While my sister was busy working in her beloved bookshop, ‘Wisdom Books’, I was preparing to go to India to do some study on ‘same-sex cultures and sexualities’. I was also interested in doing further research in the Hijra cult. I have read that they are known as eunuchs, because many of them have been castrated. Hijra are biologically male people who feel they are more like women and prefer female expression and mostly appear in the clothes of females.
I have always been fascinated by people and the cultures they live in and follow. I thought that as an anthropologist, it would help me understand the confusing world in which we all live. I like to think that the research I have done and continue to do will bring the field of anthropology into the minds of people everywhere who read my research and who can sometimes see pieces of themselves in very different cultures and societies.
Friends and even my parents made the effort and came to see Minnie and I off at the airport with Rosy and her family.
I remember getting quite emotional as my parents were in their 80s and still managed to be there to wave goodbye and wish us well.
We were told as we set off to Bombay that it was near the end of monsoon season of Bombay. But, we still arrived in a downpour, however it didn’t last long. The smell of spices and the humidity hit us like a ten ton truck, but the hustle and bustle of city life, the black and yellow taxis were like buzzing bumble bees waiting to ferry people to their destination anywhere around the city. We first chose ′The Taj Mahal Palace’ as the prices were reasonable for what you were given and we thought we would treat ourselves before we started moving around and staying in smaller, less palatial lodgings.
Outside our bedroom window were families sleeping on the pavement as we slept in crisp white sheets, by a marble bathroom with gold taps and the largest bath we had ever seen. I saw poverty when I went to India the first time, but not on such a grand scale as this. Were they there to entice compassion and sympathy from the patrons of ‘The Taj Mahal Palace’? Minnie and I found it hard getting to sleep that night, holding each other tightly, feeling helpless by what we had seen that day.
We learnt about the history and heritage over the past century of ‘The Taj Mahal Palace’ from the Concierge. The Taj Mahal Palace was completed in 1903 and is situated around beautiful treeline roads, close to a lot of tourist attractions with its stunning Victorian architecture. From the day it opened, the hotel was a leader in the city scene and one of the best in the world. The Maharajas considered it a second home, because it was a welcome break from their life back home and their formal routines, yet maintained the palatial standards of living to which they were accustomed. Inside the Taj Mahal Palace was amazing with a diverse collection of paintings and works of art which we admired and was happy to find some postcards of these works of art which we bought for our memory book and as a keepsake. From massive Belgian chandeliers, to the finest in Bastar tribal art, from Anglo-Indian inlaid chairs and tables to Goan Christian artefacts. From Mughal-inspired Jali designs to contemporary sculpture. As an artist myself I was in awe of all the art and artefacts and the plush surroundings made me feel guilty as I walked around India, seeing the amorass of squalor, the hunger on many faces and so many without electricity or clean water.
The contrasts were evident as you drove or walked around, as you would see people experiencing life in very diverse ways. On our first drive to the motel and subsequent days, we saw a litter-strewn swamp and narrow shanty town inhabited by hundreds maybe even thousands of families who made their tiny homes from cast-offs and rubbish and then a few minutes later, we would see small spindly hands clawing at our window which aroused in us the kind of horror that would become all to familiar during our stay in India. Up ahead we could see large houses with sprawling gardens or lawns, which could accommodate five to eight hundred people for private functions and parties. We were totally mesmerised by all the different sights, smells and sounds. It was truly overwhelming.
The day after arriving, we decided to go shopping and buy some traditional clothing like saris and salwaar kameez. I remember the feeling I had when I first wore a salwaar kameez for the first time as a child. It made me so happy to wear this attire again. Rosy, Mama and I enjoyed shopping at the stalls and came back to England with a lot of Indian clothing, embroidered shawls and tablecloths, shoes, jewellery, artefacts and art which still decorate our homes today. This was Minnie’s first time in India, so she was still very much adjusting. I felt like I was at home again.
Minnie remarked, “Don’t all the bright coloured silks remind you of the 1920s dresses we use to wear? With the beads and gold thread sewn in and all the beautiful, patterned material?”
“It sure does Minnie.” I replied, “A while ago, I found out that a lot of material was shipped from India to England during that time.”
Minnie nodded, “Yes! That makes a lot of sense.”
We each bought seven salwaars, two saris, two embroidered shawls, bangles, sandals and I bought a large floral bag for my research and couldn’t resist buying from a stall, some embroidered pillow cases, tablecloths and serviettes and a beautiful silk panel with a painted picture of the famous mythological scene of Krishna telling the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna. It also had gold thread and beads sewn in and I plan to frame it when I get home to England and put in in our ‘Indian room’, which has been decorated with an Indian interior design.
We changed into our new salwaars for dinner and had the most scrumptious feast at the motel of dhal, potato and cauliflower subji, saffron rice, raita, salad, chapatis and for dessert, my favourite, which Minnie loved too, gulab jamun. It is a milk-solids-based dessert, to which the balls are then soaked in a light sugary syrup, flavoured with green cardamom and rose water, kewra or saffron. It is still my most favourite of Indian sweets. We spent the evening walking around the motel before retiring to bed, as the following day I would be meeting Priyanka from Bombay University (now known as Mumbai University) about my anthropological research, who I had been corresponding with from England as I had written to the department at the university a year or so ago about the different research projects I was interested in pursuing and Priyanka responded to my letter rather promptly, extending an invitation for me to come over. She was also going to introduce me to other anthropologists from the department. Minnie was going to come too as she was interested and didn’t want to leave my side at the time as she was still adjusting to India. But also, Priyanka extended an invitation to show Minnie the Arts faculty and introduce her to some staff members she knew from the Arts faculty that had majored in women/gender studies and philosophy.
After having our breakfast and the best Indian chai ever in our room, we went down in to the lobby to meet Priyanka, who was right on time. She extended her hands together and said ‘Namaste’ the traditional Indian greeting of hello and then began to touch our feet as a sign of respect. We motioned her that she didn’t have to do that but she wanted too. We loved the Hindi people and the most we have so far come in contact with have been so friendly, giving and incredibly accommodating.
She asked us what we would like to do first, go the university and meet some of the anthropologists and maybe shopping and a drive and tomorrow we could meet some Hijra people, as the main mission in India was to try to meet members of the cult and gain further research. I was also doing research on “Homosexuality and Culture: an anthropological perspective.” I was hoping to do ethnographic research on both.
We both suggested, “Lets go to the University and meet some people,have a walk around and then do some more shopping.” Giggling a little as we said it. “Does that sound okay, Priyanka?”
She answered, “That is absolutely fine.” in her sweet voice, before asking us, “Would you like me to show you some of my favourite places for clothes and other interesting things once we are ready to leave the University?” “Yes! Yes! Please that would be lovely!”
After meeting some very interesting anthropolgists, we went to meet some friends of Priyankas that were doing research on women/gender studies. We had the most delightful time and Minnie had arranged to meet them at a later date. We decided to go to the University bookshop before leaving, where I found a book I knew my parents would like, so I bought it immediately. It was by the Indian Botanist of the 20th century, Ramesh Maheshwari who apparently died three years after our visit to India. I bought a couple of books on anthropology and Minnie bought the latest one that had just come out on women’s studies. We also bought some fiction/nonfiction books by Indian writers, including one that I had heard of and hadn’t read, but was good to see in the shop because it sparked my desire to buy it. It was the 1951 autobiography of Nirad C Chaudhuri, an Indian writer who wrote it when he was around fifty. It records his life from his birth in 1897 in Kishorgani, which is a small town in present-day Bangladesh. The book relates to his mental and intellectual development, his life and growth in Calcutta. Having been to Calcutta as a child, I couldn’t wait to read it. I also bought ‘The English Teacher’ which is a 1945 novel written by R K Naravan. This is the third and final part in the series, preceded by Swami and Friends (1935) and The Bachelor of Arts (1937) which I devoured very quickly many years ago and have at home. I realised I never got to read the last one in the trilogy and was elated when I found it.
Since our books were heavy to carry, we dropped them off to the motel and then went off to do some well overdue shopping with Priyanka.