Imphal/New Delhi- Shanta Khurai has seen a lot in her life. From knowing the heartbreak of an abusive marriage with a heterosexual man, and the joy of adopting a son; the highs and lows of international recognition and disownment by her own family. Through it all, she has remained true to herself, and refused to be broken. The trans activist will now be gifting the world her story.
The official translation of ‘The Yellow Sparrow’ will be released on 10th December 2023. The Mooknayak spoke to the artist about her upcoming memoir.
Talking about her love for the craft, Shanta Khurai said, “I studied in an all-boys school where I did not have many friends. I was very feminine according to others, which was a laughing matter for the students. So, after coming back from school, I used to pen my thoughts down in a journal. I used to write everything that used to happen with me. It was only after tenth standard that I discovered my love for writing.”
She continued “I always liked writing because there was no one around to talk to. I did not have anyone to share the conflicts I faced with my family or with myself. There were times when I used to look for options through which I could share my story. So, I wrote everything down, looking forward to the day when I could talk about my personal journey to others.”
Khurai opened up about her difficult childhood and talked about one situation in particular, “After I graduated from High School, an incident took place at my home. I got into a huge fight with my father and my mother was trying to intervene. In a fit of anger, I went to the courtyard of my house. We had a small mango tree back then. There was also paddy being dried in the sun, which would attract a lot of sparrows. My mother followed me to the courtyard, sat down and started crying. In between all the chaos, she was trying to drive away the sparrows but one did not fly away. I walked closer to it and realized its wing was broken. I took it in my arms and helped it to get into the mango tree. That event will always be in my mind and that is how I derived the name for my memoir. The bird was abandoned by its own family due to being different and I came for its rescue. At that point, I felt I could relate to the sparrow.”
The Yellow Sparrow’s introduction has an excerpt from the long narrative poem of the same name. The book then continues with the main context.
The memoir was written in Manipuri. The activist revealed “It was a big challenge to even get a translator. At the beginning, I did not have much knowledge about copyright issues, and this was used against me. The first translator I had hired had no progress for years because of which I decided to change them. This made them send me a legal notice. I felt so low and I felt as if I had no right over my own story. I had almost given up on translating my book and just wished for peace. The amount of mental harassment I went due to the multiple emails and legal notices got to me.”
“After the fiasco, I consulted lawyers and copyrighted my memoir. Now I have the sole control over my life’s story.”
Khurai hopes that her readers would be able to relate to her story. She said, “The prologue of the book will be relatable to everyone who feels they are different. I am hoping that readers, especially the ones who are considered to be outcastes of the society will get to read my story and feel belonged. Someone who does not fit in with their family, friends or even within the community will find a voice in the story. The memoir celebrates the pride of ‘being different’.”
“The book also talks a lot about the native perception of gender and details of the activism politics, which people can take back with them.”
The history of the state is marred in violence, which is continuing till this date. Khurai said, “The memoir consists of major political uprisings as well which have impacted me. From the fight against Armed Forces (Special Powers Act) to police brutality, insurgency to central forces, I have talked about atrocities too so that my readers would be able to understand life in Manipur. Being Trans and Manipuri means going through a lot of complex social situations.”
The activist hopes to get to know varied thoughts that her readers will feel. She said, “I would love for everyone to read my book, to review and constructively criticize it so that I can work on my skills in a better manner. I do not want to keep any expectation as I want to know varied types of thoughts attached to it.”
Manipuri culture has gender-neutral terms. Taking away from the fact will be doing injustice to the community based in the state. Khurai said, “My book puts a very specific focus on gendered pronouns. I do not use any specific pronouns for genders because Manipuri itself is a gender-neutral language. Even though the book has been translated into English, I did not want to take a step back from the Manipuri culture. Aspirations to be from a different gender has very less to do with the gender and the names in the state. In Manipuri, we use the word ‘ma’ which represents both male and female. If it is plural, we use the word ‘moi’. While writing this story, I was confused as to what pronouns should be used but I decided to stick with my culture so that nothing is lost in translation.”
Shanta Khurai is a Meitei indigenous Nupi Maanbi (Transgender woman) from Manipur. She is a writer, activist, scholar and an artist. She is associated with Civil Society Organizations All Manipuri Nupi Maanbi Association (AMaNA) and Solidarity and Actions Against the HIV Infection in India (SAATHII). Writing poems and stories on queer issues is one of her many passions.