I am sure most of you reading this article have heard a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding the lives of the transgenders in India. Some of the most common ones include things like “They kidnap you and make you one of them”, “They cut their private parts to become Hijras,” or the most popular one, “If you do not offer them money they will curse you”. These are a few misconceptions people have about the Hijras.
A few people call them ‘Hijras’, some call them ‘Eunuchs’ some call them ‘kinners’ and some also call them ‘Chhakkas’! Hijra, a term which every one of us has heard before at some point in our lives. People are always curious to know about the lives of the Hijras.
Hijras, the third gender of India, hold a special place in our society where the transgenders are not recognized as one of us. Basically, they are treated as aliens. Constantly fighting for their rights, they often do not find a place in the Indian society. Where do they live? What do they do? How do they earn? How do they perform their funeral rites? These are some of the unanswered questions we have about the Hijras.
Hijras live very ordinary but secretive lives, ostracized by everyone, accepted only by their own kind. Hijras in Mumbai usually live in slums of neighborhoods like Ghatkopar, Dharavi, Byculla, Bhandup, and Malad. As these slums begin to shrink in size the Hijras moved to townships like Navi Mumbai to survive.
In Hindu culture, most of us see the Hijras perform ‘Badhai’ at weddings or when a child is born in the family. They dance and sing to bless the newlyweds or the newborn. But singing and dancing alone do not fill their stomachs. They need to do more than that for survival. Hijras supplement their earnings by begging on city streets, traffic signals, Mumbai locals, and by dancing in the shady nightclubs, dance bars, and prostitution. They say dancing comes naturally to Hijras.
It is believed that all the Hijras are castrated, but the truth is that this is not the case for every Hijra. Castration is strictly optional and no Hijra is forced to undergo it. It is for every Hijra to decide whether to go for it or not. Though people believe that castrated males are the real Hijras. Many Hijras confess of getting breast implants to look more feminine.
Hijras often face persecution without reason. Say, for child kidnapping and forcing one to become one of them. The common misconception about Hijras is that they receive such orders from their Gurus and their community to convert people into one of them. This is nothing but a mere misconception. Their community also has a criminal element, but which community doesn’t? The crimes by Hijras are often exaggerated by society.
Another misconception people are carrying today is to do with Hijra funeral rites. It is believed the Hijra funeral is performed late in the night when there are fewer people to witness and the dead Hijra is beaten with slippers. This is not true in any way. The Hijras belong to different religions like everyone does, and the last rites depend on their religion. A Hindu Hijra is cremated, and a Muslim Hijra is buried. When carrying a dead Hijra to the graveyard the other Hijras shed their women’s clothes and dress the body in shirts and pants, or maybe a kurta and pajamas. They do this to hide the fact that the deceased is a Hijra.
Even after all this time, people haven’t been able to accept the Hijras as a part of Indian society. Even their own families close their doors to them. They are left with no options but to live lives struggling to find their way and a place in the society. The Hijras themselves are a family, and their ‘Guru’ is their mother. A Hijra Guru is preceded by ‘Dadaguru,’ who is the grandmother followed by the ‘Purdahguru,’ the great-grandmother. All the Hijras are ‘Chelas’ to their gurus, and they live and function like every other family. A Guru selects a successor and trains one to take the position of the Guru. If in case the Guru fails to select a successor, the ‘Panch’ (a group of five senior Hijras) or the leaders of seven Hijra Gharanas choose one.
Like the ‘Janwa’, the thread ceremony of the Brahmins, every Hijra must undergo a christening ceremony called as a ‘Reet’. All the rites and ceremonies are performed by the Guru. Rules and regulations are explained to the newcomer. Things like how a Hijra must walk, how to serve water to the visitors, and how must a Hijra dress, are a few important things explained to the Hijra-to-be.
They are taught that while serving water, the glass must be balanced on the palms joined together and must not hold it at the top or middle. The ‘Pallu’ of Hijra’s sari must not touch anyone as they move around. The Hijra should pay respect to their Gurus and should not lie with their feet facing the Guru.
A few Hijras in Mumbai were interviewed by Sara Hylton from The New York Times recently, Radhika, a Hijra, and a sex worker from Mumbai was asked how she feels each evening as she heads off to work, to stand in the line with other sex workers along the railway tracks, waiting for customers. “Ever since I was a little girl, I learned the world runs on the money”, she said. “I learned that if I don’t have money, I don’t exist”, added Radhika.
Rithika, 23 and Ammu, 21, live with their Guru in the Koliwada area of Mumbai. They have adopted each other as sisters. “If we walk on the road or on the street, people watch us like an alien, as something differently created,” said Ammu. “That has to be changed; we have to be seen as an equal.”
Puja, a 28-year-old Hijra, said she felt a “sisterhood” with the other Hijras in her house. She lives with three other transgender women, and they cover their rent by dancing at temples and begging on the street. “Personally, I don’t want to beg. Nobody wants to beg,” said Puja. And the situation is worse now for begging. “The police harass us. They don’t let us beg anymore on trains. But we aren’t given any other opportunity, and now they ask us not to beg? This is unfair. This is not justice”, she said.
I travel by the Mumbai locals on daily basis and many times the Hijras enter the coach I am in, sometimes accompanied by other Hijras. Buried under heavy cheap make-up and covered in glittering sarees, they board the train and beg. Not forcing anyone, they softly place their hand on the head blessing people when they offer them any money. Sometimes I feel pity for them and sometimes just observe the way they do their begging and the way they smile.
Beneath the makeup and clothes, they are just another human being. The Hijras have somehow managed to create their own little world in the city that never sleeps but certainly not a place in the society. It is difficult to swim against the tide. The Hijras in Mumbai swim against two tides, the community, and the society. It is time that we change our attitudes towards the Hijras and treat them as one of us.