I’m 48, he’s 26. His name is John Nongmaithem. We met at the site of a recent hunger strike by transgender activist Malem Thongam for demanding restoration of peace in Manipur. John’s the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met. He’s a hair dresser and nature lover; cutely naughty like a child growing up. He loves spending time talking about the environment and social change. He’s taught me the names and properties of plants and wild flowers growing on Nongmaiching, a mountain situated on the eastern side of the metropolis of Imphal. He’s also an outstanding musician, a flute player. He prefers to live in his own world, which is pure, simple, full of serenity and tranquillity.

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As I grew closer to John, I realized he had the gift for blending my words of love with his naughtiness like a tease. It made me feel an unrequited crush for him. He was coy but not diffident and flirted with me when he got high. It had a delicious, indecent effect on me. Everything about him seemed exceptional and I developed strong feelings for him.

After weeks of living in a dilemma and suffocation, I decided to say “I love you”. I couldn’t resist myself from doing so. One evening we had a house party along with John’s friends and I wasn’t able to control the emotions coursing through me. Leaving aside all shame and barriers, I proposed to him. His face turned pale and he looked nervous, but he casually told me that he too loved me. His response made me nervous – it suddenly reminded me of our age difference.

I couldn’t believe that a man John’s age, beauty and talent could be free and interested in a woman my age. As time went by, he appeared more special and I couldn’t really understand what was happening to me. We moved around a lot together. We went to court and jail to support the protestor who was on hunger strike. Every evening, we’d go to a different Meira shang, a small shed in every neighbourhood where Meira Paibis (women torch bearers or civil society guardians of Manipur) stay at night. These were the places where the hunger strike continued. Whenever we went to a Meira shang together, we’d travel on his old Scooty. He’d take routes that would take us to the foothills where there wouldn’t be too many people. He’d drive sluggishly, as if he wanted to spend as much time with me as possible, to converse, and to allow me access to the deepest core of his mind. I wasn’t sure about his commitment to our relationship, but spending moments with him was far more beautiful than anything else.

On the evening of March 16, 2024, John came to my house and sat silently on the sofa. He wouldn’t look at me but I was busy observing him. He looked different – as if he’d come to tell me something which would be really hard for me to accept. After some silence, curiosity got the better of me and I had to probe. I demanded to know what he felt about me and the affection I had for him.

John’s answer hit me hard, my whole being felt bruised. He was in love with someone else for eight long years. My heart felt wrenched, everything fell apart. He’d been honest with me, but my hope was shattered. I said goodbye and allowed him to walk away from my life.

I looked at him one last time. The image of his crinkled and bright eyes was captured in my mind like a glacier on a faraway mountain. He left a hollow in my heart. As he walked out without looking back, my hope was swept away in the evening dry wind.

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This image shows text extracted from the accompanying article superimposed on a close-up shot of a large leaf growing on a forest bed with dew drops spread on the leaf. The photograph has been provided a wine-coloured tint. The text is in bold white font and says: “John says he’s learnt humbleness and kindness from the sounds of a stream running through a gorge. The pleasant sound of the stream never disturbs its immediate environment. Instead, its gentleness attracts everything around it. This is why it’s important to speak softly and with kindness. People can forget physical hurt, but the hurt caused by words runs deep.” Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Things didn’t quite end though. The next evening, John came over again with some home-cooked food for the people who were taking care of the protestor, who was now at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences. I didn’t want to go with John, but he insisted that we go together on the Scooty. Ultimately, I gave in and quietly sat pillion behind him. On the way, he started chatting with me, but I spoke little. He talked about the environment, his dreams, and love for nature. Somehow, everything he talked about was closely related with my passions and desires. I couldn’t help but respond to him. Our conversation made me forget the previous evening. Very soon, we were again just like before; he joked and I laughed a lot.

Our relationship continues and a change has come over him. He’s started treating me like a romantic partner. He often texts and calls me. Our conversations start after dinner and carry on till dawn. He once remarked that he isn’t interested in romance with a human being in the conventional way. Rather, he’s in love with Earth because nature is the beginning of every love story. The mountains, trees and flowers are what help humans develop emotions for others. He says he’s deeply concerned about the use of chemical fertilizers in agriculture, deforestation, and the cutting down of big old trees. He believes that nature has its own language and ways of communicating, but human greed is destroying it all.

When he calls, he begins with talking about saving the environment, then relates the matter to our relationship, and expresses how much he loves me. Nature and its elements are the media through which he expresses his love for me. One night he told me that he’d seen some tailorbirds fly in and out of his house. They’d built a nest on the roof of his house. He saw the mother bird carrying food for the hatchlings and build the nest to protect them. He said birds are the gift of Mother Nature and went on to talk about the life cycle of birds. Theirs is an example of co-dependence and co-existence, the roots of love and care. These are the rules of nature since time immemorial.

John says he’s learnt humbleness and kindness from the sounds of a stream running through a gorge. The pleasant sound of the stream never disturbs its immediate environment. Instead, its gentleness attracts everything around it. This is why it’s important to speak softly and with kindness. People can forget physical hurt, but the hurt caused by words runs deep.

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Listening to John takes me to a new level of consciousness. I think he’s been sent to me by angels. Every time we talk, there’s a new story and new learning for me. Our conversations assure me that I’ll be able to realize my dream of buying a small plot of land near a hill and build a community home. However, he’s still anxious about how his friends, family and society will react to our relationship. They’ve often failed to understand him and mistreated him. As a Nupa Maanba (transgender man), he’s always had to be on his guard.

Knowing John has made me realize that the language of love doesn’t have to be the conventional and unequal one we’re fed with from childhood. His life source is nature. If the Earth perishes because of some manmade disaster, our relationship also won’t exist. So, if we want our relationship to grow, we must take the responsibility to nurture the environment around us.

I’ve survived many broken relationships in the past and built a wall around me to protect myself. Being with John has planted the seeds of sweet surrender.

About the photo: The author with her companion John Nongmaithem – a moment of togetherness captured by the author’s niece Jessia Takhelmayum