FOR MAHLUI, IT WAS LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT. One day, when he was in the tenth grade, Mahlui’s friend brought along a new acquaintance to visit him in his hostel room. With her pale complexion, long black hair and large eyes lined with kohl, Mahlui was instantly infatuated with this new girl. Although they became friends, he did not confess his feelings towards her. Besides, they met each other infrequently, since the girl lived far away from the city, and commuting options were limited.
“She was my dream girl,” Mahlui said to me about that first, but lasting, impression. He did not want to be identified by his full name. In his adolescent years, Mahlui was at constant loggerheads with his parents, who insisted they wanted to see their daughter dressed in clothes meant for girls. He reluctantly wore the uniform skirt to school and dresses with ballerina shoes to church—the two places that were non-negotiable for his family. “Six days a week, I was a boy. Only on the seventh day, I had to dress up like a girl,” he said, recalling his teenage years.
Mahlui and his dream girl lost touch in the years after school and moved on with their lives. She dated a few guys before marrying a much older man, a Revival speaker in the Presbyterian Synod, and had two kids with him. Meanwhile, Mahlui dated other women, even getting married twice. In the midst of this, if they did run into each other, there would usually be an air of formality, nothing beyond an exchange of pleasantries. There was one particular encounter, however, on a day when she was on her way to pick up her daughter from school, which stuck in Mahlui’s mind. There was something different about it. “That day, after we crossed each other, I turned back to look at her and so did she,” Mahlui said. “It was like the way they show lovers crossing paths in the serial Kasauti Zindagi Ki.”
In 2012, Mahlui’s dream girl, now a 30-year-old woman, lost her husband to cancer. Bitter family squabbles at her in-laws over the next two years led her to leave the house. She and her kids moved into an empty flat in the same building. Mahlui had also just left his second marriage, which was riddled with challenges, including disapproval from his wife’s family about his gender identity. “Her father told her that if she really wanted to marry, she should marry the mentally unstable person next door. At least he is a man,” Mahlui said. It was around this time that the two of them rekindled their friendship. Mahlui started visiting her at her home frequently on the pretext that he was keeping her company because she felt afraid to live alone with her children (although her in-laws lived right above). Eventually, Mahlui moved in.
“They knew him as my childhood friend so when he moved in with me and my kids, they didn’t think much of it,” the woman said, referring to the reaction of her ex-husband’s family. “But after a while, our relationship was discovered as we became serious.” Soon, she felt compelled to leave her kids behind with their father’s family. Mahlui’s family, on the other hand, was aware of the real nature of their relationship. His parents did not object to it but that is not the same as accepting the relationship, the couple said.
The two got married in a private ceremony. These days they spend much of their time in prayer, seeking guidance and acceptance. They used to go to church together until the woman’s family found out about their relationship. “We stopped going to avoid people talking behind their backs, so our family would not face public shame,” she said. “If people see less of us they will not talk about us.”
Mahlui runs a small business out of a dimly lit rented room attached to a matchbox-sized bedroom in a central market in Aizawl. This is their home, recreational space and place of worship, a space where they can live together as husband and wife. Posters of Jesus Christ and the Last Supper adorn the walls. They can smoke, drink and pray on their knees here. There is an easy domesticity between the two. When I visited them in September last year, the woman busied herself, fetching snacks and soft drinks for us, while Mahlui spoke to me in the tiny shack in which they now live. “Although I dated other women, I never really loved any of them,” he said.
But simply retreating from the public gaze has not made their lives easier. Mahlui struggles with the obstacles his transgender identity poses for them. Although he and his wife want to live a simple married life, doing so is in conflict with their religious faith. “It is very difficult because I can’t tell people that she’s my wife. Even the kids can’t come and stay with us because I’m not a man. We are not a normal couple,” he said.
When I brought up the recent Supreme Court judgment giving transgender people legal rights, Mahlui said, “I don’t care about the government or the court. My problem is I don’t know if god will allow me to be a man or not. No government can overrule him.”
(Subscribe to The Caravan to read the full story. Click here for a digital subscription or email firstname.lastname@example.org for a print subscription.)
Makepeace Sitlhou is a journalist with The Print. She wrote her story for this issue as a 2017 Humsafar Trust Fellow.