AT SUNSET ON 13 DECEMBER 2013, most residents of Imphal, the Manipuri capital, retreated behind the locked doors of their homes just as they do every day, leaving the heavily policed streets largely deserted. This is a long-standing habit, a consequence of Manipur’s prolonged armed conflict. But on that December night, over 2,000 people packed into Imphal’s Bheigyachandra Open Air Theatre, where 31 contestants—two from Arunachal Pradesh, one from Meghalaya, and 28 from Manipur—took the stage for the 3rd Trans Queen Contest North East.
Onstage, 24-year-old Rajkumar Nippon, her petite frame draped in a red gown, heard the crowd’s whistles of appreciation and felt an icy winter wind swirling past. After the show, she told me that as she stood there she remembered her father’s words from a decade ago: “Fine, if you insist on being what you say you are, then make sure that you stand out.” Those words of reluctant acceptance, Nippon said, came after years of reprimands and beatings had failed to rid her of the knowledge that she is a woman with a man’s body.
The beauty pageant, an annual solidarity event for the transgender community, was organised by the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMaNA), in partnership with several AIDS-awareness organisations and other groups. Nupi maanbi, loosely translated as “being like a woman”, is the current preferred Manipuri term for male-to-female transgender people. An earlier term, nupi sabi (“behaving like a woman”) can be traced back to the early days of the hugely popular, traditional open-air theatre called Shumang Leela, in which men have played female roles for more than a century.