Monday Morning Hijras

Adam and I have a fairly straight forward routine: he leaves at 8am, and on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I leave at 10 (Weds & Fri I leave at 9:30). This morning, there was a kink in my plans: namely, a pair of people singing and playing tabla outside my front door. Quite literally on my doorstep. It was surprising, and I couldn’t quite tell who or what was going on – just that there were a pair of people, wearing salwar suits, playing tabla and singing. So… salwar suits, must be women, right?

Wrong. That voice was way, way too masculine.

As we’d just had two weddings in my “block” (an employee’s son, and the new neighbours across the way), the hijra had come calling. Hijra are eunuchs or hermaphrodites; they identify more as women on an aesthetic point of view in most cases, wearing sari and women’s clothes, bindi, and makeup. I understand that in some cities (such as Delhi) you can find enclaves of hijra, with one “guru” leader. The hijra adopt any hermaphrodite children or eunuchs who they come across, and raise them as entertainers, and to fulfill a few extra roles in life. Some of them end up working as prostitutes; others do what these local hijra did, and travel from house to house when they know there have been weddings or recent births.

In Hinduism, it is believed that hijra are special; due to their mixed sexuality, they can “acquire”  sexual power, which then can be “expended” via curses or blessings. They will ask for gifts – money, saris, suits, food, etc. – in exchange for blessing the new couple/child. INR5,000 is pretty common for a wedding (one of my students/friends was asked for that much after her wedding), INR11,000 for a baby boy, and so on. If you give them money, they give their blessings; if you don’t…

From my reading and from our Hindi tutor, I’ve gleaned that they’ll be… vulgar, I suppose, is the best way to say it. Flash you, grab your privates, take your hand and make you grab/touch theirs, etc. I’ve even heard it said that they will urinate on the door or posts by the house, as a sign of distaste for the residents, if you don’t pay up!  Diler confirmed to me that these two were definitely hijra, as they were the same people that had hit him up for money after his son Addi’s birth. They evidently have some sort of connection in the local Registry department, and thus get told where the weddings have been, where the new births are, and whether it was a boy or a girl (thus they can ask for the most money). In a few days in a profitable area, it’s possible to get one lakh (INR100,000 or about USD$2,200) or more, particularly during wedding season.

Hijra are a part of Indian culture that doesn’t really engender much surprise or blinking out of ‘What was that?’: you read about them in various books, and like ladyboys in Thai culture, people know they exist, and their “third gender” is recognized by the government (which is a nice big step compared to a lot of Western countries still struggling to identify transgender or alternate gender identifications).

I would have been more inclined to step outside and watch/listen to them, if I didn’t think that I’d’ve been asked for money or other things; with empty pockets, there was no way I would have been able to provide them with what they thought a white lady would have. I foresee trying to avoid giving them reason to come looking for money here, but at the same time – they’re everywhere; I’m fairly certain Adam and I ran into one looking for baksheesh at Safdarjang’s Tomb when we were in Delhi.

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