When Meitei Men Choose To Become Women

A recent beauty contest in Imphal boiled up the uneasiness of heterosexual society towards transgender women. The Nupi Maanbis, as they are known in Manipur, have traditionally lived visibly and worked in mainstream society but does this mean they are accepted? Far from it, argues our writer as she travels into a bloodied battlefield.

A contestant of Trans Queen Contest North East 2013 carrying a placard protesting against the Supreme Court ruling on Section 377
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Grist Media | Photo by Swar Thounaojam
Fri 3 Jan, 2014 9:30 AM IST

1.    What are you comfortable with? Male clothes or female clothes?
2.    What should a transgender be careful about?
3.    What do you want to be reborn as? Male, Female or Transgender?
4.    Do you think it is okay for a TG (transgender) to dress like a woman and walk in the streets?
5.    You were born as a man but you behave like a woman. Is it god-given or something that can be changed?
6.    Some TGs drop their pretence and end up marrying women. What do you think?
7.    If your parents ask you to become a man, will you agree?
8.    What is the duty of a Nupi Maanbi?
9.     If a man claims to love you and says that he would kill himself if you don't marry him, what would you do?
10.    Let's say a man marries you. But due to family pressure he leaves you and marries a woman, would you resent it? 
11.    What are the qualities of a mother?

On December 13, 2013, two days after the Supreme Court reinstated section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMaNA) organised its third Trans Queen Contest North East 2013 - an annual solidarity event for the transgender communities of northeast India.
 
The 11 questions listed above (roughly translated into English from formal Meiteilon) were asked by four heterosexual male personalities - a senior journalist, a filmmaker, a Sumaang Leela male artist, and a music video artist - invited by AMaNA to judge the first screening round (held on Nov 29, 2013 at Kuki Inn, Imphal) and the final event. AMaNA's secretary Santa Thangjam (popularly known as Santa Khurai) told me that inviting straight people to judge the contest was intentional: to make them listen to nupi maanbis (trans women) and sensitise them. But what's with these admonitory questions that are borderline anti-trans? With a skilful grace that comes with the territory of being born into, living and working in the heavily formal, minutely etiquette-ised Meitei culture, Santa answers, "Yes, we have a long way to go."

Not to be outperformed by these four judges at turning young trans women into objects of inquiry, a special guest (a married, heterosexual woman) said something roughly like this when invited on stage at the final event to say a few words:

It is tough to be a woman. So I am obviously concerned that my beloved young beautiful Nupi Maanbis want to be women. They would have to face more than what we face as women.
 

She then proceeded to detail snug domestic negotiations made with her mother-in-law so that she could stay out late on a winter night and show her solidarity for her Nupi Maanbi friends who might be tolerated but have never been accepted as daughters-in-law. 

***

Like many non-ticketed public events organised in Imphal on limited budgets, the Trans Queen Contest was held at the Bhagyachandra Open Air Theatre (BOAT) - a massive cauldron of an amphitheatre that turns into a glacial hellhole on winter nights. The Meiteis must be hardy people. All we ever said to each other while pulling our shawls tight around us as the temperature started dropping below 6°C was this:

-    This place is so nice on summer nights
-    Except for the mosquitoes
-    Yes, this place is so nice on summer nights except for the mosquitoes

When Meiteis speak to each other, we repeat ourselves a lot and talk in circles. It has been perfected into an art form by Sumaang Leela playwrights, comedians, anonymous writers of 'Kanana Haijillino' ('Who Made This Up' - a satirical column in the Manipuri daily Poknapham) and the British playwright Martin Crimp who quite possibly has no Meitei connection.  

Like many major events happening in Imphal, it was of course guarded by the Manipur Police Commandos. With automatic rifles hanging from one shoulder and leecheis (bamboo batons) in hand, it was part of their security brief to barge into green rooms while bras were being stuffed and stride across the stage while contestants were introducing themselves to four well-known heterosexual judges. They watched contestants march on stage with placards protesting against the Supreme Court ruling on Section 377, and when they saw a group of boys dancing to the music in one corner of the amphitheatre, they sprung to action: five of them decided the easiest way to catch the dancing boys was to climb on stage, stride behind the row of contestants showcasing their designer wear, swing their leecheis in the air and surround the boys before striking them. The golden rule to follow when commandos decide to thrash you in Imphal is to take one beating and cower on the ground. One dancing boy forgot this (or did he defy it?) and ran into the crowd. A commando chased him and slipped on the icy stone steps. The crowd laughed. Four commandos now had to join their disgraced colleague, pin down the runaway dancing boy, pulp him and drag him down to the hallway. A few of us went to intervene. A ring of commandos stopped us at the landing but they didn't stop a white American photographer with a Naga muffler around his neck from taking pictures.  I noticed one leechei had split in half, and heard the crowd clapping as the third round of the contest got over.

"The commandos are too sexed, more sexed than normal men," said a 20-year-old 2012 contestant who, like many nupi maanbis in Imphal, works at a beauty parlour. Last year, she was stopped in the street at night by some commandos for security frisking. They asked her for a round of oral and anal sex. She refused. They threatened. She told them that they could shoot her if they wanted to. They slapped her and let her go. Now whenever commandos drop in at her beauty parlour for dil lenba, she tells them what assholes they are.

Dil lenba can be banter, flirtation, timepass or, very possibly, harassment in Meiteilon. The morning after the Trans Queen Contest, a few commandos stopped two nupi maanbis and a male relative near a petrol pump in Moirangkhom for some dil lenba. The conversation went roughly like this:

Commando: Don't you know it is now illegal to walk like this with a man in the street?

A nupi maanbi: Give me a break. He is my brother.

At which point, a commando, smelling of alcohol, asked one of the nupi maanbis to exhale, put his nose close to her mouth and then tried to kiss her. The brother stepped in to stop him and was promptly taken aside. A few minutes later, they were let go. After walking a few hundred meters away from the dil lenba commandos, the brother told the nupi maanbis that he was coerced into giving them 500 rupees.   

* * *

According to Chitra Ahantham - Associate Editor, Imphal Free Press - who's worked with the NGO Social Awareness Service Organisation (SASO) in the past, it was the personnel of the Manipur State Police who would regularly harass and abuse the nupi maanbis  at a popular park in Imphal. This was roughly 10 years ago and at that time there really was no nupi maanbi community. There were only scattered groups of close-knit nupi maanbi friends. A crude sense of community started building when Imphal-based NGOs working on HIV prevention identified many nupi maanbis as high-risk individuals and started working with them at condom promotion workshops. This perfunctory relationship with the NGOs somehow managed to create an improvised space for the nupi maanbis to come together and start talking about their lives, struggles, and the discrimination and abuse they faced.

It wasn't an easy start. Many were unwilling to share their stories: they didn't think it was necessary to tell their stories because they thought they had to bear the abuse and somehow get on with life. A life that was a series of brutal beatings by family members, sexual and financial exploitation by alphas (men), police torture, social discrimination, alcoholism, depression and suicide attempts. But very slowly as condom promotion workshops gave way to workshops on sexuality, human rights, legal rights, and counselling sessions, they developed a more equal relationship with the NGO staffers and straight HIV activists and a few of the nupi maanbis emerged to form community-based organisations (CBOs) for men who have sex with men (MSM), transgender people and other sexuality minorities in Manipur. AMaNA, established in 2008 is a coalition of three such Imphal-based CBOs. 

Santa Khurai, 38, used to be highly sceptical of the HIV activists. They angered her because she thought their high-voltage work on AIDS in Manipur was making HIV infection synonymous with her nupi maanbi community, making them further marginalised and stigmatised. Before AMaNA, she used to run a highly successful beauty parlour in Khurai. Born the eldest son in her family, she was educated at the elite, all-boys Don Bosco School, Chingmeirong. She grew up in the 80s. A neighbour sodomised her when she was 10 or 11 and because she was too scared to tell her mother about it, she let her family assume her anal wounds were due to piles and was treated with medicinal herbs by a local shaman.

Her first lover was a class 7 classmate. She was bullied by her friends in school for being effeminate but was never picked on by the teachers, and because the older generation of nupi maanbis never really ventured out in women's clothes and preferred to keep a low profile, she started seeking out friends of her age who had the audacity to wear make-up and women's clothes.

Her gradual assertion of her nupi maanbi identity became the source of many family conflicts and she increasingly felt the need to become financially independent. She started giving private tuition to neighbourhood kids; her sisters were very good at embroidery - so she learnt embroidery and earned Rs 40 for embroidering a bed sheet and Rs 15 for a pillow case. These small-time money making schemes weren't enough for her so she got an aunt living in Singapore to loan her some money and went to Delhi to train as a beautician and hairdresser.

When she returned to Imphal to start her own beauty parlour, it coincided with the rise of Manipuri music videos. This new music video scene sprang up to fill the vacuum created in the local entertainment industry after a Meitei insurgent group issued a blanket ban on Hindi/mainland entertainment in 2000. This ban also led to the rise of the highly commercial Manipuri digital film industry that now employs many nupi maanbis as make-up artists.

Santa swiftly became a popular make-up artist, styling a young generation of music video artists and film stars. She also started writing about her life experiences as a nupi maanbi in local papers. Her writings got noticed and she was invited to be part of a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) working session in Delhi. It was a turning point.

She started working with activists and decided to focus on the human rights issues of nupi maanbis in Manipur. This was also the time when she stopped resenting the HIV activists and came to the conclusion that their projects in fact empowered many nupi maanbis. She shut down her beauty parlour business. In 2012, she became the secretary of AMaNA.

As nupi maanbis, despite the abuses, have always lived visibly and worked within the mainstream Meitei society, many tend to believe there is some sort of progressive acceptance at work here. It is however a self-serving notion of acceptance the Meitei society has of its sexual minorities - an acceptance granted as long as mainstream hetero culture is enriched and hardly has anything to do with gender justice.

Santa says, "Many of us nupi maanbis are financially well-off now and can contribute to the family kitty. So it is easier for family to accept us. But is that true acceptance? We are not decision makers in our families...Every day I take the same route to office and every day the same people will snigger, roll their eyes or pass comments. What acceptance are we talking about here? Our livelihood choices - giving private tuitions to kids, embroidery, beautician, hairdresser, potloi shetpi [trousseau artists for a Meitei bride who traditionally double up as the make-up artist too] - have given us social mobility. But acceptance? No, there is no true acceptance." A common threat used by family or others when they feel the nupi maanbis have transgressed the limits of their hetero acceptance is, "homo noishe hingbagi kannadrabane, hattokpana faradabane. You homos don't deserve to live, we should just kill you."  

* * *

The booming beauty parlour business in Imphal that employs the majority of nupi maanbis and gives them a safe, creative livelihood makes Santa happy as well as concerned. It is a cocoon that protects and grooms the younger generation to become financially independent and have a shot at leading a freer, better life.

However, it also runs the danger of becoming too convenient a safety net that might eventually limit the young nupi maanbis from aiming higher, enrolling themselves in college and working towards occupying diverse professions. According to Santa, her generation at least finished college and got degrees. The younger lot now drop out of school easily and rarely go to college because working at a parlour is much easier and more empowering than battling discrimination in colleges and universities.   

Jenny Khurai, 36, is another leading make-up artist. Like Santa, she was also running a small beauty parlour when the new wave of Manipuri music video hit the entertainment market in Imphal in early 2000s. Her expertise as a beautician proved to be a hot ticket. She now runs three beauty parlour branches in Imphal, has worked in the local digital film industry as a beautician and is now a film producer and actor. Her main branch is in Khurai Lamlong Bazaar and she has around 15 nupi maanbis working with her and living at her home. She also employs a few oris (from the English word 'original' and used for straight women) but she prefers giving employment opportunities to nupi maanbis.

When she was growing up, it was dreadful to be a young trans woman. She didn't have anyone to advise or support her. "My legs would shake terribly at the thought of taking that extra step and walking out of the house dressed as a woman. We didn't have the kind of confidence these younger lot have. Now they wear pretty make-up, frocks, heels, long hair and walk down the streets. In my time, it was a massive battle. Leecheis would split into halves when my father beat me up. After every beating, I would pretend to be a man for a few days and do all male jobs. But very soon I wanted to wear phanek [wraparounds for women] and chat with the girls. So I would forget about the beatings, wear women's clothes and go out. Again my father would beat me up. It continued like this for a while before my father gave up and allowed me to do what I wanted. Slowly, I started making money and contributing financially to the family and this kind of increased my status within the family and I could start living my life on my own terms."

As she currently has more than a dozen nupi maanbis living at her house, I ask her about her family's reaction to it. She says, "When I first started giving shelter to these young nupi maanbis, my family wasn't very happy of course. But I make sure that all my girls are hard-working and well-behaved and don't get into trouble. Then my family started getting OK with it and now I have around 15 of them staying in my house. I wish there were shelters for TGs who have nowhere to go to when families start abusing them. I try my best but how many can I afford to keep under my roof? Many TGs are from poor families. The rich ones never openly declare themselves to be TGs. They keep it secret. They have lots of money so they can be secretive." 

Eighteen year old Pengbi (name changed) came to Jenny when she was 12 years old. At 11, when she sat down with her father to tell him that she'd decided to become a nupi maanbi, he walked out of the conversation. He had been beating her regularly for wearing women's clothes.  It was her mother who persuaded her father to allow her to be what she is. Finally her father said: Do what you want but don't get into trouble. She comes from a village that is 16 km away from Imphal and when her father and brother offered to drop her to Imphal, she refused. She wanted to make that journey alone. She first heard of Jenny through films, and then learned from friends that Jenny ran a parlour and gave shelter to young nupi maanbis. She changed her name from Pratap to Pengbi and has been with Jenny since she left home.

Sanathoi, 27, never felt the need to change her name. She didn't face any family opposition over her nupi maanbi identity. She thinks it might be because her family was too poor to care. The fact that she's very close to her mother and has always helped her out in all the household chores might have been another deal clincher, according to her.

Like Jenny Khurai, Homen Hi Fi (Hi Fi is the name of his parlour) has around six young nupi maanbis under his care. Two of his young nupi maanbis were contestants at the recent Trans Queen Contest. Ahenbi (name changed), one of his wards, is also a previous contestant.

Homen is their Oja - a teacher and a guardian. He has an MSc and an incomplete arts degree. He works as a make-up artist for films and non-film work; is a trained designer ; has written scripts for Manipuri films; is excellent at styling hair and loves giving an 'international look' to his creations. Even though he is not a nupi maanbi himself, he runs his parlour with the nupi maanbis' code of sisterhood: Watch out for each other. He takes care of everything -  shelter, food, clothes, monthly stipend and considers it his moral duty to help out with any family trouble his wards might be facing.

Training at his parlour is for free and his aim is to make sure that by the time they decide to become independent, they are skilled and know the ways of the world. He doesn't believe in hierarchy and want his young nupi maanbis to be able to speak their minds and have space to dissent - a space he thinks many nupi maanbi leaders don't give to the younger lot. He is also quite outspoken and you see traces of his candour in the nupi maanbis working with him. He is fiercely protective of them: while shopping with Ahenbi, a Meiteilon speaking non-Manipuri shopkeeper commented on seeing her: "Dao yaadou maande hey. This is gonna be inauspicious." He caught hold of the shopkeeper and forced him to apologise to Ahenbi.

Ahenbi and Tampha studied in the same school and met Homen in May 2010. Since then both of them have been working with Homen and living at his place. They were teachers' pets at school.  Their school teachers allowed them to have long hair, and wear make-up, platform shoes and bell bottom trousers to school. Their straight classmates envied them but couldn't do much about it. The girls thought it was unfair they could wear make-up to school; the boys were jealous they could wear their hair long. School was fun but they dropped out after clearing their class10 exams. The work they were doing at the parlour turned out to be more exciting and liberating than school. 

Tampha wants to become a Sumaang Leela nupi shaabi - a male or transgender artist who role-plays a woman character in the popular Manipuri travelling theatre form. She has tried to snag a role but she thinks she needs to work on her rhythm as a performer.

Tampha belongs to the young sassy generation of nupi maanbis who are challenging the traditional, performative space occupied by the nupi shaabis who often indulge in trans bashing. The semantics are useful here. Nupi Maanbi translates as 'embodying a woman'- one who chooses to be a woman, identifies and lives as a woman; one who expresses her femininity unapologetically. Nupi Shaabi translates as 'performing a woman' - one who impersonates a woman in a theatrical performance.

In Manipur, the nupi maanbi community has borne the stigma of HIV for way too long and this, I suspect, is one big reason why many nupi shaabis do not want to be identified with the nupi maanbis and lose their hard-earned middle-class respectability. Also, many nupi shaabis refuse to be identified as women and use traditional sexism to demonise the nupi maanbis who are "men who chose to become women".  They deride the clothes, make-up, mannerisms and social mobility enjoyed by the nupi maanbis. 

Ahenbi and Tampha remember a 2012 film called Ang Tamo (Yes, Tamo). Tamo can be brother, lover, partner or husband in Meiteilon. It made them cry because they identified with the film. It showed their struggles to become a woman - they loved the young boy who played the child version of the protagonist; the familiar discrimination; the familiar ending where the man betrays the nupi maanbi. They however didn't warm up to another film called Shabi-Shanou (2012) - a film about a transsexual - because it was too aajkaan, meaning too forward. Tampha thought Shabi-Shanou was too obsessed with the body parts of the protagonist and failed to show a realistic world where sex reassignment surgery is too distant a dream. 

Both Ang Tamo and Shabi-Shanou pit a nupi maanbi against a straight woman as rivals in love. The male love interests are let off the hook, their choices never probed. The nupi maanbi protagonists are beaten up severely by the father and in the absence of a father, by the brother.

Both Ahenbi and Tampha were thrashed by their fathers for wearing women's clothes. Amubi, like Jenny, remembers how leecheis split when her father beat her. In much the same way the commando's leechei split after striking the dancing boy. In Tampha's case, she was once tied to a pillar by her father and hit with a leechei because her father saw her walking down the street in women's clothes and make-up. Her mother and brother had to hug her to protect her from her father's beatings. When he calmed down, her father said: "Wear your hair long, use make-up but never wear a woman's clothes."

The transphobia fuelling these beatings has a deep seated misogyny. The father seemed to be severely dishonoured by the woman his son had become rather than by the son who'd decided to become a woman.

AMaNA is slowly documenting reports of abuses and harassment faced by nupi maanbis from family members and others. It hopes to collate and create some accessible form of statistics in the near future. As a state level apex body, it intervenes in many cases reported by its CBOs or the victims themselves and work closely with state authorities like the Manipur State Legal Services Authority (MSLSA), local meira paibis and leikai clubs (something like resident welfare boards) to deliver justice to abused/harassed nupi maanbis. 

One such documented case reported by the local media is the case of Lucky. Lucky was on her way for a groom make-up appointment when she was confronted by two strangers who wrongly believed she was the nupi maanbi their father had eloped with. They thrashed her and nearly abducted her before locals intervened. The matter was settled with the help of MSLSA; the two brothers rendered a formal apology and were fined Rs. 5000. 

* * *

In Ang Tamo, Jenny plays the real life Jenny who has a hard-nosed piece of advice for young nupi maanbis falling in love with alphas: It is a waste of time.

Santa wouldn't really call falling in love a waste of time but tells me it does get tough in the evenings. Two of her past lovers died recently. Some abandoned her, and she left one man in anger because things got ugly with his family. She says, "We overcompensate when we are in love. We give everything - money, body, soul - only to be thrown away because we are not women. Families have always won over the men we love. I know we can't have babies but don't men also love women who can't or decide not to have babies?" You will find that many of us drink a lot in the evening because we have loved way too deeply, she adds.  

At the screening at Kuki Inn for the Trans Queen contest, I remember a young contestant's answer to a question on love and marriage: I don't want to fall in love or marry. I want to work. Have dignity. 

Her answer echoed what Sanathoi first told me when we started talking about love and relationships: It is very rare, almost impossible, for a man to marry any of us. It would be nice of course. But if that doesn't happen, I wouldn't really regret it. I have my job. I love my work...maybe my work is better than a man.

A 17-year-old nupi maanbi told me how she got to know a man from Lamlai when she was in class 10. It was a wrong number on her phone. He asked her if she was a man or a woman. She wanted to be honest and told him she was a man. But he said her voice was as sweet as a woman and asked if he could meet her. She agreed. They met, dated for a bit and one day he took her to his friend's house. He locked the room they were in and asked her to put a condom on his swollen penis. Then he sodomised her. It was her first. A few weeks later, he eloped with an ori and got married. Her heart was broken. After this wrong number man, she told herself that she was never going to fall in love with a man. Yes, I will flirt, have fun, have lots of sex - with condoms of course - but never take a man seriously...if men think they can use me for sex and money, I will turn the tables and get more sex and money out of them, she says.

People don't look down on us for loving our work in the way they do if we love a man, says another nupi maanbi. 

As the nupi maanbis seize their newfound self-respect, love takes a back seat.

***

 (All the nupi maanbis whose real names are published in this article did not wish to be anonymous.) 

Swar Thounaojam (@liklasa) is a playwright, theatre director and performer based in Bangalore.

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