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I’ve gotten accustomed to watching her vicious smile flicker in windows and mirrors as I walk by, yet every time she chuckles, my stomach sinks with dread.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Janani Balaji is one of the winners for the June 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Kiran Manral commented, “Sensitively narrated first person voice of the struggles of a man trapped in a woman’s body.”
I stare at the mirror, and someone alien yet familiar stares back. The gentle curls, soft curves, and those heart-shaped lips are perhaps crafted by some master sculptor, a visage in homage to some benevolent angle. The person who looks at me is gorgeous…yet I cannot help but feel disgusted. In some strange, grotesque turn of fate — it’s me. That creature is me.
I do not know her, the same way I do not know myself. I don’t know the love letters, the compliments, the praises. I don’t know the gossip, the rumours, the snickers. She is entirely different, an entity of her own.
But in some ways, when I slip into her ethereal shoes, I despise her. Her skin is prickly, too tight, and rubs me in all the wrong ways. It’s impossible to break free from her iron grasp. I’ve gotten accustomed to watching her vicious smile flicker in windows and mirrors as I walk by, yet every time she chuckles, my stomach sinks with dread. I hate her, I hate her radiant smile and long eyelashes, and delicate anklets. She is the perfect daughter.
“I am loving those curls Menaka! I tell you, they add such a cute look to your outfits,” a classmate giggles, tugging on my hair.
“That shimmering prom dress looks so stunning on her! I didn’t think chubby, curvy girls could look hot!” I hear a voice whisper, and I am more offended about being curvy than her snide comment.
“Why do you always have to have everything? Top marks, top looks, top singing…I hate you,” my lazy brother moans. I stomp away, looking like an arrogant snob, but secretly I worry if he knows that I would give anything to be him instead.
Sometimes, when I lie awake at night, I sneak into my father’s room and steal his shirts. They hang off my body, obscuring any semblance of femininity, and if I tuck my hair into a beanie, it’s almost as if I’m a boy. If I cough enough, my voice gets deeper too. It’s one of the smaller pleasures in life. It’s so nice to look in the mirror and see myself for once.
I like to slip into some loose clothes at midnight, and it’s like falling into a different world. Curled up in bed with my phone and some sports drinks, I feel like a guy enjoying a night to himself. Online, nobody knows what I look like, and the secret thrill of them thinking I’m a boy is the highlight of my day. My friends call me their ‘dude’, their ‘bro’, and there’s nothing more freeing than that.
But come morning, the frantic calls of my name, an epitome of feminine beauty, ‘Menaka’ echo throughout the house, and I must once again assume my role as both the porcelain puppet and the persistent puppeteer.
Yes, it is just a house, not a home. Oftentimes, I wonder what home feels like. Why is it not this well done up, familiar house that I have lived in for the last 16 years? Why isn’t it the voices of my parents, or the teasing annoyance of my brother? Why isn’t it the laughing voices of my schoolmates? And it certainly isn’t the stern glances of my grandparents.
“Home was perhaps just this body I inhabited and this too was alien to me at times, its folds and creases, its pains and needs. Home was everywhere and nowhere. Home, I realised now, was anywhere the heart slept in peace. Home was where one unpacked one’s cares and settled them into the wardrobe with one’s clothes. It was where one was complete,” I had once read in a book. But where was I complete, accepted, and welcomed in a warm embrace?
The closest thing I knew to home is my secret world, my second life, I think. The ludicrous tweets of people I’d never met, and their constant validation and support. Perhaps more so than my own family. Home rested in the comfort, the secrecy of our unsaid agreement to keep everything between us.
But once a month I am harshly reminded of the fact that I am, indeed, a liar. A deceitful cheat. Once a month I am reminded that no matter what I wish to believe, perhaps biology does really prevail over all. This body that I desperately try to hide and reshape with baggy clothes and a fake voice clamours for attention, forces me to remember that no matter what I wish to believe, it will always remain but a wistful dream. With the stomach pain comes a constant stream of negative thoughts, ones that wring my damaged psyche in their wretched hands and mangle it beyond recognition.
“Menaka!” I can hear my mother call. “Wear that saree, kanna. You can wear those gorgeous golden ornaments that paati bought you as well!”
“Amma, I hate this heavy stuff,” I groan. I couldn’t bear it anymore. We were going to an unusual engagement. Patel Uncle had just announced the engagement of his son, Jiten with his boyfriend, Shridhar. Secretly, I was delighted — did that mean somebody would accept me if I was honest with myself?
“They should not have let him do all those things…those fancy clothes and dance classes. I could tell you something was off with that boy. One year in the army and everything would have been sorted,” my grandfather muttered under his breath, grunting and complaining.
“It’s all in the upbringing and the company they keep. Too much freedom. They read nonsense stuff on the internet and get messed up in their head,” my father knowingly added.
“Arrey, the world is changing. Today all this is normal. We should be more open-minded,” mother added, sighing as if she never really wanted to have this opinion.
Normal? Today? I felt like my body was on fire. The heavy silk sari. The suffocating thoughts. The noise. The pretense.
“So beautiful you look, di, all the boys are going to be lining up. Smile!” My cousin said with a whistle, and immediately snapped up an insta-worthy picture and added some sweet caption on it. I felt sick to my stomach, but I smiled sweetly and thanked her. I couldn’t be rude to her.
Damn! I had loved to dress up at some point. I loved the delicate netting and gossamer silks and the flowing skirts. But that was dress-up. I didn’t feel like a girl. I had known for a long time now. But how do you explain not fitting in your body, a perfectly well-functioning body, to people who barely had progressed beyond the regressive mindset of a colonised nation? What did they know of gender, what would they understand of my struggle! How would they understand that these very signs of my femininity were my curse, my cross to bear!
“Achha, sing some bhajan or even a romantic song. Uncle said there may be some time,” my mother advised.
As we reached the venue, and I seethed under the approving glances of the self-proclaimed ‘aunties’, a strong urge to throw caution to the wind and wear a comfortable silk kurta over jeans like the guys knocked from within. But even then, I wouldn’t look like a guy. I would look like a girl in a silk kurta.
The ceremony itself was quick. The boys exchanged rings. Patel uncle gave a long speech about how his eyes had been opened and he understood that his son meant more than any old-fashioned tradition. The only thing that mattered was that he knew he was home.
Home. That word filled me with such intense pain, I didn’t hear anything else.
Uncle was next to me now, I heard him say, “Menaka, why don’t you sing something in that sweet voice of yours until it is time for the food service to start? Shridhar loves music, you know.”
I adjusted my saree and delicately walked onto the stage on those heels. Then, I was about to start my usual false higher pitch, as most girls had.
As I looked at the two boys sitting proudly, smiling, all of a sudden, I heard a deep bass voice resonating through the hall. It was mine, the one I had tucked away in favour of the preferred sweeter and more ‘feminine’ voice. Here I was, belting a male version of a song in a range that often only male vocal ranges could get. I could see some surprised faces. Surprised, but not shocked.
My music was happy, complete, and free… It reverberated and echoed in the room. The joy was palpable. The very traditional crowd was enjoying it. They did not see the kanjeevaram sari, they did not see the beautiful girl, they just heard the song. I was home.
Well, that was at least a beginning, right? It left a sweet taste in my mouth as I hugged the groom and groom and wished them the very best in their adventures as I had just begun to start out on my own. Maybe one day, I could explain gender identity to them, how lucky they were to be able to identify with their birth gender. That it was not a choice that I felt trapped in this body. I had just realised it was indeed my body. I felt trapped in what the world thought was a woman’s body should be, but maybe…just maybe I could break free and finally feel comfortable in my own skin.
Perhaps home was wherever I laid down my heart, where it could slumber in peace. Perhaps home was here all along, simply waiting for me to open its door.
Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Kiran Manral, a writer, author and novelist based in Mumbai. Her books include The Reluctant Detective, Once Upon A Crush, All Aboard, Saving Maya, Missing Presumed Dead, The Face at the Window, The Kitty Party Murder and More Things in Heaven and Earth in fiction, Karmic Kids, True Love Stories, A Boy’s Guide to Growing Up, 13 Steps to Bloody Good Parenting, Raising Kids with Hope and Wonder in Times of a Pandemic and Climate Change in non-fiction, apart from short stories in various acclaimed anthologies.
The cue is from her latest book More Things in Heaven and Earth.
“Home was perhaps just this body I inhabited and this too was alien to me at times, its folds and creases, its pains and needs. Home was everywhere and nowhere. Home, I realised now, was anywhere the heart slept in peace. Home was where one unpacked one’s cares and settled them into the wardrobe with one’s clothes. It was where one was complete.“
Image source: shutterstock
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I am Janani Balaji. A grade 10 student, 15 years old and passionate about writing stories, art and poetry. I feel strongly about gender equality, body issues and mental wellness.
Women's Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views, individual posts do not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions at all times.
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