The beach, like its counterparts around the planet, had a not-so-remote area infamously devoted to nightly cruising.
No, it wasn’t exactly gay cruising, should the readers misconstrue.
It was a place where the society’s rejected had an unenviable existence. They earned money by prostituting their minds and bodies for the amusement of patriarchal men – gay and straight.
A handjob would pay them less than a pound.
A blow job, in the hands of a generous client, would pay them more.
Of course, they are paid more often in kind – through taunts, insults, and often violent abuse, including by the police.
L. and M. met here, at this corner, actually fighting over a client.
M. holds destiny to account for bringing them together.
L. is more rational; it had more to do with the commonality of their tumultuous pasts.
They were both rejected by families; both fled the isolation of their villages to come to the violent jolt of a metropolitan city; both were victims of rape (M. of gang-rape); and both had been arrested and abused by the police on more than one occasion.
When I met them for the first time, as part of HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, they had been together for a year.
Fortunately, seemingly against all odds, both tested negative for the virus.
They had their own small house, which they shared with a few other
women, each of whom was at a different stage of gender reassignment.
The locality had now come to be known as “the community” – a cluster of society’s outcasts living together and supporting each other.
They paid their bribes to the police, and the police honoured their promise of non-interference in exchange for the money. Six months after I met them, I saw them exchange vows.
We were all part of a large voluntary organisation that looked after the welfare of the sexual minorities in the city.
We regularly distributed pamphlets and condoms; held conferences and meetings; and campaigned for the government to recognise the fundamental rights of sexual minorities.
Things weren’t always smooth, but the organisation, as an entity, was deeply committed, and unlike many other gay and lesbian support organisations, remained unfractured by ideological and political divides.
After the tsunami, things had changed dramatically. I was working with other aid organisations in a different part of the country, helping with a relief effort that the UN and ICRC rightly described as unprecedented in humanity’s history.
The country where I was born and brought up lost at least 50,000 lives according to official figures.
Returning to the city in February 2005, I was shocked to find that the entire community, including L. and M., were missing from their ‘homes.’
The premises were occupied by helpless refugees from the south.
The government authorities were unable (perhaps unwilling) to tell me what happened.
I did not hear from L. or M., or any of their friends, for another year.
Fifteen days before I was to leave for London (for the first time ever) in March 2006, I received a call from L.
She was in town for a couple of days by herself, and wanted to see me.
We met up, in an instance of cruel pathetic fallacy, on an unusually rainy day, near the beach.
“We were compelled to act,” she told me then. They watched the whole event unfold in front of their eyes, live on television, and decided to help out people in the southern villages where help was most needed.
Alas, “who would want help from the society’s most hated? We were the last faces they wanted to see.
“Many had already lost their near and dear, and seeing us, they thought we had come to scavenge on what was left behind by the mighty waves.”
The women came armed with broomsticks, the men with their hands and both with their irrational scorn.
“That we came to help did not cross their minds at all,” she said.
“The last thing they wanted to see was us.”
The prejudice and bigotry was so widespread and so deeply rooted in the society – which, ironically, embraced such minorities as gods five centuries ago – that even those orphaned kids, to whom L. and M. tried to show compassion, ended up rejecting them with taunts and verbal abuse.
“Yes, kids as young as five threw stones at us,” she said.
P., who shared the city house with L. and M., apparently couldn’t take this any longer.
“When she died of partial hanging in the branch of a tree under which we slept, we decided enough was enough, and returned to the city.”
But there was nothing to return to. Their premises had been occupied by refugees from the south. Even their belongings were no longer theirs.
The community had lost the strength and the morale that bound them together, and rapidly enough, people went about their own ways.
After four to five months of relentless search, L. and M. found themselves at the mercy of an elderly woman in a small seaside village who took pity on them and welcomed them into her home.
“We’re okay there. But, after everything we’ve been through, it’s hard to be happy. Every time we see a young orphan child roaming about in the village streets, it hurts me.
“It hurts me mentally and physically.”
“The old woman died last year,” M. said, as I was sipping my cup of coffee, leaning against the freshly-painted concrete wall and watching the sea.
“She left us the few blocks of land and the half-a-dozen huts she owned. We feed ourselves from the rents on the other huts.”
I must have smiled, as I saw a sign of acknowledgement on their eyes. They weren’t prostituting themselves for money.
After spending nearly the entire day with them, and after having seen them after 18 months, I was ready to leave.
My encounter with L. wasn’t as difficult as it was when we met before I left for London. Or so I thought.
While I was waiting for the return bus to the city with L., she grabbed my hand, and said, “I have to tell you something, something that I can only tell in M.’s absence, well, because she doesn’t know, and I just don’t know how to tell her.
“It’s all my fault. I was unfaithful to her almost every time I left for the city since we started living here.
“I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t help it. Two months ago, I tested myself at a government hospital in the city.
“I’m HIV positive.”