Illustration by Sheece Khan
Illustration by Sheece Khan

At the inaugural Moorat March, to observe the International Transgender Day of Remembrance at Karachi’s Frere Hall last year, khwaja siras were constantly on my mind. How could they not have been? They were all around me.

Some danced, some had spray painted their hair gold and silver and some pink or blue. They wore whatever they felt like wearing, showing up in saris, ghagras and cholis, frocks and skirts, pretty printed or embroidered shalwar and qameez. Then, amid the music and laughter, human rights activist and classical dancer Sheema Kermani took the microphone to start talking about “Nur”, the divine light that all human beings carry in their hearts.

She said ‘Nur!’ But how did she know? Had she caught my thoughts? Nur had been on my mind the entire time. I wondered where he was now and how he was doing. I prayed that, wherever he was, he was happy and fine.

Suddenly it all started playing back in my head. Our first meeting with Nur. I must have been six at the time. My elder brother, eight. We were happily looking out our side of the windows from the backseat of our car as our mother pulled up at the sabzi wala [vegetables seller].

While selecting the right potatoes for chips, she was approached by a beggar, a tall man in his thirties, with a fringe of hair over his forehead. She looked him over before telling him to find a job since he didn’t look sick or disabled. “Hattay kattay tau ho [You look perfectly fit and healthy],” she said, dismissing him.

He clapped his hands before her face, jolting and making her jump back. “Get a job where? I mean look at me Baji, will you give me a job?”

Khwaja siras are among the most marginalised of communities, simply because they look and act different from the rest of society. A remembrance of a childhood around them is a reminder of what they ultimately want…

My mother gave him another look over before inquiring if he had worked anywhere before. He shook his head but said that he could cook, clean, wash clothes, water the lawn, wash the car, take care of small children... The list got our mother thinking some more before she said ‘Okay’ and tried explaining to him the directions to our home for him to come and see her there the next day.

Our place was only two or three streets away from there but the man insisted on coming home with us then and there. “How am I to know that you are serious Baji? You just might refuse to know me tomorrow. I am ready to work for you from today only,” he said to her.

On November 20, 2022, many of Moorat March’s supporters collected outside Frere Hall | Sindhu Abbasi
On November 20, 2022, many of Moorat March’s supporters collected outside Frere Hall | Sindhu Abbasi

Staring at him again for a bit, our mother turned to us and asked us to make room for him in the backseat. That was how Nur came home with us that day.

True to his word, Nur could cook and keep the kitchen and the house spick and span. He would make crisp potato chips, popcorn, sandwiches, burgers and parathas for both my brother and me. Often he would also engage us in baking cookies and brownies with him in the kitchen.

I remember how protective my mother used to be about me. My brother was trained to never leave me alone anywhere. And when he could not accompany me somewhere, it would be my mother or father who would come with me. I was not allowed alone near any servant, be it any cook, driver or gardener. Ever.

But somehow things were different with Nur around. I was allowed to grab his finger and get roasted corn on the cob or kulfi from the cart vendor across the road. It was okay if he wanted to carry me on his shoulders. It was okay for him to massage oil into my hair on weekends also.

Nur was our go-to person for everything after our parents... to open tight jars, to fetch anything placed at a height, to confide about any naughtiness — which he always reported to our mother. Still, we never could be too mad at Nur.

Then one day, we caught Nur wearing make-up, earrings and bangles. He was also wearing a printed shalwar qameez and heels, and he was not alone. There were other men with him, also dressed as weirdly as him. It was a Sunday and Nur was going out with his friends. My brother started laughing but I was confused.

My mother took both of us aside. She explained that Nur was neither man nor woman, neither a ‘he’ nor a ‘she’, but an ‘it’. The explanation left me even more confused. Then she turned to my brother and told him to never ever laugh or make fun of Nur or any of his friends.

Our father was not that easily handled though. He often turned to our mother, shaking his head in disapproval if he saw Nur turning the TV volume up to enjoy some movie song or some play. When he cooked or did the dishes in the kitchen, he took with him our father’s powerful Philips radio to play songs as he tapped his feet or moved to the music.

Our father had that radio to listen to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news after dinner in the evening and Nur had always changed the station or drained its batteries, if our father could find the radio at its usual place on his side table in the first place. So, one day, he went and bought Nur a brand new radio of his own so he would leave his device alone.

Meanwhile, after having seen him dressed up like a woman I had started noticing more things about Nur, which were quite strange. His favourite dusting place in the house would be my mother’s dressing table. Sometimes, if he liked a lipstick or a bottle of nail polish, he would ask to borrow it and my mother would just give it to him. “Le lo Nur, agar pasand hai [Take it, if you like it],” she often said to him.

When she would clean her closet, Nur would make sure to be around to lay claim on this dress or that shirt or dupatta that our mother wanted to discard anyway.

One day his gaze fell on her expensive saris hanging right at the back of the closet. “Baji, I don’t see you wearing those. Why hold on to them? Why not give them away?” he asked and she explained that those were expensive Banarasi saris and she would think twice before discarding them just like that.

That was when he mentioned his guru, his leader. “Baji, what if Guru buys them from you? He will pay you good money for them,” Nur said, and my mother started thinking.

The guru came over and some saris gifted to my mother by relatives she wasn’t particularly fond of went first.

An AI-generated image based on the writer’s recollections of Nur
An AI-generated image based on the writer’s recollections of Nur

The house we lived in was huge, built with spacious grounds and lawns. It had a big rooftop with a separate spiral staircase from the outside. In his spare time, Nur liked being on the roof. He would take his radio upstairs and listen to Pakistani film songs there. Once when I went looking for him there, I found him dancing to the songs. He didn’t stop when he saw me and picked me up in his arms as he kept dancing until I was chortling with glee.

He later had another offer for my mother, to let his guru rent our roof sometimes for their community functions. My mother had no issues with it; she said he could use it for free and he accepted.

That Sunday brought the biggest congregation of khwaja siras to our rooftop, to literally dance on our heads. Some of them were even wearing my mother’s old saris. “Wait, isn’t he wearing...,” my father said pointing to one of Nur’s friends, he had spotted hurrying off to the back of the house. But before he could even finish his sentence, my mother cut in: “Oh look, I was presented with a similar sari by your cousin, no?”

Then more trouble... just too many thud thuds coming from above. Loud music too. “What on Earth!” Our father turned to my mother. “Is there no end to this nonsense?”

“Look, they are poor folks,” she replied. “Don’t you think they have a right to be happy too sometimes?” I remember her response to his exasperated expression, which ended in him just shaking his head and turning on the TV to make some noise of his own.

Upstairs, Nur couldn’t enjoy his party alone. Soon, he appeared with dishes full of biryani, qorma with sheermal, kheer and zarda. “Baji, the biryani isn’t too spicy, the children can have it too,” he told my mother. Noticing my father’s serious expression, he assured him that he will clean the roof himself after the party. Then, as quickly as he had appeared, he vanished again.

We started recognising all of Nur’s friends, too. There was Khursheed, who had blonde hair and gray-green eyes; there was Shafique who loved to wear colourful hair clips and hair bands along with gaudy make-up; there was Rahman who was always dressed in crisp and clean clothes with a prayer cap on his head. He looked very religious.

Then Khursheed left. Nur said that he had been trying for years to find employment in the Gulf. A few months later, Nur also said that he was leaving, as Khursheed had found him a job in Dubai. We were sad to see him leave but he promised to visit us whenever he could. He also left us a replacement, his friend Shafique, who like him was also a very good cook. I still remember his fried fish and fish cutlets.

But Shafique was very much afraid of their guru. My mother often found him weeping alone in the kitchen. He would say that he missed his mother, his younger brothers and sisters. When asked why he wouldn’t go home if he was that homesick, he would say that his father didn’t want him there.

“Guru is like my father and my mother. I hand him all my salary but sometimes I keep a few rupees for myself to buy make-up and things and he gets mad at me,” he said looking very sad indeed.

My mother decided to give Shafique a raise then. She told him not to tell the guru about it and keep the extra sum for himself. But things for him didn’t seem to improve. Sometimes he would also return after his Sundays off with a bleeding lip or with bruises all over. He said that the guru beat him. Then one day he simply vanished.

I remember my mother calling up the guru to know his whereabouts to at least give him his salary but he said he had no idea where Shafique was. Then later, he came to inform us that Shafique had gone home and he could get his salary to him. My mother did hand him the money, though I remember her telling my father that she doubted he would send it on to Shafique. But my father told her to not interfere.

The guru brought Rahman as a replacement for Shafique. By that time I also had a baby brother and Rahman, if he ever got hold of a ballpoint pen, would reproduce Islamic calligraphy on the baby’s arms and wrists. He would also reproduce verses from the Holy Quran on the kitchen walls with coloured chalk.

Meanwhile, Nur came to visit with a bag full of gifts from Dubai for us including lipsticks and nail polish for my mother. He said we were his family. He was so happy to meet the addition to our family. “Had I been here baita jee [my son], I would have spoiled you rotten,” he said to the baby.

My mother told him about Shafique and he listened patiently. He looked upset but asked her not to worry.

Some months later, Rahman also left for Dubai as Khursheed had found him employment also. We also moved from that house to another smaller place and lost touch with Nur and the others.

As I watched the congregation of khwaja siras at Frere Hall, it felt like I was back in the safety and warm memories of my childhood. And I thought about how all they ever want is the smallest of things, to be accepted simply as human beings.

The writer is a member of staff.
She tweets @HasanShazia

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 4th, 2023



Lawless city
22 Sep, 2023

Lawless city

A GRIM milestone has just been passed in Karachi. The recent death of a teenage robbery victim brings the number of...
Another Sharif trip
22 Sep, 2023

Another Sharif trip

THE sudden arrival of former prime minister Shehbaz Sharif in London, a mere 48 hours after he touched down in...
Delayed elections
Updated 22 Sep, 2023

Delayed elections

If ECP wishes to affirm that it is serious, it should start moving on all pending matters so that the possibility of any further delay is minimised.
What next?
Updated 21 Sep, 2023

What next?

One wonders that if administrative measures were all that were needed to arrest the rupee’s sorry slide, why were they not taken sooner?
Greater representation
21 Sep, 2023

Greater representation

PAKISTAN now stands at a significant juncture, with the names of 11.7m more women added to the voter list, ...
Lost generations
21 Sep, 2023

Lost generations

IF those who wield power in Pakistan think that the nation can progress when tens of millions of its children have...