Living Beyond the Margins: Hijras of Kolkata, a Curse or a Prayer!

Reading Time: 9 minutes

US-based Padmini has been working for the of the . She recounts a chance meeting with them during one of her visits to Kolkata. She tells us about the paroxysms of their emotions, the rejection and various exploitation they face. How they are duped or how the lower police officials demand sexual gratification. She also gives us a glimpse into the Nirvana (read making) of a hijra and their trials and tribulations. They need acceptance and love. They need to join the mainstream rather than live beyond the margins of the society. A exclusive.

“Hey look that’s didi’s (elder sister) car, come let’s greet her,” shouted one with ecstatic exuberance and they all came running, ignoring the traffic signal that had already turned green from red.

I asked my driver to park the car on a side, reluctantly he did after much ado. He was getting a little audacious and restless, must find a new one I thought.

The moment I got down they all came huddled together, hugged me warmly and smiled; elated to see me after a long time. I was visiting India that time almost after six months and that was my very first day out in the city.

“We missed you a lot didi, we couldn’t make ISD call to you. We have been looted,” they all screamed in unison.

“Looted? What does that mean?” I asked intrigued and astounded.

“The money that you had sent from US and the other donations that you arranged was with us at home. We were awaiting your return to plan things for us. Then one day a young man befriended us and said we shouldn’t keep so much money at home. He promised to help us in opening a bank account, naturally we were overwhelmed by his magnanimous gesture. He got the forms for us and made three of us sign as joint holders too. He said he would be back and have lunch with us after depositing the money promising to bring the receipt and pass book but he never returned. We searched for him everywhere but couldn’t trace him. In all we had given him three lakhs.”


I was at my wit’s end. How could someone cheat poor and simple people like them? Has humanity been extinguished totally from the earth, I wondered. They looked pale and shattered in spite of their heavy makeup and jewelry. I decided to talk to them in detail and decipher future course of action.

“You guys must be busy now otherwise I could have come over to your place and talked.”

“Really didi? You will come over to our home? We won’t work today, you are most welcome!”

Having signaled them to get inside my car, I hopped onto the front seat beside my chauffeur; they hesitated at first but later succumbed to my insistence. My driver was vehemently reluctant, as though the vehicle belonged to him. He didn’t appreciate their boarding my car and he hated the idea of my going to their place. I made it clear that unless he takes my commands without any questions he was free to leave. We came to a grinding halt suddenly because there was a huge procession marching ahead of us, some political rally. Asking my driver to wait there we decided to walk down to their place.

My audacious driver continued to blabber. “I think you are making a big mistake madam by going with with these people. You mustn’t eat at their place, it’s all contaminated and dirty I tell you. They are very ominous as it is. You must get the car linens dry cleaned immediately. I will have to take a bath today soon after reaching home.”

Infuriated I stopped and questioned, “Which caste are you?”

He replied, “We are pundits, very high community people.”

“Do you know about their caste?”

“Oh madam, they are hijras (eunuchs), untouchables. I don’t know how you tolerate them. They are going to rip you off any day.”

“They are children of god, got me? Now if you have to work for me where you get paid for ten months by working for just two, a free quarter for your family, you got to do what I say. You are not a pundit; you are a high class rascal.” And I left with them.

It was a dark narrow alley through which we entered, walked for a while and reached their home. Clothes were hanging here and there but there was a small place of worship that was beautifully done up with pictures and paintings. They took me to their best room and offered a chair with satin covers. They whispered among themselves; I could make out they were discussing ways of welcoming me. One of them ran and got four bottles of soft drinks and mineral water; I was free to drink any or all. I was mesmerised by their heartwarming reception. No one had ever treated me the way they did. One of them, everyone thought she was my favorite came forward and asked me gently, ‘will you please have lunch at our place?’

“Of course I will, I am terribly hungry.”

“Thank you so much didi. We will prepare everything separate for you.”

“Rani my dear, please don’t make it so obvious. Just make some rice and boiled egg and that will do.”

While Mitul, Norah and I sat talking, others got busy with arranging my lunch.

“Why are you people still begging on the streets? Didn’t I tell you that you must make a respectable living for yourself?”

Mitul was the youngest and chirped like a bird. She said, “I tried home delivery but no one ordered anything from us.”

“Okay, what about the others?”

“After losing our money we were completely heartbroken, didi. Soon after the debacle Sia had to go to attend her father’s funeral but came back sadder because they didn’t allow her to perform his last rites. She was completely ostracized. They didn’t even give her a photo of her dad; even her mother shut door on her face.”

“Oh no! How can a mother possibly behave like that?”

“Don’t know, but they accept her money that she transfers every month.”

“Really Sia? What your friends are saying is true?”

“Yes mam every bit of it. I have come back to my real home, my real friends.”

“What about Rihanna? Can’t see her anywhere? Is she out on business?”

“No mam, she is no more!”

“What?” I asked shocked and perplexed.

“She had befriended a man who had sex with her everyday with his friends; they literally tortured her day and night. She was so enamored by him that she wouldn’t listen to us. One day she did not return. We looked for her everywhere and finally when we located her lover’s associates we learnt they had killed her because she had dared to raise her voice against them. They involved her daily in the perversest of sexual activities and killed her when she threatened to spill the beans.”

“And what were you guys doing? Didn’t you go to the police?”

“We did, but our complaint was not registered. On the contrary they wanted us to give them some sexual gratification.”

“You must be kidding; this can’t be true.”

“This is the truth didi. When that man disappeared with our money we had been to police station where they made lewd comments and wanted us to hold their stuff and give them some oral sex.”

“Do you have a picture or something of that guy?”

“Yes, we have in Raj’s mobile.”

“Forward that to me,” I said rather sternly.

Food was ready and I was served the best ever lunch of my life. Steaming hot rice with boiled egg, potato and butter with green chilies. They were apprehensive whether I would really eat with them at their place; hence they resorted to maximum precaution. My food was served in a thermocol plate lest I felt uncanny in their utensils. They are much more discreet and sensible then any of us; we are like plastic dolls, full of inflated ego, mannerism and pseudo prestige. These simple people are much better off in the sense they are more real. They have their share of pain and disappointment but they have evolved as better human beings than the so called sophisticated literate folks like us.

I promised to take up their issues one by one and make sure they were permanently rehabilitated. As a human being I could not allow them to be forced into begging and prostitution.

My association with them is long and one of mutual love, respect and understanding. It started years back when one of them had approached me for some alms at the traffic signal. After that we had several encounters and our relationship deepened into friendship. I treat them as my equal and make sure that others do it too. Its god will that they are the way they are. Who knows a similar tragedy may befall anyone’s family tomorrow; one must not shun a race for their sexual deformities. Their is very much like ours, they have a heart in place that loves and a brain that sets the clock ticking. I guess we should be able to behave a little more empathically than we do towards these unfortunate souls.

I did manage to reach out to the top cops that happened to be my seniors in school and the good news is we were able to recover most of the money from the fraud. We are in the process of setting up small scale business for each one of them and home for all. One of them has already started her popcorn club in the city and she is doing well for herself. Naina does tattooing very well and you may see her in one of the malls happy with her satisfied clients. Riaz has started a unisex parlor and that’s running well too. Some of them were keen on body transformation but I advised them against it as it has many side effects. I have requested them to love themselves as they are instead of copying females around them. Apart from arranging funds, I am also arranging bank loan for them so that they can all make an independent living for themselves. My industrialist friends have been magnanimous in their charity and they have come forward generously in turns.

We must remember Rani, Naina, Raj, Riaz, Sefali are all human beings; we must always extend our hands to help instead of ostracising them. We must remember their life is full of agony, pain and shame; they are forced into castration to attain what their guru calls nirvana and that’s horrendously painful. These people are shunned by their own family and loved ones; they are already in living hell, why make it more traumatic for them? Let good sense prevail, let humanity emerge in the real sense.

The word hijra is an Urdu word meaning eunuch or hermaphrodite. Hijras consist of hermaphrodites, as well as women who are unable to menstruate and lead the normal female life which consists of getting married and producing children. Hijra is a term for a particular form of transgendered person; a male that psychologically feels like a female and feels that his feminine body is wrongly trapped in a man’s body.

Some of them are believed to be the devotees of Buhuchara Mata, a version of the Indian mother goddess. The emasculation operation in which all or part of the male genitals are removed is viewed as their rebirth; the new hijra is said to have attained nirvan. The emasculation or castration as they are called completes the transformation from impotent male to potent hijra. A hijra midwife usually performs this awful and horrendous operation as an order from above. It consists of the complete removal of the penis and testes and is essential in transforming them from men to women. The severed genitals are then buried under a tree and a tube is placed in the urethra. The blood coming out is allowed to flow because it is seen as the bad “male” blood and getting rid of it will get rid of the male inside the hijra. The ritual of the surgery and many of the postoperative restrictions somewhat resemble those of a new mother.

After days of isolation, the nirvan is dressed as a bride and taken in procession near a river where a strange ritual is held and finally the person is accepted in the hijra community. A widespread belief in India is that hijras have the power to curse people with sterility and bad fortune by lifting their dress and exposing their mutilated genitals. They are usually cremated/buried at the dead of night to avoid clamor and unwanted attention.

Rajendra might be a case in point – he was the youngest of all siblings at home. He had three elder brothers but Raj was very different from them; he was shy, culturally effeminate, with an inclination to dress as a girl and do traditionally female activities around the house. He loved to help his mother in the kitchen and make friends with girls.

No one had any doubts about his behavior at first as many mothers prefer one of their sons to be like a girl, their innate desire to own a girl child among all male children. Things were having a smooth sail till his body showed unusual signs. He spent his childhood years with a growing unease as he tried to negotiate his body’s incongruity with his inner desires and overwhelming feminine emotions. He felt attracted towards men and there was huge discord in the family because of him.

Unable to cope with the family and social pressure he fled with like spirited men that promised him liberty and equality. Raj moved from city to city changing houses and Gurus, as they call it, until he found his soul mates in the city of joy. Here (s)he found love and hate, rejection and dejection; but he could expound his mental and physical desires guilt free.

(c)Padmini Sharma

Pix from Net.

Padmini Sharma

Padmini Sharma

Padmini Dutta Sharma authored five books and has been reviewed widely in the international media. She has also been interviewed by several TV channels. A Master’s in English Literature, she started her career as a journalist and worked in the field of corporate communications at senior positions for few years. She runs a consultancy firm. She is a human right activist and hosts shows on social counseling in various television channels.
Padmini Sharma

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