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It was well past eleven when I reached home. Opening the door I found the apartment still plunged in darkness. So Bill hadn't returned yet.

I pressed the switch hidden on the right side of the door and the room was instantly filled with a dim, yet warm light. I heaved a sigh of relief. Even though I was just a paying guest here, this cosy warm apartment never failed to make me feel at home. It was spacious and clean, decorated with taste. Anyone stepping into it for the first time was bound to appreciate the owner's sense of aesthetic.

I felt so tired! My limbs were stiff and sore. My rain soaked clothes had already sucked enough body heat to half dry themselves which made me shiver in cold. For a moment I stood there at the doorway, trying to find out what I needed most at the time.

Right! I needed a hot bath first.

I put my wet clothes in the washing machine and turned the geyser on. Then I stood in front of the large mirror in the bathroom and stared at my bare torso. For an instant, I had the urge of taking off the towel that I had wrapped around my waist and having a full view of my body. But my hand didn't move. It had already been a few years, yet I couldn't bring myself to look closely at what I had become.

Sighing, I came away from the mirror and throwing off the towel, dragged myself to the showering area. Warm water sprinkled over my sore body and relaxed every cell of it. I closed my eyes and let my mind become blank for once.


Half an hour later.

I looked into the refrigerator absentmindedly. I wasn't hungry or thirsty at all. But my throat felt sore as if I didn't have a single drop of liquid pass through it for hours. As my eyes fell on some canned fruit juice I realized that I was actually craving for some sweet juicy liquid.

I opened a can and sat down on the shaggy rug spread upon the tiled floor. My back rested against the low couch as I flipped open a worn out leather purse. It was empty, except for a single old photograph.

With my thumb and index figure I took out the photo carefully. Faded and moth-eaten, it still showed the happy and smiling faces of two girls holding their left fingers up to the camera in victory sign. Their right hands held up the gold medals dangling from their necks on yellow ribbons.

Inna and me. She, with her lightweight boxing championship gold and me, with my pentathlon gold. I turned the photograph over and there at the lower right hand corner the date was written in red ink. Faded, still not yet illegible.

I heaved a sigh. So many years had passed by. Now as I looked back it just looked like those sepia tinted old time movies that I once loved to watch.

Why was I holding on to that old photograph? The girl with that pentathlon gold whom her mother used to call Nelly, had ceased to exist long ago. From the ashes of her memories I had risen as Nell. Then why did I even cling to her memory?

Perhaps, it was not really easy to clean up a white board on which life had already clawed so many scratches?

How could I forget those days of trial and nights of bitter tears? Could I even begin to forget how my career as an athlete, my identity, my life, everything went into smoke all on a sudden?

It had started right after I won that pentathlon gold in the national championships, smashing all the previous records and setting a new one which seemed impossible even in the boys’ category. At first I was showered with applause, but then people started to talk.

The first thing I was charged with was doping. But I was given a clean chit there. Then somebody mentioned the possibility of abnormally high level of testosterone in my system. I was called for tests, and unfortunately, the suspicion turned out to be true. The reports said that the level of testosterone in my blood was even a bit higher than average boys of my age.

So the conclusion was drawn. People said I was a boy in the guise of a girl. More tests followed. Every inch of my naked body, my genitalia was bared in front of probing devices. The so-called private reports somehow got leaked and so-called knowledgeable people shook their heads as they dissected those reports in television channels and newspaper columns. Dumbfounded, I could only watch as they debated in issues like the size of my clitoris, the presence of testicular tissues inside my guts and whether I was to be labelled an intersex person or not.

Shattered and bewildered, I could only hid my face away from media and people. No, I couldn't  discard those reports as trash. At least, they explained why I had an androgynous body or why I had such irregular, painful periods. But what about my gender? Was I going to call myself a male or a female? In those days there was no one who could give me a clear answer.

Still, I was stripped off my medals. They barred me from taking part in athletic events as a female. At the same time, they didn't allow me to complete as a male.

What an irony!

I had gone numb by then. Inside my head, my whole existence had contracted into a small piece of meat without a human identity. I dragged myself through dreary days, writhed through bleak nights. It was as if my warm sunny days were nothing but a mirage.

All this time, my mother watched over me. She would coax me into eating something, at least once a day. She would sweet talk me into taking a bath from time to time and allowing her into cleaning my room which had by then turned into a smelly den. She had even made me take some pills for depression which I guessed, had little effect on me. Yet, she didn't give up.

Often I shrieked and woke up in the middle of night only to find that I was just having some nightmare. But my shrieks would bring my mother to my door and she would call my name. I didn't reply. Nor did I ever open the door. But her voice would soothe me and slowly, I would fall asleep once again.

One early morning I woke up and felt a sudden pang of hunger. It was quite unusual as I couldn't remember the last time I had felt so hungry.

As I went out of the room to look for some snacks, I saw something and stopped in my tracks. My mother lay sleeping on the bare floor by the side of my door, with her left hand folded below her head. The faint sunlight of early morning played in her hair and wrapped around her head like a halo.

For a long time, I gazed at her. Somehow a feeling of guilt sipped through my petrified heart and stifled me. So this was the reason why she could respond promptly whenever I had a nightmare!

For the first time in years I realized that I was just being selfish, wallowing in self-pity and not sparing any thought for the person who loved me so much.

I was just abominably selfish!

I didn't wake her up. Instead, I lay by her side and went to sleep again.

That night I didn't go to sleep in my room. Instead, I told her to sleep in her room, dragged the couch from the drawing space to the side of her door and slept in it. For the first time in who knew how many days, I slept without going through a nightmare.

‘I'll try to clean up this mess,’ I said to myself.

Two weeks after this my mother died of sudden respiratory failure.

I couldn't cry anymore. I had no tears left to shed. Only my eyes burned and my chest wrecked in dry sobs. ‘God! Haven't my trials been enough already?’ I repeated in my head again and again as I went through the last rites of my one and only loved one in this world.

But since when did gods start to answer for the havoc they played with human lives?

So I started cleaning up the mess as I had promised to myself.

I talked with the doctors about my condition. They told me that though my body resembled that of I female, inside I was mostly male. ‘Can you help me get rid of this duality?’ I asked them and they replied that they could.

Thus, began the long and painful process of conversion. The doctors cleaned up the underdeveloped female organs inside my belly, developed testis from the clump of testicular tissue already present in my body, created scrotum and developed the clitoris which was already larger than average, into penis. Slowly, I emerged as a human being complete with a set of male genitalia. Medical tests had proved that I could lead a normal sexual life as a man. But right then, sex was the least important thing in my list of priority.

I had sold off my mother's flat and spent all the money in my treatment. When the process ended at last I was a pauper with little money and no roof above my head.

My struggle had not ended yet.

I was introduced to an NGO which worked for the welfare of people like me. They gave me a job of teaching deprived children in a community school run by them. It offered a small salary, but that was all I could get at the time.

I had changed my name by now. I truncated the name by which my mother called me and adopted her maiden surname. I had to turn a new leaf and a new name was the first step towards it.

Even though I knew that my troubled past would never be buried completely, I had to try.

I managed to get a living space in a slum, with its common courtyard, shared latrine and open bathing space.

The next challenge was to get a decent job and there I failed miserably. In my zeal for sports I had neglected studies and then my years of seclusion had taken away the chance to even finish high school properly. So at the end of the day it turned out that I didn't have enough qualification to find myself a decent job.

‘What am I going to do now?’ I kept on asking myself as I sat on the stacked up old car tyres in the long and hot evenings. The backstreets in front of me would go desolate as darkness descended upon earth, with only one or two cars taking the route occasionally. A few boys from the slum then used the empty streets for practising stunts with bicycles and motorbikes. Perched up on the stack of tyres I would watch them eagerly.

Slowly I started to develop a strange attraction towards the flashing stunts with motorbikes. I was no stranger to motorbikes and stunts. My friend Inna had introduced me to them during the vacations which we spent together in her mother's farmhouse. Later I picked some skill here and there, but never thought of pursuing it as a sports.

But those were memories from a life spent long ago.

I wanted to ride bikes again. But I couldn't bring myself to take the initiative.

One day, they called me out on their own.

“Hey man, why don't you come down and join us?”

I jumped down from the stack and trudged towards them. Inwardly, I was still debating whether to talk to them or not.

“Man, it spooks me to see you perched high up there and staring at us!” The lanky youth who had called me said with a smirk. “Why don't you just join us?”

“Jay, do you even know if he can ride one at all?” Another one chided in.

“He looks so cute!” A third one said in a mocking tone.

My cheeks felt hot. But the one who had called me, I guessed he was Jay, came to my rescue.

“Shuddup!” He exclaimed indignantly and turned towards me.

“I know how to ride a bike,” I said slowly. “But I don't have one.”

“No problem!” Another youth who was leaning all this time against his bike, straightened up. “Take my girl here. See if you can ride her?”

I looked at his bike. It was a Pulsar 220, one with an excellent engine and a flared front. It was also on the heavier side. I could do better with a naked and lighter bike. If I was lucky enough I could only manage a wheelie or a stoppie with this one.

Sitting on the bike I could feel their eyes on me. I wouldn't say that I was not nervous, but I managed to pull an Endo which was actually lifting the rear wheel of the bike. And more importantly, I managed to make the bike stand properly after the stunt.

Jay came forward and slapped me on my shoulder.

“Good! A bit awkward, but good. Out of practice for long?”

I could only nod in reply.

“But you're a natural. Why don't you join our team? You'll have a better exposure here.”

“I don't have a bike of my own.”

“We can find one for you. How much can you spend?”

So it happened just like that. With my dwindling resources I could only afford a second hand Pulsar 220 bike. But it was in excellent condition and it came with free riding gears which fitted me well.

Too much good luck all on a sudden!

There was good money in private stunt competitions and drag races. Of course, they were all illegal, but I was not in a position to bother about that anymore.

Drag race, YouTube videos, some occasional stunts in movies- there was always work for someone who was ready to take the risk.

Days and months flew by. Soon a year was over.

I wasn't panicking anymore. I didn't have money, but at least I didn't have to worry about my next meal anymore. More than anything, I enjoyed riding bikes. To coax the machine into doing something impossible for me was exactly the kind of fun that I enjoyed most and soon others started to appreciate me for that.

It was in one such drag race competition that Inna found me out.

“Nelly! Is it really you?”

As the tall and stout woman hugged me close I could only respond with a foolish and awkward smile.

She could feel my awkwardness. Releasing me instantly from her bear hug she looked into my eyes intently.

“Nelly is no more. I'm Nell. Nell D'Souza.”

She understood me. She was the type of person who didn't need a lot of words to get the feel of a situation.

“Come, let's sit somewhere and eat.”

So we sat at a small food joint, washed down some cold mutton chops with a lot of cola and talked. She told me about how she had left the boxing ring after a massive road accident and how she had ended up running a Well of Death show in a well known amusement park.

“My chief showman is going to leave soon. I don't know how I'm going to get a good replacement in such a short time.” She lamented. Then her eyes narrowed.

“Why don't you come and join me?”

I was startled. A Well of Death show? I had seen them previously, but never attempted to perform in one.

“I don't know if I can do it.”

“Don't worry! You'll get enough chance to learn before you're put into the track. It requires a lot of skill and practice. But I want you to give it a try.”

‘Why not?’ I thought.

Then I smiled at her.

“If you say so.”

Just like that, my life had taken a new turn.