'I feel the pain of having nowhere to go': A Manipuri trans woman recounts her ongoing lockdown ordeal

Siku, a Nupi Manbi (trans woman) from Manipur, found her job and life in Bengaluru suddenly at end with the lockdown. Having returned to Manipur, however, Siku has had an especially difficult journey that is nowhere close to its end.

Siku June 25, 2020 11:06:20 IST
'I feel the pain of having nowhere to go': A Manipuri trans woman recounts her ongoing lockdown ordeal

In 2015, I left my home state of Manipur for Bengaluru.

My name is Sarik*; I prefer to be known as Siku. I am a Nupi Manbi (trans woman).

Other Nupi Manbi had told me that Bengaluru is tolerant of transgender individuals, and that it is easy to find decent, well-paying jobs here. I contacted friends who had already moved here and relocated with their help.

Immediately, I found work at a fabric dyeing factory. The salary meant I could send some money home, my family was able to invest some of the funds in a monthly marup [revolving informal credit collective], and I was able to dream of someday having enough to buy a piece of land in Manipur.

I wasn’t to know at the time that just five years later, the happiness and hope would both prove fleeting.

***

I grew up in a small locality of Imphal East District, the youngest of three siblings. My mother had passed away, my father is a priest and story-teller, and my older brother worked as a traditional cook. As a result, our lives were fairly hand-to-mouth.

The frequent shifting of homes was very difficult for me, but I had no choice in the matter. I used to earn money by assisting other transgender friends in their tailoring works. While I worked hard in order to set aside enough money to own a small piece of land, it proved impossible with my meagre earnings.

After years of struggle, I decided to move to a big city with the aspiration to earn more.

***

My life and work in Bengaluru came to an abrupt halt with the COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown this March.

We no longer had jobs and were forced to plan our departure from the city. The Manipur government had announced measures that would allow stranded citizens to return to the state, so we began the formal process for our repatriation.

On 14 May 2020, three of us left Bengaluru in a special train that was organised for returnees to Manipur. Four days later, we were in Manipur.

I feel the pain of having nowhere to go A Manipuri trans woman recounts her ongoing lockdown ordeal

Artist Akham Romilla's depiction of Siku's ordeal

When we reached Imphal, all returnees were first assembled at Modern College in Porompat, Imphal East. From there, we were sent to our respective constituencies to be quarantined. In the process, I was separated from my friends.

Read on Firstpost: From Manipur's trans community, stories of hope, despair, triumph and rebellion

I was taken to Wangkhei Girl School as my permanent address falls under this constituency. At the quarantine centre, I was allocated a room shared by six other men. All the inmates were also sharing a toilet. This made me very uncomfortable; my body was undergoing changes due to hormonal effects.

In my discomfort, I reached out to transgender activist Santa Khurai, highlighting the need to set up a separate quarantine centre for transgender people. She immediately created a WhatsApp group for all the transgender people housed at different quarantine centres, keeping us updated about a separate quarantine centre for us. On the evening of 20 May, we rejoiced on seeing photos of the quarantine centre set up for transgender people. That night was the end of my terrible stay at the common quarantine centre.

***

On 21 May, I was shifted to the quarantine centre for transgender people at Ideal Blind School, Takyel. There, I was reunited with two of my friends. We stayed there for 17 days, receiving support from Santa Khurai through telecounseling. Before the quarantine period concluded, we were tested for COVID-19. We did not receive the results, but were advised to go back home. We were provided an acknowledgment in the form of a medical document. The relatives and parents of the other two trans girls had come to pick them up, but since my family doesn’t own a vehicle and it was not possible to hire on, I called a transgender friend to drop me home. I could sense some animosity in the neighbourhood, and decided not to step out from the house.

On the morning of 4 June, local governing bodies and clubs including Meira Paibi [a women’s rights group] thronged my house. A large crowd gathered in the temple shed. The club and Meira Paibi leader called my family members out and we were made to sit in the middle of a large group of people. They asked me to produce the result of the COVID-19 test, and I showed the acknowledgement given to us at the quarantine centre. People in the crowd passed the paper to each other disapprovingly, arguing that I hadn’t been declared COVID negative. One of the local club leaders called the police and doctors. The doctor who was in charge of the facility for transgender persons responded to the call, and validated my discharge from quarantine.

After few hours, even the police arrived and said that I could stay at home. However, the locals pressured the cops into taking my family — including my frail father who is in his 80s — to the police station.

***

We were finally allowed to leave the police station after several rounds of interrogation. My father, my brother (along with his wife and son) were taken back home by the police, while I was separately dropped off at a hotel in Gandhi Avenue, Thangal Bazar. I was advised to check in the hotel at around 3 pm; the charge was Rs 1,000 per day. When I asked the man who would pay for the room, he said, “Let’s see. At least you will be safe to stay here as the locals didn’t accept you coming home. You stay here until the test result come out.”

I called Santa in desperation, who consoled and reassured me. In the meantime, I had also called my sister to ask if some clothes could be brought for me. Her response alarmed and frightened me: My sister told me that my family were not being allowed to enter the house. The gate had been locked and they were instructed to stay at a quarantine centre as they were exposed to me. The news shocked me and made me desperate in wanting the test result to come out expeditiously, so that it would at least prevent any further hardships for my family.

Now I’m staying at the hotel. I fear going back to the house, the hostility of the locals, my family being attacked, my old father being forced to stay at a quarantine centre. I feel the pain of having nowhere to go. It is also infuriating to think that this could have been completely avoided had the officials not been in a haste to make us leave the quarantine centre, and had let us stay till the actual test results were received.

*Name changed to protect identity.

— As told to Santa Khurai, Manipur-based queer and Nupi Manbi activist, artist and writer. Compiled by Aayush Rathi, a cisgender, heterosexual man, and researcher with Centre for Internet and Society, India. This account is part of an ongoing CIS research project on gender, welfare and surveillance in India, and is supported by Privacy International, UK.

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