In the Japanese martial art of ninjutsu there is a technique of concealment in which one may be in full view yet not draw the eye of the observer. It is said that one who has mastered this art can move through a crowd entirely unobserved. They may not be black-belt ninja-warriors, but the women of Delhi are highly adept in donning this cloak of invisibility. It has become part of their armour in the daily battle of the sexes.
The sexual harassment Delhi’s women have to deal with every day is all-pervasive. It informs your body-language, it subtly alters the way you dress, how you appear, who you look at. Drawing attention away from yourself becomes second nature, an invisible shield designed to deflect lewd comments, puckered lips, appraising glances, crude gestures. Women new to the city, and especially from the West, irrespective of colour or class, stand out a mile: their shield is down. But for those of us who live and work here it’s what we put on, unconsciously, every morning, and wear with floaty ease through the day.
It is not the case that Indian women are meek, doe-eyed, softly-spoken sirens. I’m lucky enough to work in an office where women heavily out-number men, and are so loud and articulate that the only sirens they resemble are of the ambulance variety. But the moment they step out, even they don this force-field against the male gaze of strangers. It took me a while to get the hang of it. For the first few months living here, the five minute walk from my office down Sansad Marg to Connaught Place was a daily trial. I’d steel myself to not flinch. To stare down those starers. To outbrazen those bastards. To rise above it all – or, if I fell, then at least to give as good as I got. One day, it all became too much. The sucky-kissy come-on noise made by some uxurious pavement Romeo was the final straw. I wheeled round and let fly a gaali I had spent weeks rehearsing, under the tutelage of my girlfriends: “Sala harami!” Sadly, in the heat of the moment, my at best tenuous grasp of the language slipped completely and what came out was “Salami!” The man, unfazed by my threatening sausage, sauntered on.
Hardly surprising then, that the first time I witnessed ‘Adam teasing’, I nearly whooped with joy. There, trundling along Aurobindo Marg came an auto-rickshaw packed with the loudest, most outrageous women I’d ever seen. Loud saris, grand gestures, big hair, bigger voices: not an invisibility cloak to be seen. The auto careened to a stop and out they spilled, surrounding some poor hapless chap, wiggling their hips at him, pinching his bum, their eyes flashing, tossing their proud manes, daring him to flirt back. He scuttled away, beetroot red, willing the pavement to swallow him up. They laughed loudly, showing all their teeth. Still giggling, they pushed and shoved each other back into the auto. The auto-wallah sighed, as though this were not the first time it had happened today, relit his bidi, and swerved off madly into the traffic.
As I watched the sign on the auto’s back window (“Love Coach”) recede into the dense Delhi smog, I realised that these were not women at all, but hijras. Eunuchs, castrati, transvestites, transsexuals, the ‘third sex’ – none of these really translates. A hijra is a hijra is a hijra. You can’t take her out of the Indian context. In Mughal times, they played an important role in the court. According to Italian chronicler, Niccolao Manucchi, “kings, princes, queens and princesses place great confidence in these people… All people of quality have eunuchs in their service.” From that apex, the hijra community has fallen far. Nowadays, they operate at the fringes of society. Unlike the hijras of Bombay, who are also often sex workers, the Delhi hijras make their living mainly by singing and dancing at births and weddings. Their presence is considered simultaneously highly auspicious, and a royal pain in the neck. They are paid not to perform, but to go away. Whereas in the court of Louis XIV, or in the nineteenth century Vatican choirs, young boys were castrated to enhance and maintain the purity of their prepubescent sopranos, the timbre of the hijras’ voices is as coarse as their lyrics. To extort yet more money from their hapless host, they will threaten to lift their saris; and rarely do they have to reveal more than their sturdy knees before the outraged victim – his anger fuelled by desperate anxiety – reaches for his wallet.
In her book on hijras, The Invisibles, Zia Jaffrey tries to find out about this famously secretive community. This apparently rather straightforward objective ends up being a maze of dead-ends, side-tracks, false leads and red herrings. We end up having learnt quite a lot about Zia Jaffrey; precious little about her quarry. In one fell swoop, she manages to both belittle hijras themselves and the heterosexual fears on which they play: “With their whimsy and genderless faces they reminded me of Shakespearean fools…. In their buffoonery they could tell all, and lose nothing”, she says.
William Dalrymple fairs slightly better. In the course of his year in Delhi, researching The City of Djinns, he tracked down some hijras to their haveli near Turkman Gate. To Dalrymple, the hijras represent a fascinating blend: not just of genders, but of religions. The roots of this community are as deeply embedded in the traditions of both Hindu and Muslim history as is the city – indeed the country – itself. Not a very popular view with the fundamentalists of either camp and, if only for this reason, one worth taking seriously. Hijras are also extremely devout. They embody a strange mix of “piety and bawdiness … for ever visiting temples and mosques… and going on pilgrimage to Hindu and Muslim shrines over the subcontinent.”
No wonder people are so drawn to and repelled by this community. If the socially marginal becomes the symbolically central, then perhaps its small wonder that the hijra has become a sort of synecdoche for India itself. For such a miniscule percentage of India’s population, they loom large in almost every guidebook and travellogue, and yet the sum total of what we ‘actually know’ about hijras is tiny, shrouded as they are in myth, fear and superstition. As Jaffrey found out during the course of her research, most middle-class Indians would simply rather not know: it was partly that “curiosity itself was foreign when it came to the lower classes”, compounded by the general conception of hijras as “filthy people”. Yet it is this very denial which constitutes their power. As Dalrymple points out, for generations hijras have been outcast from their families, ostracised from society: “You do not have to spend very long with them to appreciate how India… has turned them into what they are, how it has brutalized them and forced them to anaesthetize their own sensibilities.”
Trying to explain ‘hijradom’ has become a mini-industry for sociologists and anthropologists. A cause célèbre for the gay activists who love the idea of adding another colour to their rainbow nation of sexuality; and a source of fascinating frustration for feminists, struggling to make sense of these cross-dressed, castrated men aspiring to a gender which has always played second fiddle. But, best of all, their mere existence – let alone their behaviour – is a slap in the face to the prudes, the self-appointed moral police, who infest great swathes of middle- and upper-class Delhi society and blight it for the rest of us. The landlords who insist on scrutinizing your wedding certificate. The neighbours who tut-tut on seeing a girl smoke. The police who judge a woman on the clothes she wears. The uncles who praise their nieces when they dress pretty, talk little and serve tea. The mothers-in-law who disapprove of a daughter going out to work. The husbands who wear their wives like ornaments. All those lives wrapped tight in the boa constrictor of decency.
How often have I heard the phrase ‘decent people’ since I got here. The standard match-maker’s line: “He’s a very nice boy. Very decent family.” Or a property agent turning to me with a sweet smile, having just mentioned some stratospheric rent figure, and saying: “Actually, money is not the issue. Owner is really just looking for decent people.” The unspoken subtext: like you and me. Such insidious inclusiveness brings out the worst in me. I feel myself breaking out into a positive rash of indecency. Short skirts! Cigarettes! Booze! Depravity! False eyelashes! Whips! Anything, but Lord save me from the decency of Delhi.
One evening, last winter, a friend called up and announced that a friend of hers, a hijra named Shiromi, was having a party, and would I like to go? It sounded like the last place on earth for any decent Delhi girl, so of course I said yes.
Like most hijras in the city, she lives to the north of Connaught Place which, for us ‘Sou’delhi-types’ is relatively uncharted territory. In fact, if you wanted a metaphor for a gulf of any sort – social, economic, political, architectural, you name it – the North/South divide of Delhi is it. It is a city partitioned within itself – the old city to the north with its winding lanes, cycle-rickshaws, mosques and kebaberies, ramshackle clutter and bustling life, and Lutyen’s dream of perfect imperial order to the south, with its wide, straight tree-lined avenues and perfect circles. Levi’s gave way to lunghis, chinos to churidars as we left behind the languid poseurs of Generation South Ex, and wended our way through the bumpy bylanes of Ajmeri Gate and Feroze Shah Kotla.
The driveway was to Shiromi’s house was canopied with fairy lights and carpeted. We parked next to a mosque, and followed the lane to a large clearing, covered over with all-purpose Indian tenting, held up with poles and dotted with impossibly large chandeliers. At the foot of a tree in the middle of the clearing (also carpeted), were a couple of charpoys strewn with rugs, quilts and small children. There were rows of seats facing a stage, where sound chappies were doing complicated things with wiring. As we walked in, one of the figures beneath the tree detached itself from the shadows and bounded forward to meet us with arms flung wide in a dramatic gesture of welcome. So this was Shiromi.
She must have been in her late fifties or early sixties, a broad broad, with chunky shoulders, large hands, and a wide face. Years of dedicated paan-chewing had distorted her mouth to a permanently lop-sided vermilion gash through which peeped toxic-shock environmental disaster zone dentistry. She had deep-set, caramel brown eyes, brimming with warmth. Unlike some of the hijras who turned up later, who have repainted their eyebrows into Romanesque arches, Shiromi’s eyebrows had been plucked out of existence and left there.
Her hair was an unqualified disaster. A tangled, matted, straggling mass that looked like it would have reared up and legged it at the mere sight of a comb. And her voice – well, her voice was really something else. Talk about lived in. That was a voice that had been around. It had gone places and done stuff that would have made the crustiest midshipman blanche a bit. You could grate carrots on her vowels. And yet, when she wanted to she could sure turn on the honey – rough silk, and I do mean rough.
She was disappointed that one of our friends couldn’t be there. And when Shiromi is disappointed, the world knows it. She pantomimed great crashing paroxysms of despair, her fingers tracing the course of crocodile tears down her face, the corners of her mouth dramatically downturned. Then, in a lightning turn-around, she pirouetted towards me, beamed, and enveloped me in a rib-crushing bear hug.
She grabbed us playfully by the hands, and led us to the charpoys, scattering small children and puppies hither and yon, and plumping up the quilts so we could loll at ease. With all the lese-majesty of an empress, she conjured up a huge silver platter laden with cashews, dates, pistachios and almonds from somewhere, and thrust a huge handful into my lap with a lewd and wicked wink.
She appeared to have catered for several thousand. So far there was just the six of us. Then three more hijras made their entrance, swathed in shawls and picking their way through the rubble with a breathtakingly regal hauteur. All three were carefully made up, the youngest with an amazing hair-do that swept off her forehead like an ossified orange tidal wave. They delicately picked at the plate of nuts, and ingratiated a couple of cigarettes from us. The largest one had a marvelous dark coiffure of hair, and blood red lipstick carefully applied to her lavish mouth. They made genteel Urdu small talk for a while and then gathered themselves up and headed off into the night again. This seemed to happen quite a lot – I had absolutely no idea how this ‘event’ was hanging together, it was such an odd hotchpotch of highly organised (there were various young men shimmying up poles and draping marigolds around throughout) and totally chaotic, with characters wandering in and out like spare parts in a Beckett drama.
As the evening wore on, a newcomer arrived. This was the head hijra, Shiromi’s guru. Draped in a creamy-white woolen shawl, her face was just incredible. Heavy-jowls, large features, soft, floury skin that looked like risen dough, and these extraordinary light green eyes. No make-up, as far as I could tell. She had the kind of presence that commanded respect, the kind of respect that one only associates with male elders. And yet, the gestures she made with her enormous, spade-like hands, were as elegant and poised as any classical dancer, and utterly female: Don Corleone in drag. She stayed for just the correct amount of time demanded by etiquette, and then rose to leave. She placed a huge hand on each of our heads in turn, a gesture of blessing that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
She exited, everyone breathed a little easier, and the songs began led, of course, by Shiromi. My friend had described her to me once as the most self-destructive person she’d ever met, and looking at her in her vermilion pool of silk, simultaneously drinking whisky, smoking dope, chewing paan and tobacco, I could see her point. A lush, hopeless, needy, funny, lovable, maddening drama queen, a latter-day gender-bending Muslim Scarlett O’Hara gone to seed.
It seemed that Manucchi’s opinion of the hijras of Delhi back in the seventeenth century couldn’t have been further from the truth. “They are baboons,” he wrote, “insolent, licentious baboons.” Neither baboons nor buffoons, they are as heartbroken, or as heartbreaking, as the rest of us. Perhaps more so.
In Delhi more than any other place I’ve ever lived, the past collides with the present. The sheer archaicness of eunuchs in the twenty-first century makes me smile, because it means that there are more things in heaven and, at least on this particular patch of earth, than you can dream of. The idea that the most uptight, sexually repressed and censorious middle-class Indian babu or behen-ji needs the blessing of a hijra at the birth of their child makes me believe there’s hope yet. The fact that hijras can earn their living from the fear of what is, or is not, under their petticoats makes me simultaneously want to cheer and weep. Their economic security rests on the sexual insecurity of others. Take away that fear, and you take away their livelihood – but perhaps what you give back is the dignity of being able to choose for themselves how to make a living. We may give them money to go away, to stop bothering us, to leave us in peace, but in the end, no matter how much cash changes hands, it’s they who pay the price.
The hijra is the heterosexual Indian male’s nightmare made flesh. Is it fear of seeing cruel disfigurement? In that case, why not flinch at every traffic light beggar’s leprous hands? Or is it rather that beneath the hijra’s petticoat lies his own heart of darkness – the realisation that a man’s potency, his power, can be physically removed? His own penis shrinks at the mere thought.
Hijras may perhaps envy women for their ability to bear children, for the very naturalness of their gender. But Indian women, in turn, may envy the hijra the confidence and ease with which she flaunts her femininity. There is this terrifying or liberatory thought: that the hijra represents what ‘real’ women might be if they were to become as sexually confident as ‘real’ men. The invisibles of Jaffrey’s title have much to teach the women of Delhi who have long been hidden behind the stifling veil of decency.
From City Improbable: An Anthology of Writings on Delhi Ed. Kushwant Singh (Penguin, India), Oct 2001