Priyanka picked us up the next day at 10AM, a very humid morning where I was to meet a member of the Hijra cult and her madam, who Priyanka had met a while ago while doing anthropological research. Hijra is an Indian term to refer to an individual who is transexual or transgender. Hijras are the males who have feminine gender identity and it is basically a description or a belief of south Asian culture. They adopt feminine gender roles and mostly appear in the attire of females. In other areas of India, transgender people are also known as Aravani, Aruvani or Jagappa.
I met my first interviewee called Babita, in quite a small and dark restaurant. I was to learn that because the Hijra are very marginalised in the Indian culture, very few establishments will let them in.
We all arrived first, ordering a cold cola and waited for her to arrive. From a distance, we could see a bright pink sari coming towards us. As she drew closer, we noticed how immaculate she was, wearing lots of gold bangles, chains and earrings, nailpolish on her fingernails and toenails while wearing glittery pink sandals and a red dot in the middle of her forehead, called a bindi. Babita had black hair tied tightly in a bun. She looked very pretty and had the cutest nose I had ever seen with a gold earing pierced through it.
She greeted us with the usual Indian greeting of ‘Namaste.’ I gestured her to sit and told her how much I appreciated her making time to come and see me.
She told me that, that she couldn’t stay long as she had work to do and apologised for her madam’s absence, but she said she had a message from her madam that she would call Priyanka in the evening to arrange a time to meet with me.
I ordered her a drink and she began telling me her story from her childhood, where she had been taken to live with the Hijra at the age of eight when her parents could no longer bear the shame of having a boy in the family who felt he was a girl. Her parents called her Badal. I was to learn that the Hijra were known within the community for adopting these children and raising them.
She told me that she had many friends within the community and enjoyed her life.
She told us that unfortunately, many work as prostitutes like herself and such work is carried out within a hijra household, under the supervision of a house ‘madam’, who will collect a percentage or all of the prostitutes earnings in return for shelter, food, a small allowance and protection from the police and aggressive customers. Babita told us that there are many that are exploited by their madams, but hers was alright. If they followed her rules and worked hard, she would often reward them with days off and small gifts mostly toiletries, but one day she bought her a wooden box with carvings of birds and flowers and it had red velvet lining inside. She told us it was the best gift she had ever received from anyone.
I was to learn that very few live or work on their own. Because of their historical role as performers, hijras sometimes do dance in non-ritual roles to earn money such as stag parties, functions or in the movies. I learnt that when there is a birth, death or wedding or some other important occasion, they turn up at the household or function to provide a lucky blessing along with singing, dancing and the solicitation of funds.
A very small number of hijras also serve the goddess Bahuchara at her major temple in Gujarat, where they bless visitors on arrival to the temple and openly tell stories of the goddess in exchange for some coins.
Babita told us that she could arrange for me to meet some other Hijras, although she felt her Madam would do that. She reaffirmed to me what I had read previously, that the ritual participation of hijras in life-cycle ceremonies has a clear Hindu origin, although they do perform for Muslims as well. I learnt that many aspects of hijra social organisations are taken from Islam and many of the most important hijra leaders have been Muslim. Surprisingly, hijras do differ from traditional Muslim eunuchs, who did not dress as women and were sexually inactive. Babita also told us that Hindu and Muslim hijras in contemporary India do live together and that some Hijras undergo an initiation rite into the hijra community called nirwaan, which refers to the removal of the penis, scrotum and testicles.
During our discussions, I felt she was a woman who had lived with unbelievable trauma and wondered if the others that I would interview would be the same. I suspected that they would be. She gained my respect for her amazing resilience and the ability to survive against such huge obstacles like total rejection by society, poverty, no proper education and the respected status one expects within a society.
It made me think of the showering of love and respect I have received all my life from family and friends that gave me that inner resilience to cope and ride out the storm and the disappointments that sometimes arose when the strong words of shame and hatred spilled from the lips of people who hated lesbians.
Before the meeting, Priyanka told me that if I took a feminine gift for Babita, it would show that I have accepted her as a woman. I presented her with a beautiful orange, red and gold sari and some scented soap. She was very appreciative and thanked me many times.
Babita stayed for about forty five minutes and reminded me again that her Madam would call Priyanka that evening, as that was the message she was given.
While we waited to hear from Priyanka, Minnie and I enjoyed walking around the city the following morning. In the late morning, just before lunch, we came across a middle-aged blind Indian lady that was selling embroidered shawls. They were utterly exquisite and we bought ten from her, mainly for gifts back home. Her name was Nisha and she was very sweet to talk with. We wanted to hear more of her stories, so she let her husband continue with work at the stall while we took her out to lunch nearby.
She shared her story with us that she had partial sight when she a little girl, always bumping into things and she was always tripping over. As a teenager, everything was harder and seemed more unfair, but she felt determined to not give up on herself, on life. She loved to hand-sew and do embroidery and it was evident that her mother taught her as well. She told us that her mother use to pick out the colours and lay them on the table, one was red, two was yellow, three was purple etc. and that’s how she knew she had chosen the right colour to start doing her embroidery.
She went to school, but when her eyesight started to deteriorate further she stopped going. It wasn’t long after that she was diagnosed legally blind.
She remarked, “I had to suddenly rely on aids and in the beginning, I felt like I had lost such a big part of myself and it turns out I did. It became hard for me to find a sense of personal worth and achievement in the acceptance of help. It took time, patience and love from family and friends that helped me through it. Thanks to my family and my best friend Ajay, I have more gratitude and love for life that I had before I went blind. Ajay was my next door neighbour, but we fell in love and are now married. I feel blessed with gratitude.”
Minnie and I looked at each other when she said that and was so incredibly moved and we were both reminded that gratitude is one of our favourite words. The power of gratitude can increase your happiness and do wonders for your soul. It can rewire your brain changing your life for the better and forever.
She told us that parents made sure that she learnt braille, which she did and that she loved to read a lot every night.
“My mother and sisters also sew and embroider and contribute their handmade things to mine and my husband’s business. It works out well for everybody.” She said.
After lunch, we escorted Nisha back to her stall and said that we would see her again.
Priyanka called us in the late afternoon and said, “Madam called, we can meet her and two other hijras that had the day off tomorrow afternoon at 4pm, at the restaurant where we met Babita.” She also asked me if Minnie and I would like to stay with her family for as long as we needed to while we were In Mumbai. I told her that I would have to speak to Minnie and will let her know tomorrow and thanked her for her hospitality.
I thanked Priyanka and rushed to tell Minnie. We dined that night at the motel as we decided it would be our last. We were excited to meet Priyanka’s family and enjoy home cooking and family atmosphere.
Minnie was falling in love with India and me all over again. In the morning, we just wanted to relax before meeting with Madam and members of the hijra cult in the afternoon. On some days, you would find me reading, writing postcards to family and friends back home, doing some sketching of the Indian people, their way of life, food, flowers etc. or taking loads of photographs. Minnie took more photographs than me and was a keen photographer hoping to maybe have an exhibition in the near future of her photos. I was also talking about having a exhibition of drawings and paintings on ‘The faces of India’ and maybe some of my older abstract paintings I did when I was younger, on faces from different people I had met in my travels and the explosion of emotion that was in a lot of them. We decided to talk to my friend, Sal when we returned to London as she was a great artist herself and had her own art gallery in London and has been bugging me to exhibit my art, but I always put her off, saying I was too busy. Being in India made me realise all over again that money matters very little, it helps one to live and to share it around, but it is not all there is to life. One does not really need all the expensive trappings that we are convinced we do. Having an art exhibition has been a lifelong dream and I decided when I went back that I would work hard to make that happen and I was lucky that I had Sal to exhibit my works of art that I was so proud of.
Today, before the meeting, I wanted to read one of my books and get a handle on some of my postcards to send home.
We realised how the Indian culture influenced our way of thinking, our eating habits, beliefs, even adopting the fashion sense in a big way, wearing saris and salwaars karmeez every day. We felt more in touch with our spiritual nature and often talked about moving here, but then we thought of family and friends back home. Maybe further down the track, we thought.
I was also thinking today about my current research and how important it is an anthropologist to produce more ethnography’ about actual human sexual desires and practices, instead of hyper-focusing upon abstract, presentist attitude philosophies and theories. It is all well and good but we must have a dialectic between theory and data if we are going to create knowledge that is relevant to the real world.
After lunch, Minnie and I went for a walk and stopped off to say hello to Nisha and her husband Ajay. I bought another pretty red, embroidered shawl for the Madam to go with the sari we bought her and the other Hijra cult members.
We also told Priyanka when she arrived, that we were both honoured and would love to stay with her and her family when it was convenient for them. This bought a big smile to her face and she said tomorrow morning she would pick us up at 10:30 and we could go from there.
Her parents leased two upstairs and downstairs apartments as they always had relatives and friends to stay. At present, there was no-one staying so we had the downstairs apartment to ourselves. She told us too that since her family ancestors have been renting these apartments, the prices had not really risen much at all, so it was very affordable, not like England. Priyanka told us that we were invited to dine upstairs at every meal and they had servants to cater to their every needs, as well as an amazing cook.
At 3:30pm we took a cab with Priyanka and made our way to the old restaurant where we had met Babita two days before. As we got out of the cab, three women in saris approached us and the older one we found out was the Madam and the two other Hijra cults members. All looking well groomed in orange, navy and pink saris with jewellery to match and the traditional red bindi in the middle of their forehead. Madam liked to be called Madam and the others told me their names were Chahna and Jayitri.
Chahna told me that as a child, showing her femininity resulted in severe punishment and by the age of sixteen she felt exhausted, suppressed and judged. She happened to meet a hijra one day who worked for Madam on her walks wearing a sari and found out that that there was a hijra community where she could go and live and not be punished or judged. She ran away from her family that afternoon never to return and was taken in by Madam, where she says she is much happier.
Jayitri told me the story of when she was severely beaten by her father whenever he saw her in a sari and left her for dead one day on the side of the road when Madam picked her up and nursed her back to health. She was slightly disfigured in the face from the beatings and had a noticeable limp. Madam told me she was illiterate but the best Indian cook she had ever had and that she lived and worked at the house cooking for a small wage.
I learned further that the mortality rate was high. In fact, Madam said six had recently died from the procedure of having their genitals entirely removed in the last month. All performed in a barbaric fashion either by doctors or midwives whose level of post-operative care was very poor. They told me, “Traditional remedies of oil and turmeric were supposed to heal and prevent infection.”
Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties and used widely by a lot by Hindi people to help heal wounds. She also told me dressing with honey when available helps to reduce inflammation and pain. Ghee or clarified butter aids in closing wounds and regenerating cells around the wound. Yogurt and sweet potato was also used to help heal wounds. I would have thought these foods were not strong enough for such a deep wound. The Madam told me that some wounds did heal using these methods.
Madam also told me that those who survive the loss of their genitalia thereafter enjoy a higher cult status due to their commitment of acknowledging they are Hijra. Also, there is apparently a decrease of facial and body hair. She told us a funny story that a Hijra member who has had this procedure done and is annoyed by someone will lift up their sari to scare off and repulse them. We all did laugh at that.
They left after an hour and Madam took the gifts from me with appreciation and I hoped that they were given to the lovely women on their return. I wondered then, whether Babita got to keep her gift. I hope so.
With most of the Hijras I subsequently interviewed, the Madam had arranged for me to interview over the course of a couple of weeks. Some had been in gaol, beaten by the police whilst in prison. All the stories had similar parallels and it brought home to me the importance of this research for as anthropologists we need to highlight below:
Every morning, a servant knocked on our door asking if we had any washing. We would give her our washing and then it would be sent off to a person who ironed and pressed them. Either later that day or the following morning our clothes were returned to us freshly washed and pressed.
Priyanka’s parents, Sujan and Madhula Kapoor were very friendly and lovely people. Some friends called her Madhula ‘Madu’ and she told us on the day of meeting her with a giggle that her name meant ‘sweet’ and she loves sweets. Minnie and I thought that was so funny and adorable.
We enjoyed their company immensely. Both of them were academics in the field of science, so we talked about a lot of different things and they were fascinated with my parents line of work in botany and the fact that I had been to India before. They even were able to talk about the research I was doing and what they knew about it. I was astounded that as traditional as they were, they were also very open about a lot of things.
The rest of our stay in Bombay was meeting with anthropologists, going over their research on Hijras and discussing other interesting research projects. There was always something to see and be a part of and a trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal was a must. We stayed with the Kapoor family for one and half weeks before we departed by plane to Calcutta (Kolkata) and had arranged to stay with family friends of my parents and I, the Gupta family, who we met when we were in India many years before. They were elderly now and insisted that we stay with them as they had plenty of room. Other members of the family lived there too and they had a cooks and servants, so that we didn’t have to worry about getting our own food and do our own washing and we had a driver at our disposal called driverji (ji means respect).