Living on the fringes
Last week a fire broke out at a makeshift tent in Delhi as a three-day convention of thousands of hijras, or eunuchs, was about to end. At least sixteen hijras died. The Delhi government announced Rs 2 lakh as compensation for relatives of the dead. But the hijras have no relatives, in the sense that most disassociate themselves from their blood relations. The money is on hold.
Hijras are one of India’s most mysterious people; they earn money by flaunting their ambiguous sexuality but remain secretive about their personal lives. They live in groups, under the guardianship of a guru. Every group has its own ‘neighbourhood’. At every birth or wedding in the area, the hijras go to the household, sing, dance, and demand money. They are rarely sent back empty-handed since it is not considered a good omen to receive the ill wishes of a hijra. Sometimes they earn by begging at traffic lights or bazaars.
One cold evening in the courtyard of Hazrat Nizamuddin’s sufi shrine, I came across a group of hijras. They were looking as ordinary as other pilgrims. Most were in white shalwar kameez, with a dupatta covering their heads for modesty’s sake. Aren’t hijras immodest people by nature? Aren’t they always in bright sarees, backless blouses and heavy makeup?
These eunuchs looked like other women praying in the dargah, except that they were a little more feminine, more elegant, more beautiful and had beards.
They started talking to me. “Meet Mummy,” said Nimo, the prettiest of them as she invited me to join the group. Mummy, whose name was Reshma, had movie-star enigma on her face. She nodded at me and offered the Pepsi she was drinking. Next to her sat ‘Papa’ who had a deep cleavage. Apart from Nimo, Mummy and Papa had two more ‘daughters’ — Muskan and Pushpa. Muskan was the only one in man’s clothes.
Nimo told us that they had come from Shahdara in east Delhi. Their lives were similar to that of other hijras — moving around in tolis (groups) and extracting money by making a show of their sexual uniqueness.
Soon, Guruji, the master of the family, appeared. She was praying at the dargah’s mosque. (In Hazrat Nizamuddin’s shrine, eunuchs are spared the humiliation suffered by women pilgrims, who are not allowed to step inside the saint’s tomb.) Sporting a turban and wearing a long kurta and lungi, Guruji blew air with her mouth over the heads of her disciples. She said she was trying to protect them from djinns. She then turned to me, hesitated a little and then blew the air over me, making me a part of her family.
Another evening, in the colonial-era Connaught Place, I met a hijra who is still close to his blood family.
I was at the park above Palika Bazaar parking. Joint families and romantic couples were sitting on the grass.
Reaching towards a bench, Sunita Pandit, a hijra who must be in her 50s, clapped loudly and stretched out her right palm towards a young couple. “May Allah keep your mohabbat (love) intact,” she said. The boy withdrew his arm from the girl’s shoulder, took out Rs 20 from his shirt pocket and gave it to Pandit.
I caught up with Pandit as she took a short break from the dhanda (profession) to rest against an iron railing. There were holes in her pale green kurta. The golden light of the twilight hour had brought her day-old stubble into sharp focus. The hair on her arms was more conspicuous than her large ear danglers. Her lipstick was red and her eyelids were brushed purple. There was large red bindi on her forehead.
“I realised I was a hijra when I was five,” she said.
Unlike most hijras, Pandit operates alone. She has no guru and she belongs to no group. She lives at a one-room house in the nearby Paharganj. “The rent is Rs 1,800.” Pandit wakes up daily at 5 am, goes to a tea-stall to have chai, returns home, showers, and does the morning prayers. By 7 am, she is in Connaught Place.
For someone who earns by blessing romantic couples, Pandit herself doesn’t believe in love. “I never feel lonely. I never felt the need for a lover. Then you will have to work extra to feed him too.”
Just then two beggar children came close to us. Pandit asked them to leave. They refused. She suddenly picked up a stone and threw at them. The children started abusing her. She responded in an equally colorful language.
Pandit’s family lives in a village near Allahabad, UP. “I have parents, brothers, sisters-in-law and nephews at home. They all give me izzat (respect) though I was born a hijra.”
Then why do you beg? Why don’t you go back to your family?
“As long as I can earn, I’ll stay on in this city. But I’m going to Allahabad for a week. My nephew is getting married.”
After a few minutes of silence, Pandit got up and looked around. Her eyes came to rest on a couple at the far end of the park. Before leaving she turned to me and said, “May God give you his barkat (blessing).”
My dear reader, whenever you visit Delhi, you would of course come to Connaught Place too. While shopping there, keep an eye for Pandit and please give a tenner to her.
Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.