“Listen, I may or may not share my story with you, I can’t say anything at this moment. We’ve never met you, see. I don’t even know if I’ll like you. I’ll not share anything if I don’t like you,  I’ll ask you to leave. Please leave without any fuss. I don’t like fuss, I can’t handle fuss these days.”

The voice on the phone continued.

“Please take down the address, get down at the … metro station and take a cycle rickshaw or battery (auto) till the … bus stop . Call me once you reach the bus stop and I’ll come to the balcony of our office, and yes, please don’t ask anyone around about us.”

From her voice on the phone, I imagine her to be a large trans woman, brown skin, broad forehead and thick lips. I imagine a low rise yellow sari and a tight short sleeved blouse. I imagine purple bangles. Basically, I imagine Parveen. The hijra (transgender) from my childhood who visited the neighborhood often, who my mother chatted with while we siblings swung on our iron gate as children.

I follow the instructions and reach the destination. A man looking out from a terrace whistles at me. He gestures at me to enter the gate and come to the 3rd floor of the building. The gate opens onto a dark alley leading into an even darker staircase. My eyes take time to adjust to the darkness and once they do, the outline of the staircase becomes visible. The staircase doesn’t have a railing and the steps are uneven. I walk cautiously, my back against the wall. I can hear the hum of sewing machines and some people talking. I reach the first floor which has bright light from the fixtures spilling out into the staircase. It is an embroidery and sewing centre, smelling of cloth trimmings and threads. Two men and a woman speak loudly in order to be heard over the loud noise of the sewing machines. The woman looks up at me briefly and resumes her work. The second floor is dark again, all rooms are locked. But by now I’m walking in the dark with some ease. I  reach the third floor and walk into an open door where the person I saw leaning on balcony is now sitting behind a large desk. Small built, he is wearing a white shirt with grey stripes and a slim fit faded blue jeans. His hair is short with streaks of now fading dirty yellow.  He gets up from the chair and introduces himself.

“I’m Chitra, we spoke on the phone? ” I greet Chitra. She is not like Parveen at all, she only sounds like her. She asks me to sit on the sofa, “… be a bit careful, it’s broken…” she says. I look around, there are posters on safe-sex on the walls, there are colourful condom wrappers pinned on the soft board, there are boxes of Nirodh (a local condom brand).

Chitra walks towards me and sits on a chair. She is wearing white plastic platform heels with shimmery gold straps. She asks me about the process of recording. “How many voices have you recorded? What do people talk about? Has someone stopped speaking midway?  What do you do if they stop?” I tell her that she can stop speaking whenever she wants to.  That I’m only there to listen. “I’m a bit nervous, but let’s do this.” She gets up and asks me to follow her into the next room which is a dispensary where the doctor comes once a week to do the HIV testing. There is little space in the room. Two metal chairs, a table and many open cartons with all kinds of discolored shimmery garments thrown in. Blouses and saris, salwars and kurtas, synthetic spaghetti blouses, dusty sequinned high heels, some necklaces, shiny purses with broken straps.

Chitra is restless. She sits on the chair but is constantly moving. She watches me while I get the mic ready. I ask her how long she has been in this office.

“Four years now. I’ve been a chela (disciple). I’ve seen some violent days but also some good days. This place was my haven. The nights I got to spend here with friends, we didn’t sleep all night. I dressed up in my mother’s sari, we got drunk, played music and we danced on the staircase as there was little space in the office to move. Those were rangeen ratein (colorful nights). Special nights. I was young and healthy, there was no worry, there was no HIV.”

She pauses, then asks,  “How long can I speak for? What is the time limit for this?”

“There’s no time limit.” I say.

“Let’s start then.”

“Can we first just sit and talk before we start recording?” M asks, wiping the sweat drops from her upper lip with her handkerchief. Her fingers are chubby and the gold rings are tight, pushing the flesh up. She wipes her palms with the handkerchief as well. While sitting on the green wooden chair, she asks, “On this? It’s too small for me,” giggling, almost proud of her big build. It is 45 degrees Celsius and the AC in the room is not working. She drinks two glasses of water.

I ask her if she wants to splash some water on her face. “No, my makeup will get spoilt,” she says, smiling. She has done elaborate makeup with metallic green eyeshadow and dark blue eyeliner.I ask her if she would like to have a cold drink. “I’ll have some tea please, heat kills heat you know,” she says. I get her tea in a glass, which she holds with her handkerchief.

“I wake up from my sleep every night at 2-2.30 am. It has been 17 years. Not a single night has gone by when I haven’t woken up at this hour with a start. Earlier my husband used to console me, put me back to sleep, now he continues sleeping. My children sometimes wake up,” she says.

“I have two children. Wait, I’ll show you their pictures.” she takes out a phone from her purse and shows pictures of her family. Standing in a mall, two children, both boys, holding their parents’ hands. Everyone is smiling. Another one with her in a pink shirt and blue jeans with her sons on her either side. The pictures tell you that they are like any other family in a happy moment. What it doesn’t tell you is that this is a family that is nuclear in all possible ways.

It doesn’t tell you that the woman in the picture was raped by more than 10 men during a riot in the city. She was barely 17 then and it was two days before her wedding. It doesn’t tell you that she never got justice — that her family also abandoned her because, according to them, she was now “impure” and was bringing “shame” to the family. It also doesn’t tell you that after a long fight with the system and with her family, she decided to cut off from everything and everyone she once knew. It doesn’t tell you that she buried her past and changed her identity.

No, it doesn’t tell you any of that.

That lanky 17-year-old girl is not there anywhere. Maybe she vanished somewhere, maybe she just got up and left. The woman in metallic green eyeshadow has come to narrate that young girl’s story one last time.