My memory goes back to the summer of 1989. It was the beginning of May; I must have been about 16 years old at the time.

The high school examinations had finally come to an end. Suddenly I had plenty of leisure time – no books, no studies, no school. I waited lackadaisically for the results, I was not too concerned about what the outcome would be. On one of those days, I decided to pay a visit to Ebok, my maternal grandmother. The occasion was the yearly chaklon katpa, the ritual meal offered to the deity of the clan.

As far as I can remember now, it was my first visit to Ebok’s house. I still have a vivid memory of the house – it was situated at the entrance of the Kongpal neighbourhood. The first thing one saw was the imposing sangoi, an outhouse with a roof of aluminium sheets, that stood majestically in the spacious courtyard. The courtyard was surrounded on three sides by living quarters that also had aluminium roofs. The eastern side of the house was flanked by a thick cordon of giant reeds and Indian cedars, and to the south of the sangoi, there grew a big chorphon, a Ceylon olive tree. A small lane ran outside the compound wall beyond which lay the Kongba river. As I recollect it, the basin of the Kongba river was very narrow. I did not see children playing along its basin, which struck me as unusual; river basins were usually the playground for children those days. Only a few babul and ficus trees stood timid and deserted on the bare banks of the river.

All the men present at the chaklon katpa ceremony wore pheijoms, a dhoti-like piece of clothing. Amidst this uniformity, two men stood out. While all the menfolk wore the pheijom in the traditional manner, these two had worn it in the lungi style, that is, the hem of the pheijom almost reached their ankles. They had also covered their heads with white enaphis, the shawl worn by Meitei women on religious occasions, leaving only their faces bare. They appeared quite extraordinary to me, and I was filled with curiousity about them.

In the course of the day, I came to know their names – Romen and Manimohon. After everyone else had gone inside, they continued to linger at the gate of the house. It was evident to me that they were waiting for someone important to appear. Both men were deep in conversation, oblivious to their surroundings. After a while, a man arrived on a bicycle. He wore a pair of dhoti pants and had a sling bag strung across one shoulder. The two men must have been waiting for this newcomer.

They greeted him with affectionate banter and then accompanied him in the direction of the house. The newcomer had a slim, oval face, a thin layer of powder on his cheeks and a light hue of crimson on his lips. Later, I got to know that the newcomer’s name was Denao. A modest patch of skin glimpsed through the open collar of his shirt revealed a fair complexion. After parking the bicycle at the corner of the sangoi, Denao and his friends disappeared into a room.

The ritual meal was ready, all the guests at the ceremony had taken their seats. But the trio who had aroused my curiosity was not to be seen in that august crowd. They were huddled together in a room, engaged in some private conversation. A middle-aged woman stood at the door of the room and called out in a peevish tone, “You, homos, come out now. Everyone is ready for the meal. What mischief are you hatching in the room?” (In those days, in Manipuri society, “homo” was the term used for all effeminate men and boys – anyone whose mannerisms were like a woman’s, or even men who were controlled by their wives.)

A voice from inside the room called out, “Be patient, we are coming.”

The woman replied, “You have all sorts of replies. Does anybody understand you? It is useless talking with you.”

Another from the group replied, “Memcha, you are pure annoyance. Aren’t you the one pointlessly replying? We said that we were coming.”

When they finally came out of the room, Denao had changed into a pheijom, which he wore in the same manner as his two friends. It was evident that even when they wore pheijoms, they adapted that article of male clothing to suit their peculiar style. They sat in a row along the wall of the sangoi, and I sat down in the row in front. While they ate, they continued to talk in muted voices. Every now and again, they would glance at the immediate surroundings, make a mysterious gesture followed by a subtle nudge at each other and covert chuckles. It appeared as though they had some secret knowledge of their milieu. To me, their gestures suggested a spirit of mirth and gaiety.

An elderly woman sitting behind them chastised them, “Why are you giggling?”

One among the trio impudently replied, “Well, you are old and look like a tattered wicker basket. You surely would not understand why I laughed!” Those who heard the rejoinder broke into loud laughter. The elderly woman had no choice but to laugh. “Nobody can compete against a homo’s rebuttals,” she said.

Whatever I heard and saw that day – the group of three men uniquely dressed and addressed as “homo”, the candid exchange of light yet bold banter between them and elder women – was very new to me. It was true that some people did call me “homo” at school, but the word was never mentioned in my domestic environment. Hearing it used so casually by everyone at the chaklon katpa venue filled me with both fear and indescribable nervousness.

“Homo” 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. Whenever anyone called me by that term, it made me feel angry and ashamed.

Excerpted with permission from The Yellow Sparrow: Memoir of a Transgender, Santa Khurai, Speaking Tiger Books.