By Vaishali Raode, from Mi Hijra, Mi Lakshmi (“I Am a Hijra, I Am Lakshmi”), an account of the life of Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi, a transgender-rights activist in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Translated from the Marathi by R. Raj Rao and P. G. Joshi and published in the June issue of the online magazine Words Without Borders.
People are curious about hijras. How do we live? Do we kidnap children? What funeral rites are performed for a hijra after his death? Because we hijras are so secretive about our lives, hearsay rules the roost.
As hijras we live ordinary lives, like everyone else. We are respected by nobody. We live in ghettos. Many such ghettos exist in Thane and in Mumbai, in neighborhoods like Bhandup, Byculla, Dharavi, Ghatkopar, and Malad. The eviction of the poor from Mumbai takes its toll on the ghettos. They begin to shrink. 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, performing sex work, and dancing in bars and nightclubs. 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. Though the world believes that a castrated hijra alone is a real hijra, we do not endorse this. I am not castrated. Yes, many of us have had breast implants. The surgery is expensive, but without it our transformation is incomplete. Unlike many other hijras, however, I haven’t gone in for hormone therapy. Though I am not castrated, other 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 him to become a hijra. Here, what is needed is an unbiased inquiry. 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. 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. Of course, it’s not as though hijras never kidnap kids. But then the community doesn’t forgive them. Crimes by hijras are often exaggerated, and disproportionate punishment is meted out. This is unfair.
Yet another myth 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. 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 constitute a family. A guru selects a successor and trains him. If a guru fails to choose a successor, the panch — the leaders of the seven hijra gharanas — choose him. All crucial decisions are made by the panch. Its members are wise men who command the respect of the entire community.
Once a person decides to become a hijra, there is a christening ceremony, known as a reet. 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. (The glass must not be held at the top or the middle. Instead, it must be balanced on the palms.) The pallu of the hijra’s sari must not touch anyone as he moves around. He 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 your guru is.
My guru never imposed restrictions on me. Lataguru did not want me to talk about my life to the press, 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 I rebelled. 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?