Thursday, February 28, 2008

Red Lights and Ladyboys

All these years, I’ve been celebrating my birthday in May, whereas in fact, it seems, I was born yesterday. (I’m suddenly Pisces. but we Taureans think astrology’s a load of rubbish, as you know.)
Yesterday, then, I’m sitting in the crawling traffic, which constitutes seven-eighths of any journey in Mumbai. The lights turn red, and a little beggar-girl comes tapping. She’s maybe seven, or eight years old. “Auntie, auntie, one rupee! Two rupee!” She claws at the window, giggling and singing “Jingle Bells.” Well, the only words she knows are “Jingle” and “Bells,” which she repeats forty-seven times, then fast-forwards through the rest, until it’s time for the refrain again. We crack the window open, and give her a sweet. She wants hard cash. At least, she can eat a chocolate éclair, before it’s annexed by her minder. The lights change. She takes the sweet, and waves us off, laughing and chewing.
I mention the jolly beggar-girls I saw, singing and clapping, a few days ago, and my friend looks at me, to see if I’m for-real. “Hijras,” she smiles. Ladyboys. I’m tempted to open the window again, so I can throw out all pretence I ever had, to worldly wisdom. Ladyboys? What would my mum have said?
Here, it’s called the Third Gender – a blanket term covering multiple variants, including trans-sexual, transvestite, eunuch. Sometimes, they’re castrated, often, not. For a postulant truly to belong to the hijra community, the operation’s supposed to be done by a midwife, without anaesthetic. Appropriately enough, the process is known as Nirvan, or rebirth. (Hands up, if you're wincing...)
A hijra’s characterised as having the body of a man, but the soul of a woman. Once a boy becomes aware of his ‘true’ nature, he – she, then - is often abandoned by her family, and ‘adopted’ by a hijra, who becomes her guru. A guru has five such pupils (chelas) to train, who work for her, and will look after her, in her old age, very much like the parent-child relationship.
The hijra hold a bizarre place in this society, at once revered and reviled. For the most part, they’re illiterate, having had little or no education, which obviously limits the careers open to them. They make their living begging on the streets, or performing, singing and dancing, at celebrations, or by prostitution. People give money to hijras out of fear, since refusal can mean being cursed. Ironically, the hijra are childless, yet their curse is sterility. Failure to pay also provokes lewd behaviour, in order publicly to shame the victim into giving.
Uninvited guests at weddings, birth ceremonies and even stag nights, hijras wield a double-edged sword. The hosts are careful to avoid incurring their wrath, which would bring bad luck to the bridal couple or to the baby. The hijra are paid to bestow their blessings instead, invoking good fortune and fertility.
Regardless of the spread of more tolerant attitudes, the new century’s not the time for the hijra to thrive. Sophisticated music technology is increasingly available, making hijra singing and dancing redundant as entertainment, and the dancers more and more reliant on their two alternative sources of income, begging and prostitution. Exact statistics are understandably hard to come by, but as many as fifty percent of hijras are thought to be HIV positive.
So, this puts the laughing, clapping, beautiful girls I see at the lights into a whole new perspective. It takes a lot to stand out, in the sequinned glamour of an Indian street, but these girls out-glitter them all. I thought they were hungry-thin, not boy-thin. I wondered about prostitution, and found pathos in their bravado. Now I know differently, and am filled with even more pity.
They said travel would broaden my mind.