bathroom. He used apples, saved from the lunch menu, at the appropriate places. He admired himself for a long time in the bathroom.
That he wore for the first time today.
Sheila was worried. One of her undergarments was missing from her clothesline.
There was a significant change in Manish’s behaviour. He looked happy and confident. He wanted to try the beautiful lacey ones and feel sexy like a woman.
Sheila’s daughters were upset. They were packing for their trip to Goa. Their new bikinis were missing. They had not even hung those on the clothesline. Surely, it wasn’t the monkeys but some pervert who was stealing.
Manish started wearing the bikini sets under his blanket after the lights out. He would have vivid dreams of dancing on the beaches of Goa. That was the happiest time of his life.
One night, he had the urge to pee. He wrapped his blanket around and went to the washroom. The warden got alarmed on seeing someone moving in a blanket.
He got suspicious and followed, “Hey, who ‘s there?”
Manish ran. The warden caught the blanket and pulled it over. Manish’s secret was out in the open.
The warden’s eyes lustily devoured the fair, soft body of the adolescent in a bikini.
He touched him; Manish protested. Manish peed in his underwear.
“Oh! Don’t be afraid. Come to my room. I’ll give you clothes to change. You can’t go like this to your bed. Somebody will see and mock you.” The warden said warmly.
“No, Sir, I’ll cover myself with my blanket.”
“See, you’ve soiled your blanket too. It’ll stink. I’ll give you another one. No one will know. It’s our secret now.”
The warden was no more the guardian. He took Manish to his room and switched on the TV.
He started caressing him and asked, do you like it? The lamb was scared to death and shivering. He tried to get away from the lusty wolf.
The wolf was closing in, warning him not to shout or his secret would be revealed.
The lamb could see the weapon rising, killing him softly, harshly, tearing him apart. The bikini was lying in the corner.
The next day, Manish had a fever. He couldn’t walk. The warden was told to take care of him.
Every day the lamb tied the colourful laces and presented himself to the wolf. The game continued.
Manish was falling ill, again and again. He was getting weaker, quieter and started lagging in academics. The teachers were worried.
He had stopped going to Sheila’s house too. Sheila took Manish to her home despite his reluctance.
“I know, perhaps, it was you who stole my daughters’ bikinis,” Sheila revealed her assumption.
Manish was bewildered, too ashamed to look up.
“You can tell me, I’m like your mother.”
Manish couldn’t utter a word. He hugged Sheila and cried.
So in the blanket, he wanted to stay
And so he sat bundled up on the shore,
Two, three, four, tell the people what he wore!
Meanwhile, the house captains searched the hostel premises to look for a few missing items on the orders of the chief warden. Each bed and bag were checked.
The students were amused to find two sets of lacy bikinis in Manish’s bag. Manish faced vulgar comments, abusive remarks and shameful mockery at the hands of his classmates.
He escaped from the hostel that night and reached home.
Rama was stupefied to see Manish. He was frightened, stammering and very ill. She hurriedly called Akash. Akash hugged Manish. Manish fainted in his arms. Akash took his younger brother inside. Rama kept crying and called Tej who had just left for work.
By that time, Tej Pratap had already received a call from the principal.
Manish couldn’t tell anything to his mother. He couldn’t eat or come out of bed for days. Tej Pratap kept interrogating him about the bikinis found in his bag at the hostel. He concluded, perhaps, Manish’s teenage inquisitiveness made him act silly.
Gradually, Manish’s health started improving. Tej lectured his son on channelling his thoughts to academics, sports and other activities. Manish’s final exams for class IX were supposed to begin in fifteen days. Tej spoke to the principal and planned to accompany Manish to the school. Manish refused and started stammering. Tej couldn’t fathom a reason. He was incandescent and anxious too.
Aakash wanted to help Manish. So, after much coaxing, Manish finally narrated his ordeal.
But that did not change anything. Akash couldn’t muster the courage to reveal Manish’s painful secret to his father. Tej Pratap was adamant to save Manish’s academic year. Rama was cursing God and herself. Why did she secretly wish for a daughter yet follow the rituals to be blessed with a boy?
Thakur Villa had a deathly calm that night.
The next day, Manish had to leave for his hostel. He was nowhere to be found.
Now he is afraid to come out of the water.
Two, three, four, tell the people what he wore!
Manish’s body was found at the shores of the river Ganga. Akash couldn’t tell anything to anyone. Akash cursed himself. He couldn’t keep his promise.
Georgia, USA, 2020
Akash and Rudra
The day Rudra was born, Rama was jubilant, she declared, “God has returned Manish to us.”
Rudra had an uncanny resemblance to Manish. The agonising memories cascaded to torment Akash.
He contemplated moving to America, ‘This time he would not fail Manish. Rudra will lead a free, unprejudiced life.’
Rudra grew up with two opposing ideologies at home. He secretly played with dolls, listened to fairy tales with Akash and played PlayStation with Sudha. Sudha forbade him to play with girls and forced him to join boy scouts’ groups and football. Rudra wanted to pursue music and arts. Sudha vehemently opposed the idea and encouraged him to study science.
Akash couldn’t bear to see Rudra being forced to follow Sudha’s aspirations.
Akash was hurt that Sudha dared to deliberately ignore the facts despite being aware of Manish’s fate. He convinced Sudha to visit a psychologist and a family counsellor. Sudha had to either understand or leave. Akash kept meeting the psychologist.
Rudra loved visiting sea beaches. He was enamoured with the girls’ wearing bikinis. Rudra’s curly hair, bewitching smile attracted people like magnets.
Sudha remarked, “Rudra has all the traits of a flamboyant Casanova. Just see how he’s enjoying chatting with those girls.”
“Yeah! I know, he’s a charmer for sure, as handsome as his father.” Akash kissed Sudha.
Sudha laughed. She took off her gown. She was wearing a yellow polka dot bikini. Both Sudha and Rudra ran to chase the waves. Akash smiled looking at Rudra, dancing with the waves.
From the locker to the blanket,
From the blanket to the shore,
From the shore to the water
Guess there isn’t any more.
Akash looked at the cerulean blue sky. There was not a speck of cloud. Neither in the sky nor his mind. Rudra is not Manish. Let Rudra decide what he wants to be.
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