Salman Rushdie investigates India’s transsexual underworld

In his contribution to Aids Sutra, a collection of essays about the HIV/Aids problem in India, Salman Rushdie reports on the culture of the hijra ACCORDING TO GREEK mythology, Hermaphroditus, the child of Hermes and Aphrodite, fell so passionately in love with a nymph named Salmacis that they beseeched Zeus to unite them for all time, and were joined in a single body in which both sexes remained manifest.

The Hindu tradition contains, if anything, a more powerful version of this story, elevated to the very summit of the Hindu pantheon, and glorifying not merely the beauty of the physical union of the sexes but the union of the male and female principles in the Universe, a metaphor reaching far beyond biology. In a cave on Elephanta Island in Bombay harbour is a sculpture of the deity named Ardhanari or Ardhanarishvara, a name composed of three elements: ardha – half, nari – woman, ishvara – god; thus Ardhanarishvara, the half-woman god.

One side of the Elephanta carving is male, the other female, and it represents the coming together of Shiva and Shakti, the forces of Being and Doing, the fire and the heat, in the body of a third, double-gendered deity. A cultural history so rich in the mighty possibilities of sexual admixture ought by rights to find it easy to understand and accept not only biological hermaphrodites but also such contemporary gender-benders as the hijra community. Yet hijras have always been, and still are, treated with a mixture of fascination, revulsion, and fear.

I remember feeling both fascination and fear when, as a young boy in Bombay long ago, I watched the tall, garish figure of a hijra mendicant, dressed like a queen of the sea and carrying a long, silver trident, striding proudly through the traffic on Marine Drive. And like everyone else I saw hijras performing their celebratory blessings at weddings, only half-tolerated by the hosts and guests. They seemed then like visitors from a louder, harsher, brighter, more dangerous world. They seemed alien.

A part of the problem is, of course, the operation, the reality of which, with its curved knife and long, painful aftermath, is hard to stomach. In John Irving’s 1994 novel A Son of the Circus, there is a graphic description of what happens.

“A hijra’s operation – they use the English word – is performed by other hijras. The patient stares at a portrait of the Mother Goddess Bahuchara Mata; he is advised to bite his own hair, for there’s no anaesthetic, although the patient is sedated with alcohol or opium. The surgeon (who is not a surgeon) ties a string around the penis and the testicles in order to get a clean cut – for it is with one cut that both the testicles and the penis are removed. The patient is allowed to bleed freely; it’s believed that maleness is a kind of poison, purged by bleeding. No stitches are made; the large, raw area is cauterised with hot oil. As the wound begins to heal, the urethra is kept open by repeated probing. The resultant puckered scar resembles a vagina.”


Irving also says, “Whatever one thought or said about hijras, they were a third gender – they were simply (or not so simply) another sex. What was also true was that, in Bombay, fewer and fewer hijras were able to support themselves by conferring blessings or by begging; more and more of them were becoming prostitutes.” Fourteen years later, these words are still accurate. And consequently the world of the hijras, already beset by the larger world’s distrust, dislike, and distaste, is now also threatened by the increasing danger of HIV infection, and so of Aids.

These are the three traditional forms of hijra work: manti (or basti), that is to say, begging; badai, the marriage celebration; and pun, the selling of sex. In today’s Bombay, with its high rises, its guards at the gate, its loss of interest in hijra badai, its police force that is prepared to arrest beggars and implement the laws against manti, which impose a fine of 1,200 rupees (about £15) for the offence, only pun now offers the chance of earning enough to survive. There is a law against begging, but there are looser laws against sex work. Yet there are other, greater risks, the risks of infection, and death.

Hijras exaggerate their numbers, claiming that there are 100,000 of them in Bombay alone. The real figure is probably nearer 5,000 for Bombay, with 100,000 being closer to the total figure for hijras in the whole of India. They travel a great deal, moving from event to event around the country – one hijra told me she had been in Ghaziabad, Haryana, Nepal, Ajmer and Gujarat in the previous two months – and, it seems, few hijras settle in their places of origin.

Only one of the hijras I met in Bombay was from Bombay, and this is not atypical. Family rejection and disapproval probably accounts for the uprooting. Having recreated themselves as beings whom their original families often reject, hijras will usually take those new identities to new places, where new families form around them and take them in.

Malwani in Malad is a rough part of town, a dumping ground for convicts half a century ago, a slum zone in which many Bombay hijras now live. Proper housing is a problem. “In Andhra the Chief Minister gave housing to hijras, but not here.” Ration cards are a problem, and, if you can get hold of one, a treasure. And without a ration card, or an income tax card, or a voter identity card, or a bank account, you don’t exist, and the State can ignore you. Not surprising, then, that hijras feel vulnerable, that they fear not only policemen, but hospitals too. Doctors are often rude and unhelpful, although, I was told, there are signs of improvement, even among policemen. “Now they call us Madam, and don’t only abuse us.”

A gut is a self-help group set up to combat the various risks to hijras, health risks above all. The Aastha gut in Malwani is one such group. “It has been very successful. When 15 people go to the police station because one person has been arrested then the police behave better.” With the help of a gut, a group of hijras can become “peer educators” and spread the word through the community.

Today there are perhaps 7,000 such peer educators, each of whom “tracks” 50 community members, and as a result more and more hijras are being made aware of, and persuaded regularly to visit, health clinics around the city, to be blood-tested. Although there remains much work to be done. Condom use by hijras’ clients is still low, perhaps only at 50 per cent, and even though the fall in gonorrhoea and chlamydia infections to below 5 per cent shows that the use of condoms is improving matters, the risks remain.

The Aastha gut makes and disseminates paan-flavoured condoms, and hijras are trained (with the help of attractive wooden penises) to hold the popularly flavoured condoms in their mouths, and then apply them quickly to the client’s member. (I was given a couple of impressively swift and skilful demonstrations of the technique, on, I hasten to add, the wooden members only.)

The hijras I met mostly “became aware” around puberty; some discovered their nature a couple of years later. “As a child I followed girlish ways and was laughed at and scolded for my girlishness.” “I often thought I should live like a boy and I tried hard but I couldn’t do it.” “It’s in the genes.”

Rejection and fear followed. “My family always knew but are still in denial.” “Because of family izzat [honour] they cast me out.” “My father beat me when I was at college, I said, ‘Hit me, what can you do?’” “I wouldn’t have stayed alive if not for the community. At home I was shouted at, sworn at, everything.”

But there are rare exceptions. “I only go at night to visit my family, but I do go.” And there are the beginnings of political consciousness. “Women’s rights have advocates, but we have no advocates, not even as ‘second-grade women’.” “We also are part of creation.”

Thane, the so-called City of the Lakes, is an altogether more attractive setting than the slums of Malwani, or the red light district of Kamathipura, where there is a special hijra alley. (It is said that the hijras once owned the whole of the red-light district but had to sell it off, alley by alley, as the gharanas [clans] grew poorer.)

I went to Thane to meet an exceptional hijra named Laxmi, a hijra of extreme articulacy and force of character. By the Talao Pali Lake in Thane, Laxmi, a local star of sorts, did her “ramp walk” every evening in the old days when she started out. Laxmi is a rarity among hijras; she lives at home, and, to avoid upsetting her parents, dresses as a man when she is with them. They call her by her male name, Laxmikant, or by her family nickname, Raju, and, as a man, she works at home as a bharatnatyam [a dance style] teacher.

But when she leaves home, she is Laxmi, and everyone in Thane knows her. She is a voluptuous person with purple-black lips; hard to miss. Her beginnings are not unusual. “At 9 or 10, I told people I’m gay. I was called names. ‘Gur.’ ‘Meetha.’ One day, in the Maheshwari Gardens, I met Ashok. ‘Something is wrong with me, what should I do,’ I said. ‘The world is abnormal,’ he told me. ‘You are normal.’”

While she was still at school, she went to gay pubs and started to dance for money. “Then 15 years ago I became First Drag Queen of Bombay.” Soon after that she met a woman, Gloria, who opened the door into the hijra world. “My brother is like you,” Gloria said. Laxmi met Gloria’s brother, the hijra Shabina, at a phone booth in Victoria Terminus in Bombay. “Normally she wore saris but that day in VT she was wearing jeans.”

Laxmi took Shabina to the Café Montecarlo. Shabina didn’t want to go in. “I took her by the hand. You are yourself and should enjoy yourself, I said. But in the café I told Sha-bina I used to hate hijras. Why do you clap and beg, I asked her. You should do proper work. Then Sha- bina explained about the structure, the gharanas. This was attractive to me. This was more than just sex talk.”

Shabina took her to meet other hijras, notably Manjula Amma, aka Fat Manjula, of the Lashkar gharana, of which Lata Naik was the head. Laxmi joined the family. “In Byculla I entered the hijra world. Lata Naik was also there. I was sweating. An old man told me where to go. I saw Lata Naik. She was 55 but looked 45. There were six frightening hijras around her. They reminded me of Ravana. I said, ‘I want admission. How much fees? Donations?’ Lata Naik laughed. She accepted me, for no money, orally. At that time nothing was written. Lata Naik was the one who later began the process of keeping records. She had beautiful writing; I have seen it in the hijrotic books which she now maintains.”

Laxmi’s father is a “UP [Uttar Prudesh] Brahmin military type”. He found her transformation very hard to accept, especially as Laxmi was from the beginning a very forward sort of hijra, giving interviews to Zee News, and so on. After the Zee TV interview, her father wanted to marry her off. She fought against the marriage and in the end her father wept and gave in. “My father, the pillar of my house. He wept.”

Her mother’s love was never in doubt. “For me, my world is my mother.” Now her parents have accepted her, even to the point of being curious about her breast implants. Once at home she sat bare-chested, having forgotten to put on a T-shirt. Her father scolded her. “If you have made it,” he said, “then learn to respect it.” “Now,” Laxmi says, “my father is my best friend.”

Laxmi is vocal, confident, self- assured. She wants to be a voice in the HIV/Aids campaign, and to help to save what she, too, calls “the third gender of India”. “Hijras have become more vocal,” she says, “but the problem is that activists are trying to put us inside the MSM culture.” (MSM are Men who have Sex with Men, and they are of three kinds: Panthis, who go on top, Kothis, who go on the bottom, and Double Deckers, who need no explanation.)

“The MSM sector is getting so strong,” Laxmi says. “But we are not simply MSMs. We are not even simply TGs [transgendered persons]. We are … hijras. I am carrying a whole culture with me. It’s that collective aspect, the hijra culture, that is important. We cannot sacrifice it. We are different.”

The hijras of Bombay and the rest of India are held to be the community most at risk of HIV infection. There have been improvements in organisation, outreach, education and self-help, but for many hijras, their lives continue to be characterised by mockery, humiliation, stigmatisation, fear and danger. Laxmi of Thane and the “peer educators” of Malwani may be success stories, hijras who have taken charge of their destinies and are trying to help their fellows, but many hijras are mired in poverty and sickness.

According to the poet saints of Shaivism, Shiva is Ammai – Appar, mother and father combined. It is said of Brahma that he created humankind by converting himself into two persons: the first male, Manu Svayambhuva, and the first female, Satarupa. India has always understood andro-gyny, the man in the woman’s body, the woman in the man’s. Yet the walking Ardhanaris among us, the third gender of India, still need our understanding, and our help.

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