“Mummy’, the voice called out. ‘Mummy Ji’”. This universal call alerted me. Champagne, my dog started to bark. It could not be my children because they were out. Neither of them possessed that raucous voice either. Neither did they attach that respectful suffix ‘Ji’.

“Mummy”, the voice came again. “MUMMY JI”, the tempo and the gruffness increased, with an urgent need to be heard. Even without wanting to, the endearing appellative prompted the mother in me to leave the kitchen. I entered the bedroom, discreetly parted the curtains and looked outside.

A face suddenly rose before my eyes. It was the face of an ‘offender’! One that had insulted the society it was born in; one that had plagued mankind by raising questions of a mismatched gender issue. I froze. With a gasp, I dropped the curtain, blocking out that terrible apparition.

“MUMMY JI”, the shouting continued. Confused and disconcerted, I refused to give the audience any longer and concealed myself behind the curtain. Then the clapping started, that hard striking impact of a manly palm upon palm, giving way to a continuous background melody.

The closest I had come to witnessing these ‘weird humans’ and their ‘profane’ acts of applauding god-knows-what, was only in the movies. Sometimes I did see a few ‘gross’ manly bodies draped in saris, with garish makeup sauntering on the sidewalks. Today was the first time I was subject to such close proximity. I felt queasy and uncomfortable.

Our elders had warned us of the powerful ‘curses’ that would flow out of these ‘blasphemous’ mouths, if the flawless paragons of the world ignored them. Not wanting any evil eyes to be cast on my happy little family, I rushed inside and grabbed some change.

I had to prevent the ‘danger’ about to upset my neat and orderly domestic arrangements. I had to stop the ‘menacing’ clapping of ‘dreadful’ palms. Even if it meant greasing them! Rushing back to the window, I literally threw out the crushed notes into the garden. I don’t know if he or she or whatever it was, ever managed to gather it.

The second encounter was less traumatic, more dramatic. Champagne came bouncing at me, barking and announcing the arrival of an uninvited guest. I went out and immediately repented!

I should have known that palms once oiled would continue to function smoothly to produce sharper sounds. I refused to oblige and shouted at my gardener to sort things out. What one need not hear, one need not feel threatened of.

With the ‘maali’ fighting it out on the battlefield of my garden and Champagne vociferously applauding their encounter, I walked back inside and forgot about the entire prohibition episode.

I never expected there would be a third time. But on the day of Holi, after the festivities were over, I posted a huge lock outside the grill of the front door and settled down inside with a book. I was so engrossed, it took some time to register the summons of the familiar call with the familiar background drill.

The clapping together with the mouthing of an endearment specially reserved for my own flesh and blood, started to unnerve me. Then I remembered the huge device I had hung outside the door.

After a few seconds the sounds of “Mummy Ji” and the clapping petered down. Perhaps the garish kohled eyes had noticed the lock too. In the few minutes of silence that ensued, I peeped from behind the curtain.

Without breathing I watched that apparition of ‘monstrosity’. The face that stared at my jumping dog looked tight and drawn but there was a hint of amusement. The hands examining the lock seemed strong but there was something gentle about them.

The person draped in a gaudy sari looked virile and yet there was something graceful about ‘it’. I kept looking until those manly fingers dropped the lock with a sigh and then blew a flying kiss at my dog.

Champagne’s barks had turned into a whimper. Then with a gradual twist of its effeminate torso, it went away. I stood looking until the colourful flouncing figure had reached the gate. Heaving a sigh of relief, I went back to my book.

After an hour I realised I was still glued to the same sentence. Something was terribly wrong. A nagging pin of rationality began to prick me as I started analysing a few half- truths of humanity that I had conveniently chosen to avoid all these years.

I felt a part of me transform itself into tiny little bombs of guilt and plant itself strategically. First in my head and then in my heart! One by one, these bombs started to go off. Wanting to try and discover those hushed answers that the world was so secretive about, I put down my book and picked up a Dictionary.

Under the letter ‘E’ I saw the word. It described ‘Eunuch’ as ‘an ineffective man’. The meaning still appeared shrouded in abysmal mystery and then I happened to glance sideways where another fancy word caught my eye. ‘Ethics’. That meant a code of behaviour that is considered correct.

Was it ethical to have allowed my thoughts to stagnate in a pool of ignorance; to stamp my blind approval with society and castigate a certain class; to censure a human breed for no fault of theirs? Would I ever be able to wean myself away from this thinking? I decided I’d find the answer IF our fourth meeting took place.

It was on the day of Diwali, as I sat on the verandah with a newspaper. There was no iron sentinel on the door and Champagne was curled at my feet. Suddenly the dog’s ears perked up and from the corner of my eyes I could see him wagging his tail.

When I finally looked up I froze again. The familiar figure stood there. I don't know who was more surprised. It, or me! It, because I did not make the usual dashing headway for a perfect hideout. Or me, because it just stood there silently without any round of applause.

I looked at Champagne, whose doggy ears sensed that this entry posed no danger to the household he was in charge of. His eyes had noticed nothing unfamiliar about the unusual dress code.

His brain had registered the fact that there was nothing to bark about. I finally turned my head. And then our eyes met. The moment was so poignant I wondered how I had lived all these years with such a boorish mind.

The look on that face was so……….human. What was it that I’d been so scared about? Then I did something, which I had never thought I was capable of.

“‘Aapka naam kya hai?’” I felt foolish immediately, wondering if ‘it’ even had a name. The surprise was back in those soulful eyes. It was evident that although its identity had been enquired about before, it was perhaps the first time the respect was attached.

“Jaani”, a husky voice spoke out. It was merely a whisper but I heard it. I analysed the implication of the name. How appropriate because literally it meant sweetheart or beloved.

Symbolically it suggested something universally and neutrally unbiased. Had the mortified parents christened it so or was it an imprudent agreement of the lackadaisical world it was thrust into?

“Jaani” I repeated, slowly, cautiously. “Where do you live, Jaani?” And then began a conversation in Hindi that felt very normal. There was nothing warped or twisted about it.

The gentle kohled eyes, alternating from shock to grateful to moist were suddenly alive. The bitter lips, smudged with cheap lipstick, told me a story that sounded sincere.

After that Jaani became a regular visitor. Come Diwali, Holi, Christmas or Eid and she would arrive with her friends. The commands, the curses and the clapping had long since stopped. I reasoned out that clapping was probably the only way to attract the attention of the indifferent people they were surrounded with. Having found acceptance the need was not apparent.

One day I gave her an old sari of mine. “Thank you bahen” Jaani said. “Thank You”, I whispered. A few days later Jaani arrived with a packet. “I have something for you, bahen”. I was touched. “Actually..”, Jaani hesitated, unsure of what to say next, “It’s not for you. It’s for your… err… your… husband”.

I was taken aback. A feeling of dread started to circle my heart. Was it true what everyone had warned me about? Was it possible that all this while, ‘it’ was having designs? The surprise must have shown on my face.

“You can give it to him,” Jaani said. “I don’t think so,” I said, sounding a little more curt than usual.

“Please, bahen,” Jaani pleaded, “You cannot refuse”.

“NO,” I said emphatically, trying to move back inside, “We don’t normally accept presents from…” And then I saw the gift! A golden thread hung out of the packet. Is it a...?

It was. It was a ‘Rakhi’. I suddenly remembered it was Raksha Bandhan, the day that all sisters tie a ‘sacred thread’ around the wrist of their brothers. The day that brothers start a trusting relationship with their sisters, vowing to protect them. The sacrosanct thread was the new bond that threatened to bind us further.

With a sheepish grin I accepted the packet, went inside and got a gift for Jaani. That day I also realised something. That with time, the word ‘it’ had been permanently erased from the vocabulary of my prejudiced mind. “It” now had a gender. The gender was ‘She’. And ‘it’ now had a name. The name was “Jaani”!

The incident recalled above, took place in Hyderabad, where we lived in an independent Railway bungalow. Now we have a ‘flat’ existence in a posh colony where the security promptly cordons off all the unwanted species- the ‘strays’, the ‘tramps’ and the ‘Its’.

Nargis Natrajan is an independent writer. views expressed are the writer’s own.

Cover Photograph: A painting of a eunuch from the Mughal era