Driving around Mumba one sometimes sees hijra begging at street intersections. The Indian term hijra is typically translated as eunuch but not all hijra are eunuchs or even want to be eunuchs so the term transgender is more accurate. In India, transgendered people are discriminated against, widely disliked, and feared. At the same time their blessings are sometimes sought after on important occasions.
It’s common for a transgendered person to be abandoned and thrown out of their home. Most then come to live in small communes of hijra headed by a guru and served by chelas (disciples/students).
We chelas must work hard, do the cooking inside the house, and most of the dancing outside. We have an obligation to look after our guru when she grows old, just like we would look after our own mother. In return, when we first become hijras our Chaman Guru teaches us chelas the way of the eunuchs.
(The quote is from William Dalrymple’s wonderful book, City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi. Dalrymple, however, draws too close a connection between hijra and the kind of eunuchs who were forcibly created to guard harems among the Mughals).
The communes of 5-15 hijras are like families but also like firms. The hijra make money by begging and by blessing weddings and births. The guru’s job is to learn the time and place of such celebrations for which she develop informants among midwives, musicians and caterers. A supra-community of hijra divide each city into exclusive territories. Each guru thus has a local monopoly and any hijra thrown out by her guru forfeits the right to work. A hijra thus has little choice but to work as a chela especially since other avenues of work are closed. Thus, the guru is both mother, father and boss.
The woman in the guru makes him feel motherly toward his chelas, but the man in him makes him authoritarian and dictatorial.
The blessings of the hijra are always double-edged. When are the blessed paying for the blessing and when are they are paying for the hijra not to curse them or just to go away? The hijra are not above embarrassing your wedding guests with bawdy and rude behavior.
Times have never been easy for the hijra but times are especially tough now because only the traditional occupations are open to them yet fewer people today believe in either their blessings or their curses. Many people consider them a nuisance. As a result, earnings are down.
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.
…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.
A small trans and hijra empowerment movement works to bring greater acceptance to allow hijra to move into other occupations. On Sunday, I attended a hijra festival. The hijra were sweet and welcoming when I talked with them but it was not well attended.
The movement has found success among India’s liberal “internationalized” elite. India’s Supreme Court, for example, recognized a third gender in 2014, so Indian passports, driver’s licenses and other official documents now include M, F and an Other category. Gay sex, however, is still against the law (although prosecutions are rare to nonexistent). It’s notable that Bangladesh and Pakistan, two other countries not known for their liberalism, also recognize a third gender. The seeming contradiction is in part because sexual categories are different than in the West so, for example, sex between men and the third gender (hijra) isn’t considered sex between two men. As is true everywhere, all these issues are complicated and contested.
Intellectuals can also find support for the third gender in Hindu culture. The Vedas, for example, refer to Tritiya prakrti, people of the third sex, and the major Hindu texts treat homosexuality as normal, or at most give it mild admonishments. Hindu gods will often be reincarnated in different genders or even as hermaphrodites (the sculpture at Elephanta island near Mumbai shown at left depicts a hermaphrodite reincarnation of Shiva). The famous erotic carvings at the Khajuraho temples and elsewhere include depictions of homosexual sex.
The relative tolerance of the Hindu classics leads some people to blame Islamic and British influences on Indian society for it’s intolerance but discrimination against the Hijra is widespread. Although intellectuals may find support for tolerance in Hindu classics, the folk do not. Indians by and large are embarrassed about Khajuraho’s depiction of heterosexual sex, let alone anything more challenging.
The willingness of trans and hijra, both in India and the West, to live with discrimination and abandonment is testament to the great drive to live as one feels one is. I wish the hijra good fortune.
Hat tip: Kshitij Batra for discussion.