I had ventured into Namachivayapuram, a neighbourhood in Chennai, armed with the optimism of a 16-year-old determined to change the world. I worked for the International Center for the Prevention of Crime and Victim Care (PCVC), an internship I had taken to complement my Feminist Perspectives module. This NGO worked on raising awareness to prevent gendered crimes and rehabilitating survivors of acid attacks, arson, and domestic violence – heavy stuff.

But my role involved the prevention aspect of their work, which meant walking into communities and identifying women changemakers, engaging with random women on their way back from work or running errands, understanding the community from their perspective, and exploring their willingness to tackle civil and social issues with the organisation's support. The idea was to get women together in a room and initiate a dialogue about their lives in their homes, communities and city (sounds simple enough), understand how folks like me can help with resources we've got (a bit of education, a wee bit time and a topping of hope).

It was during this time that I delved into the parts of my city that live near the Coovum River, where the city's drainage waste flows and where marginalised caste groups and marginalised communities often reside. Whenever I walked into this community, I was angry at the world for perpetuating such disparities in the city I love, where some, like myself, had access to large personal and socioeconomic ambition while others, not so different from me, lacked access to clean drinking water or reliable electricity - stuck in survival mode, unable to figure out what happens tomorrow (forget 5-year term plans for socioeconomic growth). It was amidst this anger, despair, and disappointment that I met Vanitha Akka ("Akka" is how Tamil folks refer to an older sister; not all Akkas are related to you, but if you call someone "Akka" know that you've made your best bid for connection with a comrade!)

Vanitha Akka lived with her chosen "adopted" family, like many transwomen who run away from home in various parts of India. She was the first woman to stop and listen as I spoke rather unconfidently, flustered about what I thought change could look like in the community - safer roads, fewer potholes, more street lights, rights for women, safety, just overall chill vibes. I watched her untangle the tangential threads of my thoughts, and by the time I finished, she was left with a messy compost pile of my ideas. I saw her gently make sense of that confusing pile, tethering each end of the threads together and understanding my anger, passion, and desire for change in my city. She asked me one question, "How much time have you got?" and that marked the beginning of my conversation about queerness, the beginning of my exploration of my own identity.

Vanitha Akka's life experience was that of any "ordinary" transwoman's experience in urban India in 2017. She had always known herself but was coerced (out of "love", of course) into leading a "normal boy's" life; she eventually ran away from home, unable to live a lie. Leaving home, however, was just the beginning. The biggest task was to find her "mother" – an older, wiser transwoman who would take her under her wing, protect her, perhaps help her find employment, and assist her in saving money to fund medical procedures for her transition. Vanitha Akka and I talked extensively about what makes a woman a woman, having our conversations while walking around the community as I did my job of getting to know it better.

I saw the community through her eyes - her supportive landlords who understood when the family couldn't pay rent for a few days, the government office housekeeper living five houses away trying to help her obtain an identity card that didn't misgender her, the postman who smiled and always greeted her with "have you eaten?" (the Tamil equivalent of "hello"), and the tailor aunty who claimed Vanitha Akka's mere existence was driving society to doom. We talked a lot about the bits of her that didn't quite fit with society. We also talked about my bits that didn't quite fit with me- the "I've always known I was different" bits, the "did I want to be her or with her?" bits, the "butterflies in my stomach when thinking of him" bits, and the "same fluttering sensation when pondering her" bits. All of it - I had talked about all of it - for the first time to someone who lived outside of my head.

Those initial conversations with Vanitha Akka about my queerness and sexuality were like wading into uncharted waters. I had grown up in a family that prided itself on being progressive, but discussions around non-heteronormative identities were still shrouded in hushed tones and unspoken taboos. Vanitha Akka provided a sanctuary – a space where I could voice my confusions, doubts, and curiosities without fearing judgment.

I remember mustering the courage to articulate the swirling emotions within me - to articulate that I was uncertain, confused and had no clue. The words tumbled out in a jumbled mess, and Vanitha Akka, as usual, listened with patience and understanding that seemed to transcend the boundaries of age and experience. She didn't rush me or attempt to impose labels or definitions. Instead, she'd joke about how I have what she calls "first-world queer" problems - problems of identity and not of survival. We laughed about it then, and I think about it now - very conveniently, I have not unpacked that yet to make sense of what the reality of that joke was.

Our talks were a tapestry woven with laughter, tears, and profound realizations about the fluidity of gender and sexuality. Vanitha Akka's own journey as a transwoman provided her with an intimate understanding of the complexities involved in carving out one's authentic self in a world that often seeks to impose rigid boundaries. Soon, I was trusted enough to be let inside her home (I had been inside her house multiple times, but one day, there was a visible switch).

We would go to her kitchen and make some fantastic sulaimani tea just in time for the rest of the family to arrive from work. We'd sit right in front of the house - which was quite literally on the street. I'd drink my tea, listen to the women unpack their days, say my "bye-bye"s and leave. I'd spend less than half an hour every other day after my work in the community. Every tea session with Vanitha Akka and her family helped me envision what a truly inclusive and affirming support system could look like. It was a stark contrast to the heteronormative nuclear family structure I had grown accustomed to, where divergences from the perceived norm were often met with discomfort or dismissal.

With the help of the team from PCVC we had repurposed a daycare into a community centre now where all of the changemakers (recruited mainly by Vanitha Akka) in the community congregated to discuss the roads, the street lights, the water, the families, the rent, the new movies and how they don't make good movies anymore. These meetings were not about solving anything on some days; they were a haven where identities could be explored, questioned, and ultimately embraced.

Just when I felt like I was gaining momentum in my personal journey and community work, everything came to an abrupt halt. I had taken a week's break, and when I returned, Vanitha Akka's house stood empty, devoid of the vibrant energy that had once filled its walls. Her family had moved on without any notice or explanation, leaving me devastated and grappling with a profound sense of loss.

It wasn't just the loss of my mentor that stung; it was the unanswered questions, the lingering doubts about whether I had somehow failed her or failed to understand the depths of her struggles. I spent countless nights replaying our conversations, searching for clues or hints I had missed, anything that could provide solace or closure.

But through the pain and uncertainty, I realized that Vanitha Akka had imparted a valuable lesson that extended beyond our individual experiences' boundaries. She had shown me that queer folks have an unbreakable "something", a resilience that allows them to support and uplift each other even in the face of adversity. Her question that initiated it all - "How much time have you got?" - echoed in my mind, reminding me that the work of self-discovery and community building is an ongoing process.

While I may never know why Vanitha Akka and her family left the community, I carry her legacy with me in every interaction and every space I hold for vulnerable souls seeking to understand and embrace their truth. Her impact on me at the age of 16 was profound, igniting something in me that burns brighter with each passing year.

I hope that wherever she is, Vanitha Akka continues to ask that life-altering question, encouraging others to embark on their own journeys of self-exploration without fear or hesitation. Her unwavering belief in the power of authenticity and her dedication to creating safe spaces for marginalized identities will forever be etched in my heart, a guiding light that illuminates my path as I strive to pay her legacy forward.