BY SHEKHAR BHATIA
For the sake of avoiding confusion, I’ll call this person a woman, but she was a stark introduction to my trip across India (to photograph India’s marginalised society of hijras) as she literally head butted my windscreen and refused to budge until cash was handed over. Mumta told me she was 40 and had been born a man in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu and had come to Mumbai 18 years previously to seek castration and to escape persecution from her family and friends.
Hijras have been a part of the Indian subcontinent from antiquity, and are even mentioned in the Kama Sutra. India’s biggest cities have large hijra communities who live in poor accommodation, or on the streets, many begging and selling their bodies as sex workers. People like Mumta find other transsexuals for support and friendship and they hunt in packs. There are said to be 200,000 hijras in India, and most are homosexual. Being gay in India is still largely outlawed, and simply by being sexually active hijras are breaking the law. This means that they have few legal rights as enjoyed by India’s other citizens. They can be discriminated against if they apply for jobs, housing or other benefits, and are almost always judged by their appearance. Hence the support they give one another and, with a few exceptions, all of the 30 I photographed lived side-by-side with other hijras.
A hijra is a gender concept for biological males who regard themselves as the third gender. The term derives from the Arabic hjr, referring to migration, or leaving one’s tribe. But the irony of these hijras in present day India is that their place between female and male genders bestows special powers on them, and they are feared and, apparently, also cherished by much of the Indian public.
Ancient myths lead many to believe that hijras bring luck and fertility. They often turn up at weddings, or when a new baby has been born, to collect money in exchange for their blessings. They have been known to do their utmost to embarrass individuals who do not offer them money, even stripping naked in public to heap humiliation on the person refusing to hand over his or her cash. Many believe that a curse from a hijra can have a damning effect, leading to bad luck. This results in an almost revered and equally feared atmosphere around hijras.
Most who agreed to be part of my photographic project were friendly; more so when they had relieved me of cash. They all looked terrific in their women’s’ clothing and my female lighting assistant even remarked that their make-up was, in some cases, better than hers.
Several told me about their hard lives and how they had been rejected by families and loved ones, resorting to fleeing to join up with other transsexuals. One woman (sic) Sushma told me she had been anally raped by an uncle as a child because of her effeminate ways and had realised then that she was homosexual, but felt trapped in her man’s body. She later underwent castration in a back street clinic and nearly bled to death following the botched operation. Her life was saved when other hijras, hearing of her plight, banded together to pay for medical aid to have the operation performed correctly by a surgeon.
“I am neither man, or woman… you can just call me special”, said the person wearing an orange sari with a tikka paint mark on her forehead. The voice was deep and there were bulging muscles and the very next day the same person held up a three-wheeler tuk tuk driver on a busy Mumbai road to demand cash from the passenger, who just happened to be me. It didn’t matter that we had met only the day before and, seemingly, had a cordial photographic session.