The protagonist, hails from a family of Kathakali (a stylized classical dance) performers. His father, S. Raghavan is renowned for expertly portraying the roles of female characters in the dance-drama. One sultry night, the teenaged protagonist feels aroused when he sees his father perform on stage, dressed in a female costume. He recognizes these feelings to be different from the natural stirrings an adolescent boy would feel at the sight of a beautiful woman. He imagines himself in the female costume and feels good about himself. He realizes that he is a woman trapped in a man’s body.A few days later, S. Raghavan falls ill before a big performance. The protagonist is forced to replace him. He puts on female makeup, dons the Kathakali costume and performs the role of the princess to perfection.

Dance Like a Woman

Chapter 1 – I was born “Mahesh”

The stage is set. My husband, Nala and I walk in front of a lamp, its thick wick sunk to the brim in coconut oil. We are newly married and sauntering through the garden. My husband is gazing at me affectionately, until a plastic flower falls on me. Nala is elated and thinks this is a blessing showered by nature on me, his wife, Queen Damayanti. He addresses me and says:

“On the arrival of their queen, nature is showing its appreciation by dropping flowers on her”. His face is painted green and eyes, lined with red and black make-up, sparkle at me. The singer in the background sings expressively and the percussionist drums away in bliss.

My red lips break into a smile. My golden face glows like a light. I am acutely aware of my dramatic womanly bulging skirts, antique ornaments, large overcoat and flowing veil. My long black hair is piled on top of my head in a knot. A grand brocade red and white scarf flows from it. As the ringing of the tiny bells around my ankles reaches my ears, a wave of ecstasy passes through my body.

“Look at that tree” Nala continues “when I was single, it used to mock my condition by hugging the creeper”. Then he gazes at the same tree and addresses it. “Dear Tree” he says graciously “I am no longer a loner. I am fortunate to be in the company of a beautiful wife”.

Both of us wander about in the theatrical garden. A bumblebee whizzes towards my face. Quick as a flash, my husband retrieves a handkerchief from his pocket and protects my golden face. A thought crosses his mind. He smiles as he articulates it. “The bee has mistaken your face for a flower!” Nala exclaims “and has come to extract nectar from it!”. I blush in an exaggerated manner. Then I say: “It seems as if the entire garden is thrilled. Flowers are blooming. It appears as if they are smiling. The cuckoos are singing and the bees are engaged in a merry dance. Gentle winds are blowing and brushing against our bodies. Oh! But how very lovely the whole garden looks!”.

“The sun is going down, darling” my husband tells me “It’s time for us to go back”. As we turn and start walking back towards our palace, the heavy curtain falls. Thunderous applause fills the air. I hear the audience screaming “Meena, Meena! We want to see more of you!” in enthusiastic appreciation. I am jerked into reality. I realize that they are calling out my name. Meena. Meena Forster. I have performed the role of Damayanti many times. But this is the first time I performed as a woman. I can’t express the joy I feel at the acceptance I have gained by my people. While performing, I noticed my parents, sister, brother-in-law and friends among the crowd. Beside them is my husband, Eustace Forster and Sunaina. Sunaina is dressed elegantly in a white Kerala saree and wearing golden jhumkis, a type of Indian earrings shaped like bells. I don’t know how exactly to explain Sunaina’s relationship to me. She has been my friend, philosopher, guide, lover, and mentor. My angel. My eyes flit back to my family, once again.

They really seem proud of me.

It wasn’t always like this. I have come a long way. And the journey wasn’t an easy one.

I was born in Kochi (then Cochin), a small fishing town in Kerala in 1985 into a family of Kathakali artistes. Kathakali is a stylized classical Indian dance-drama, noted for the striking make-up of characters, the opulent costumes, detailed gestures and well-defined body movements presented in tune with live playback music and complementary percussions. My father, S. Raghavan, a noted name in the art, was renowned for his Stripatras or depiction of the roles of female characters. My father’s playing the role of a woman in Kathakali plays wasn’t considered shameful or unnatural as Kathakali is mainly the domain of males. Nowadays, it is pretty common for women to perform the Kathakali (as I do), but in those days, women were strictly prohibited from performing the art.

Ours was a small family consisting of me, my parents and elder sister, Radha. Our parents were very conservative and brought us up in a very traditional fashion. Kochi, being the first town in India to have been invaded by the Europeans, had a greater share of foreign tourists than many other parts of India. They would rent rooms and dormitories and stay for months at an end in the town, enjoying its beautiful backwaters, lovely churches, sea food and of course, Kathakali. I had come across many an enthused Caucasian white tourist who wanted to stay in India permanently and learn Kathakali under the auspices of my father. Though my father obliged and was a good teacher to them, he never accepted foreigners as “one of us”. In order to shield us from outside influence we were exposed to so frequently, our father became especially strict and insisted that we wear only traditional clothes. Therefore I only wore a lungi, a yard of white cloth winded around one’s torso beneath the navel and tucked at the waist, and a shirt while at home. Of course, I wore trousers—a part of the school uniform—to school. Radha wore the traditional Kerala saree, which is off-white with a golden border. I found the saree indisputably more attractive than the lungi. I often thought it unfair that females got to wear the choicest clothes, jewelry and grow their hair long, whereas men were expected to do with bare minimum where attire was concerned.

My father expected me to follow the family tradition and become a Kathakali artist. He had started training me in Kalaripayattu from an early age. Kalaripayattu is a form of martial arts, which is believed to aid Kathakali dancers control their body and face movements. Even though I was fascinated by the color and creativity involved in performing the Kathakali, I hated being trained in martial arts. I would instead wish that I could help my mother in the kitchen the way Radha did after returning from school. However, since our father did not approve of boys going into the kitchen and doing household chores, I never got a chance to potter around the kitchen.

The high point of my day was early evenings when the Kathakali artistes put on their make-up. Putting on makeup was a painstaking process that took about an hour. My father was particular that I stay in the green room and observe him and the other Kathakali performers apply their makeup.

“After all, one day, Mahesh” he would look at me and say with barely concealed enthusiasm “you will be a Kathakali performer yourself. You could take the baton over from me, and portray female roles, but it is not compulsory. You are hundred percent free to play male roles too”.

During the times father said these words (which was ever so often), I would look at him and nod. I used to be too awe-struck to speak in front of my father. To me, he was a larger than life figure who dressed in huge, outlandish garments, used exaggerated expressions and depicted divinities and the royalty in his plays.

Since the makeup for artistes performing male roles was much more intricate than that of those portraying women, they used to have a makeup artist. I would watch mesmerized as the makeup artists lined the Kathakali artistes’ faces with layers of white, green, yellow, red and black, based on the roles they were playing. However, my father, who always depicted female characters, did his own makeup. I used to watch bewitched as he painted his face a lovely golden color, darken his brows, outline his lips and clasp a nose-ring around his shapely nose. The formidable patriarch of a man would, in a matter of a few hours, be transformed into a beautiful woman. It was one of the most enchanting things imaginable, to say the least.

One evening, after the customary one hour long-make up session, my dad and the other artistes disappeared into the inner quarters to change. I was thirteen years old at that time. Soon, they emerged wearing oversized overcoats, flowing veils, bulging heavily-pleated skirts, antique ornaments, and striking opulent headdresses, with wigs of streaming hair flowing down the waist and covering their backs. My father was dressed a little differently, with his wig piled in a knot on top of the head, veiled with an ornamented scarf falling over his tight red jacket. An elegant white saree covered the lower half of his body and he wore opulent necklaces, bracelets and a number of tiny bells around his ankles. I couldn’t help noticing the gentle bulge in this bosom the breastplate produced. Much to my shock and embarrassment, my penis began stirring beneath my lungi. I suppose this was a natural enough reaction of an adolescent boy at beholding the female form, but I felt very guilty. I suppose my guilt had something to do with my having been brought up to only have “pure thoughts”. I also felt terrible because the person beneath the costume and layers of make-up was my father!

As was the ritual, I opened the intricately carved wooden doors of the theatre and invited the audience members inside with a polite “Namaste”, the traditional Indian greeting. I asked them to take their seats, before checking if the microphones and the audio systems were functioning properly. When the voice of the taped commentator started giving the audience members an introduction to the dance-drama, the various emotions and movements involved in them, I walked to the farthermost point of the theatre hall and took my place there. From what the commentator had announced, I knew the troupe was going to enact an episode from Mahabharata, the great Indian epic.

The play started. The artistes started enacting the role of the Pandavas, the kindly princes of a royal family. The five Pandava brothers were married to the same woman, Panchali, a beautiful princess from another land. Since Panchali’s was the only female part in the play, my father was performing it.

Owing to losing a bet, the Pandavas were sent on exile to a forest. When living in the forest, one day, a rare enchanting flower wafted in with the wind came and fell at the feet of Panchali. Enticed by its beauty and fragrance, Panchali asked Bhima, the eldest of the Pandava brothers to bring her a few more of the same. The way my father, by mime and movement alone, expressed Panchali’s desire to possess more of the same kind of flowers, made the audience inhale sharply. The upward movement of his quivering fingers, meant to depict the flower, had everyone enthralled. The expressive movements of the various parts of his eyes—the eyebrows, eyelids, eyeballs, the iris and the pupil—while she interacted with her husband was the most bewitching piece of histrionics I had ever seen before in my life. I was acutely aware of the sinuous creeper-like gestures of my father’s hands, his dainty footwork and sweet, graceful expressions.

I had seen this particular episode from the Mahabharata enacted many a time, but, that evening; it had an entirely novel effect on me. It was as if I was looking at it from an entirely different perspective. It was as if something had changed, drastically and dramatically. Goosebumps started forming on my arms and I trembled pleasurably. Blood throbbed in my ears and my face flushed. Beads of perspiration accumulated on my forehead. Deep down in my loins, something stirred and hardened—for the second time that evening.

Yet, it wasn’t the usual, predictable lust a boy on the threshold of manhood feels for a woman (or a man dressed as a woman). It was something else I had known for a long time, but had repressed. It was such a taboo feeling, that a boy brought up as strictly as I was dared not acknowledge. That is, until that moment.

It wasn’t the female form that had aroused me. It was something else. It was the prospect of me being dressed as a woman, one day. On hindsight, I think that was the first time I openly encountered my desire to be female. I realized, quite vividly, that I was a girl trapped in a male’s body.

The realization confused and frightened me. Much to the disconcertion of the audience, I rushed past them, flung the wooden doors open and ran out into the open air. I kept on running until I reached the shore. Once there, I sat down on one of the rocks and pondered over the situation for a good one hour. After facing truth and having made peace with it, I returned home.

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