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from the June 2013 issue

Lakshmi’s Story

People are curious to know about hijras. How do we live? Behave? What do we do? Do we kidnap children? What funeral rites are performed for a hijra after his death? Is he cremated or buried? Such questions do not have answers. Only scholars can answer these questions. Because we hijras are so secretive about our lives, hearsay rules the roost.

As hijras we live ordinary lives, like everyone else. Like the underdog, we are respected by nobody. Except for the newly introduced “Adhar Card” we have no “adhar”  or official recognition, or support from any quarter whatsoever. We are thus destitute. Estranged from family and ostracized by society, people couldn’t care less how we earn a livelihood, or where our next meal comes from. If a hijra commits a crime, the mob rushes to attack him while the police are only too glad to press charges against him. This is not to justify crime, but to reiterate that all crimes have a social dimension, and in the case of hijras this cannot be overlooked. Yet it is never taken into account.

We hijras live in ghettos. In Mumbai and Thane, many such ghettos exist in neighborhoods like Dharavi, Ghatkopar, Bhandup, Byculla, and Malad. The eviction of the poor from the city of Mumbai takes its toll on the ghettos. They begin to shrink in size. The hijras then disperse toward townships like Navi Mumbai where survival is a bit easier.

Our main occupation is to perform badhai at weddings, or when a child is born. At such times we sing and dance to bless the newlyweds or the newborn. But can badhai alone fill our stomachs? Obviously not, and so we supplement our earnings by begging on city streets, and performing sex work, and dancing in bars and night clubs. Dancing comes naturally to us hijras.

It is believed that all hijras are castrated. We call it nirvan. In the eyes of the public we are castrated males. But that is not always the case. Castration is strictly optional, and every hijra decides for himself whether or not to undertake it. Castration cannot be forced upon a hijra. Though the world believes that a castrated hijra alone is a real hijra, we do not endorse this. I am not castrated. I did not opt for it and my guru did not pressure me into it. Most of my chelas are also uncastrated like me. But yes, many of us have had breast implants. The surgery is expensive, but without it our transformation is incomplete. However, unlike many other hijras, I haven’t gone in for hormone therapy in my desire to look feminine. Though I am not castrated, the hijras regard me as one of them.

At times, we hijras are in the news for the wrong reasons. Say, for kidnapping a child and forcing it to become a hijra. Here, what is needed is an unbiased and impartial inquiry. Prejudice shouldn’t dominate. That hijras receive orders from their community to convert people to their gender is a myth. Our elders have never advised us to force someone to become a hijra. The decision to become a hijra is traumatic. Once one becomes a hijra the doors to one’s earlier life are shut forever. It isn’t easy for a hijra to come to terms with his new life. The family, and indeed society as a whole, reacts strangely. Terrified, the hijra in self-defense invents the story of his having gotten kidnapped and forced into hijrahood. Sometimes, even a complaint to that effect is lodged! Of course, it’s not as if hijras never kidnap kids. But then the community doesn’t forgive them. Like mainstream society, the hijra community too has its share of criminals. Though the laws of the land should be sufficient to deal with them, crimes by hijras are often exaggerated and the hijras are chastised. Disproportionate punishment is meted out to us by the police and the public. This is unfair.

Yet another myth about us is that the funeral of a hijra is performed late in the night and he is beaten with slippers. The unearthly hour is chosen, it is said, so that none should witness the funeral. But this is rubbish. Hijras belong to different religions, and our last rites depend on our religion. A hijra who is a Hindu is cremated, while a Muslim hijra is buried. When carrying the corpse of a dead hijra to the graveyard, we shed our women’s clothing and dress instead in shirts and pants, or in a kurta and pajama pants. We do this to hide the fact that the deceased is a hijra.

The hijras are a family. The guru is the mother. Then there’s the dadguru who is the grandmother, and the purdahguru who is the great-grandmother. The guru and his chelas comprise a family. A guru selects a successor and trains him. If a guru fails to choose a successor, the panch, or the leaders of the seven hijra gharanas, choose him. All crucial decisions are made by the panch. Its leaders are wise men who command the respect of the entire community.

Once one decides to become a hijra, there is a christening ceremony, known as a reet, which he must undergo. It’s a bit like the janwa, the thread ceremony of the Brahmins. The rites are performed by the guru and the disciple is initiated. The charter of rules and regulations is explained to the aspirant. These concern little things like how a hijra must walk, and how he must serve water to a visitor. While serving water, the glass must not be held at the top or the middle. Instead, the glass must be balanced on palms joined together. The pallu of the hijra’s sari must not touch anyone as he moves around. One should not lie with his feet facing the guru. The guru’s clothes mustn’t be worn by the chela, nor should the latter utter his guru’s or gharana’s name. The hijra should not talk back to his guru. And so on.

There is a saying among us, that for a hijra it is all words and nothing else. Guru is a word. Chela is a word. The woman in the guru makes him feel motherly toward his chelas, but the man in him makes him authoritarian and dictatorial.

In everyday life, we do not observe the rules of our community that strictly. But if our leaders are around, we do. This is just as it is in mainstream society. At the end of the day, it all depends on how liberal (or otherwise) your guru is.

My guru never imposed restrictions on me. Lataguru did not want me to talk about my life to the press, or allow them to publish my photographs. But other than that she gave me ample freedom. At first, I observed all the rules, because the decision to become a hijra was, after all, mine. But soon there came a time when I rebelled. I could not stand these restrictions on my freedom. I began to give interviews to the media. I appeared on television. I traveled abroad. The community fined me for these transgressions. I paid the fine and committed the “offenses” again. I was all but ostracized by the community. But Lataguru stood by me. She was proud of me because I was educated and had a mind of my own. So what if I broke all the rules?

It is tiresome to swim against the current. I have been swimming against two currents, one society and the other community. Both need to change their attitude. Whereas society needs to confront its biases toward the hijras, the hijras themselves must be forthright. We have paid a hefty price for living an estranged and secluded life. The black sheep in the community, no more than ten percent of our total population, defame the entire community.

To counter this defamation, I have established a support group known as the Maharashtra Trutiya Panthi Sanghatana. We fight for the fundamental rights of hijras. We managed to persuade the state government and the Planning Commission to give us the Adhar Card. Since Hijra sex workers are susceptible to HIV and AIDS, we work towards the eradication of these diseases. We try to obtain housing and employment for the hijras. Change is only possible when the laws change. And for that, the authorities need to be approached. It is happening in other Indian states, so why not here in Maharashtra? In Tamil Nadu the hijras have been given houses. In Madhya Pradesh they have run in elections and won. The hijras have potential. Their families must support them so that they realize their potential.

I work at the local level, state level, national level, and international level, too. I go abroad frequently. I do for my chelas what my guru did for me.

Subhadra was my very first chela. She was murdered in Sheelphata. Many of my other chelas have passed away. Kiran succumbed to AIDS. She loved me selflessly. She was intelligent and disciplined, and had terrific managerial skills. Rupa, who was a fashion designer, also died of AIDS. Payal was a wonderful cook. Kanda poha, omelet, and chicken biryani were her specialties. But she took to drinking excessively and finally died of alcoholism.

I try to save hijras like Kiran, Roopa, and Payal. I try to talk them out of their vices. But in my heart of hearts I know that words are poor consolation. As a hijra myself, I can empathize with their anguish. Their female psyche, trapped in a male body, stifles them. There is no one in this world they can truly call their own. They don’t have an easy means of making a living. Their sex work causes mental pressure and anxiety, and nagging questions about their identity. Their working conditions are gruesome. A hijra often thinks to himself: Sala, what is this life! And to blot out his misery, makes liquor his best friend. But this association proves costly. It eats into one’s vitality. I thus failed to save the lives of Roopa, Kiran, and Payal.

And Shahin. No one who saw her would call her a hijra. She was a Bollywood heroine! She nursed the sick like Florence Nightingale! When my father was dying, I entrusted him to her care. She would buy medicines from the store downstairs and give them to him at the prescribed time. She stood by my mother and brother Shashi like a pillar of strength.

Shahin was Shahid Naik before her christening. He was the son that followed the birth of his elder sister. They were from Konkan. When Shahid was ten, his mother died and he was brought up by his grandfather in Mumbra, Mumbai. As a child, he was fond of household chores. He helped his mother in the kitchen. Though his mother was touched by his concern, the others in the house mocked him. They called him names. They thought he was effeminate. When Shahid grew up, he befriended some homosexual men. That’s how I got to know him. He wanted to become a hijra, but he wasn’t old enough to be initiated. So I advised him not to convert just yet, but to hang out with us and finish college. But Shahid was adamant. He began to live like a hijra in the company of Subhadra and Sangita. Then one day, Shahid Naik became Shahin. Became my chela. Her family had no clue. They thought she was out shooting a film, because that is what she told them when she left home. Shahin never went home after that.

One day Shahin received a call from her uncle. He wanted to meet her. A meeting was arranged, and when the family saw her in a sari they began to wail hysterically. They wanted her to get back into men’s clothes and return home. But Shahin meant business. She stayed with us and earned money.

When Shahin’s younger sister got married, it was Shahin who bore the expenses. The family then took her back into the fold. Today, Shahin’s father is in touch with her. When Shahin goes home on annual visits, she takes gifts for everyone. Her brother refused to speak to her at first, but relented later. Only her stepmother hasn’t come round yet.

Then there’s Kamal. He was the only son of an Ulhasnagar businessman. But from childhood he was fond of cross-dressing; wearing a sari and make-up. The family dismissed this as a kid’s fancy. But one day Kamal told his family: “I will not be able to live as you want me to, as a male.” Saying this, he left home. His best friends were Shiba and Vinnie, and all three of them became my chelas. Kamal’s folks landed up at my place in Thane. They were comforted to learn that their only son was safe and sound, and that we lived together as a family. Today, Kamal’s folks have opened their doors to her. Sometimes she goes home on overnight visits. She’s not in the family business of course, but works instead in a dance bar. She hands over her earnings to her folks, believing it to be her duty, though her parents are well-off and do not need her money.

There’s a family I am related to by blood, and then there are my chelas who are my other family. I need both families and cannot envisage a life without either.

© Vaishali Raode. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by R Raj Rao and P G Joshi. All rights reserved.

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