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A Certain Ambiguity

A closed and mysterious Indian tradition is evolving, because of the twin forces of economics and social progress.

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Ritika banked hard right around a rickshaw, gunning the engine of her small Honda scooter so she could beat it to the turn. I hung on with one hand to the back handle, eating bits of her hair. She braked, hard, to avoid a fruit cart vendor wheeling his goods across the street. I was thrown forward, and my hands gripped her sides to hang on to the scooter; I pushed up her bra. There was nothing there, of course, to keep the bra down, and the garment and padding slid upwards. It hung awkwardly at an angle, rumpling her shirt. She fixed it with a sigh and pulled it down with both hands at a traffic light.

Ritika is an anatomic male, a transsexual, from a lower middle class Sikh family. New Delhi is home, but none of its neighborhoods embraced her exotic identity with the casual indifference that Castro in West Hollywood does. Her refuge is little larger than a living room. She is a social activist and a sex worker, and a stoic recipient of the stares that focus constantly and unabashedly on her face and padded chest. The onlookers call her hijra, a term she has learned to wear with pride.

The hijras have long existed in India as eunuchs and hermaphrodites. They were considered to have mystic powers, and by nature of the sacrifice of their flesh, a direct connection to the gods. They are found all over South Asia, and have historical roots that can be traced to court eunuchs in some of India’s earliest writings as well as the religious epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Tolerated. because they are feared, the hijras form tight-knit and closed communities of their own. They live in families, led by a guru figure, who dictates the lives of her disciples.

The hijras have turned their connection to the gods into a business; they subsist off what they are paid for administering blessings or curses. Their curses are considered so powerful that people pay monstrous sums to avoid them, or to pass them on to disliked neighbors. The hijras have made a habit of knocking on doors during critical moments — weddings, births, business deals — and the persecuted are forced to buy their peace and blessings. Everyone wants to keep them at a distance.

The attitude toward hijras was apparent from the back of Ritika’s motorcycle. As a white man who travelled through rural India on a bicycle, I was used to stares, but I’d never seen stares like this. Pulled up at the red light, post-bra adjustment, I don’t remember a face in the line of sight that wasn’t staring. All kinds of emotion; there was little curiosity and much scorn. In past encounters, when villagers had stared at the weird tourist on his bike, they met my eyes and waved. When I looked at them now, nestled against Ritika on the motorcycle, they looked away quickly. It wasn’t fear, it was the kind of look one gives to escargot the first time it shows up on the dinner table. A few onlookers blared disgust in the eyes, but one or two also shone with lust. There were some desires long repressed in that mess of rickshaws and motorcycles, and perhaps some future customers of Ritika’s in brief fantasy or reality.

In a country that is quickly modernizing, the mysticism of the hijras is disappearing, replaced by contempt. The problem is Ritika, and thousands like her, are joining hijra communities in India’s major cities. Ritika has never blessed a wedding, has never knocked on doors asking for money. She became a hijra because she wanted to be a woman, wanted to have sex like a woman, and the hijras offered a community of people like her. She stayed a hijra because she had to — she needed the protection and blessing of a guru for her sex work, or she would be beaten and thrown off the street. But Ritika could never have joined a traditional community. She is a prostitute, uncastrated, and has not abandoned her family. Her lifestyle violates the core tenets of the hijra code.

Hijras like Ritika are products of a sexual and cultural revolution that is quietly spreading across India’s cities. The transgenders are the revolution’s most extreme product, and a society still rank with homophobia has struggled to absorb so different a people into its everyday life. Unwilling to hide, but with nowhere to go, this new generation of transgenders has found refuge, as they have for centuries, with the hijras. But they do not accept the harsh rules of the hijra code, and few have interest in the divine connections the sisterhood is supposed to bring. They come to find community and a livelihood in the growing industry of transgender prostitution. In the process, they are destroying an enigma, turning a group once respected for its mystic powers into one renowned as suppliers of vice. The new generation of hijras is throwing itself headlong into the lucrative business of sex, and the public imagination, which once dressed the group in fear and wonder, now views them with the disdain long reserved for prostitutes.

Ritika ignored the stares that pierced us or dished out a flirtatious smile where she saw shining eyes. To the world it might have seemed she did not care, but when the traffic light was behind us and her hair was whipping into my face, the mask blew off. “Don’t all these people have something better to look at? They make me feel like a freak.”

“But we… we don’t care! We’re free!” she laughed, and it rang hollow and forced.

We were going to her house, at my request. I wanted to meet her family. She slowed as we approached her house in the Punjabi neighborhood, threw a wave to a few shopkeepers, then stopped in a darkish corner under a tree. Ritika began her transformation back into boyhood. The bra came off, and a hoodie went over her shirt, zipped to the top. She peered into her rearview mirror: mascara rubbed off on the back of her sleeve. She twirled her hair into a ball — she was Sikh, it had to be covered — and tightened a baseball cap over it. The shadow of its brim hid any last traces of makeup and her eyes.

She was nervous. I might slip up and ask her parents the wrong questions. She wasn’t sure how much they knew about her life outside the home. It simply wasn’t discussed; it was ignored to create an unstable peace. It blew up in their faces fairly often.

She shot me a last warning glance and we walked in. Her sister greeted us at the door and called out to Ritika, “Hello, Raju.”

Her double life is another sign of the growing divide between the traditional and the new hijra communities. Joining a traditional community is not unlike becoming a Geisha. It means leaving family behind and submitting your body and life to the service of a guru.

Ruppa is one of those who chose this path, running away from home when she was 16 years old to join a guru in Delhi. Uneducated and illiterate, the transgender had few other options. Her father died when she was 12, leaving her in the care of her mother, uncles, and cousins. They lived together in a large house in West Delhi. She was effeminate and so was teased and beaten by her uncles and cousins often, sometimes brutally. Her mother loved her deeply, she was her only son, but could not protect her from the men in the family.

So she ran, to someplace she could be herself. It was the beginning of a 30-year career as a hijra, fraught with hardships. Ruppa moved into a three-story house with 14 other disciples, most of whom were illiterate, and her guru, who trained her in the skills of dance, blessing, and the special brand of extortion the hijra reserve for those that will not pay. The house became her universe, and the guru owned her.

For almost two decades, Ruppa followed the same disciplined routine. She woke up at 7 am, and cooked breakfast or did chores. By 10 am, she and other disciples hit the streets. They worked in pairs or triplets, and split up the guru’s territory among them so that no street went unpatrolled.

The patrol areas were large in Delhi, encompassing thousands of homes and businesses. She was on the lookout for telltale signs of people who would benefit from a blessing or suffer from a curse: new businesses, tenants, babies, newly wed. Business was easy. She knew her stomping ground well, knew who owned what. For everyone else, she looked for moving vans, boxes coming in and out of buildings, new toys or cribs on porches. The best tell-tales were the strands of yellow and orange flowers that Hindus hung over their doors and windows to bless new spaces.

When she found them, Ruppa and her companions would knock on the door and start asking for money. The price of their departure depended on the door they were knocking on and the importance of the occasion. Weddings and births cost more than simply moving into a new home. The more luxury Ruppa saw in the home, the higher the price. A middle class family could expect to pay as much Rs 15,000 ($300) to the hijras for a new baby.

The payment was painful, but expected; it was a hallmark of any rite of passage. Peace came at a high price. The hijras are persistent beyond belief, and there are only so many times the police can be called to send them away. Most people prefer to be affable and negotiate.

For the visited who won’t open their wallets, the curses began. For those who won’t open the doors, the curses are even more flagrant, accompanied by noise and gall. First Ruppa started to clap and taunt. Hijras have their own brand of clapping: the fingers are outstretched, and they smack the back of their taut palms together perpendicularly. It makes the sound of thwacking flesh — unpleasant and suggestive, full of curses. Most of the time that is enough. The visited agree to a price, or give a little upfront and promise more money later.

For the stalwarts, Ruppa had one last weapon. She would start to dance, then yell, and curse, curse curse, louder, louder! Then she would strip. Little by little, the saris would unravel. Refusing to pay the hijra bought you a striptease from hell. Everyone who didn’t have a guard paid eventually.

When she returned home, Ruppa would carefully count her earnings and give half to her guru. Her day was not over. There were weddings to bless, chores to be done, and the harsh discipline of the house and its leader to face.

The guru ruled the lives of her disciples. She was the liaison between households and between the hijra world and the outside community. She levied fines for breaking small rules, like missing certain chores or curfew, or beatings for major ones, like cutting hair without permission. Major infractions, like sex work, are punished with expulsion from the community and a shaved head. Expulsion can be disastrous; the family and the profession are removed with one fell swoop. Lastly, the guru is the enforcer of secrecy, because mystery is at the core of the fear that drives the hijra’s business. No one is supposed to talk about what happens in the house without the guru’s permission. I was denied several interviews by fearful tradition hijras. Most of all, I was never allowed close to the gurus of the traditional hijras, or told anything about their identities.

Ruppa clashed with the discipline of her guru constantly. When she first joined in 1982, she faced enormous pressure to submit to a traditional castration. Ruppa refused. The process is agonizing. Fellow disciples would pin the hijra down and in three swift strokes, a dai would cut off the testicles and penis. No pain killers allowed.

Ruppa was scared of infection, because the wound was normally treated with just compresses of hot water and oil. She was also scared of the pain. As soon as she had the cash, she had a sex change operation. But until then, she endured years of abuse for her refusal, including an episode in which her guru beat her on the head with an iron cooking spoon. There is a still a dent in her skull that I could fit my thumb into.

Even after the operation, the rules were stifling. The guru was liberal in allowing Ruppa to see her mother, because she was an only child, but never more than twice a month and rarely for more than a half hour. They had to meet in public spaces, like a market. If she went home, Ruppa had to sneak in at night.

Ruppa’s mother never gave up on her love for her son. With a secret stash of 5 kgs of silver, she bought an enormous piece of land outside Delhi to leave him. It would be worth Rs 1.3 crores ($260,000). She wanted to give her only son a way out of the life he had chosen. Ruppa’s recounting of this was the only time during our interview that her giggling stopped, and her mask fell off, and she cried.

In 2006, Ruppa exited. She had fallen in love, found herself a 23-year-old boyfriend with a steady job. He was a shop owner, a distributor of ball bearings and shocks for Hyundai vehicles. He had cash to support her, and they could live in a house. The guru forced her hand, demanding the deed to her inheritance and prohibiting a boyfriend.

She left and sold her land. With some of the money she invested in a new house, in the center of Delhi. The rest she stowed away carefully for harder times, with the exception of an investment in breast implants to make herself the perfect wife.

Those breast implants became a path to her livelihood, her pride. They were her statement that she was a woman, a gift to the man who made her feel like a woman, who gave her a place in the world. The ex-hijra kept removing her shirt during the interview, insisting that I touch her breasts. They were big. The 46-year-old had found a new life as a housewife.

As she left, I asked her what she thought would come of the hijra community. Her answer resonated with what I had heard from many other hijras. “Before there was a lot of respect for the hijras, because of the traditional lifestyle that they lead. Nobody understood who we were. Now, with the internet and the media, and all the sex workers, there’s no more mystery.” She thought for a while, and then finished. “My profession will not last. People aren’t afraid anymore.”

A quarter century after Ruppa made her choice to run away, Ritika found herself in the same quagmire. She faced abuse at home and at school. She faced the torments and pangs of teenagehood, and the burning desire to be accepted, to be liked, to be part of a community, and the kind of loneliness that only the cruelty of classmates and the insecurity of youth can conjure. But her efforts to find a place for herself as a teen were almost quixotic. She could not define herself within even the most basic of categories — gender.

Yet Ritika made a different choice than Ruppa, who sought refuge in the community of hijras. She chose to endure the strife with her family and schoolmates instead of leaving to find her own world. She held on to a shred of hope that Ruppa did not have in 1982. She believed that her dreams and her identity were not exclusive, that she would be allowed to contribute to society as she was, that she could find a way to be defined by more than just her transexuality. She believed she could find a community, and so, rather than leave everything, Ritika started to live a double life.

From when she was a little boy, Ritika would paint herself in her mother’s makeup, or dress up in the prettiest silk saris she could find when she thought no one would find her. She tended to be friends with girls and from a very young age desired sex with men. She had her first sexual experience at 10 years old. The desires only grew, and she became alienated from her family and schoolmates with age. Her father would beat her when he caught her in makeup or women’s clothing; her schoolmates would beat her harder and call her vulgar names. At 16, she found a place and some independence by starting to walk the streets as a prostitute. “I started because it was the only way I could get the kind of sex I wanted,” she said. She also found people that did not hate who she wanted to be.

Six years later, at 22, her two lives have almost separated into different worlds, and Ritika’s relationship with her family has settled into something guarded and tenuous. As we entered her home, Ritika gave little more than a cursory hello to his sister, who scuttled back into the kitchen to prepare food for me, the guest. She took a blessing from his mother, touching the bottom of her sari in a gesture of respect. The formalities were performed quickly, and space made on a bed for Ritika and I to sit without any conversation. The whole family was crowded together in a small living room, watching a soap opera on television. As we sat on the bed and waited for the food to be served, the family barely spoke. There was little light conversation and no laughter; as soon as a question was answered, eyes turned back to the soap opera. Ritika spent the time nervously asking me if I had any more questions, except for a moment when she played with her nephew, and tenderly held her baby niece.

We were served a simple meal of chapati and potato curry, and Raju ate quickly. As soon as I had finished, he beckoned me out. There were no goodbyes, nor questions. I had only time to clasp my hands together and say thank you before we were back on the motorcycle and she was feminine again.

Ritika’s relationship with her parents is based on an uneasy truce of non-confrontation. They had some idea of what she became when she left the house, of her double life. Most of the time, it simply lay simmering under the surface, a gorilla in the room that everyone tried to ignore after years of fighting. When the issue did surface, it did so violently, with a torrent of emotions. “My parents, sometimes they abuse me. They are very rude. They call me a whore, and often they throw me out,” Ritika told me. Her family is her home, and she loves them, but every night could be a night it all blows up in her face.

Ritika looks for more stable sources of love and friendship outside her home, and there was none she was so giddy about as her boyfriend. She was head over heels. The lover was another Sikh, a call center employee. They’d met in a traffic jam while waiting to get past a police checkpoint. He’d approached her because he wanted to know what kind of woman was smoking a cigarette so openly. After a brief conversation, they bonded when she helped him get around the registration checkpoint. The police don’t approach the hijras unless they absolutely have to.

The duo meet whenever they can get away secretly, once or twice a month. They never meet at the same location; it’s critical nobody knows where they are or that they’re together. He was straight, she told me. She wanted to give him everything, and offered to get a sex change operation, but he refused. He liked her exactly as she was, and his acceptance touched her deeply. He was on the other side, not an outcast, and that he loved her gave her stability and dignity.

She blushed through her makeup as she pulled his picture up on her phone. “Isn’t he hot?” she giggled, and the corners of her eyes turned upwards.

All over the phone was also the reason the relationship has no future. On either side of her boyfriend was an endless stream of porno photos: naked portraits shot in front of the mirror, penises of every variety, gay daisy chains that stretched across the screen. “I don’t think it will last,” Ritika told me sadly. “I am a sex worker and life gets in the way.” It didn’t help that the boyfriend wasn’t openly gay, and would have an arranged marriage that followed Sikh tradition.

“Life” is her night job and the guru that makes it possible. Her guru is what made Ritika a hijra. But Ritika’s guru is more of a pimp than a head of household. She runs a stretch of road and only her ladies are allowed to sell their bodies there. “I have to be a hijra. If I come out in long hair, looking feminine, dressed in women’s clothes, then the other hijras will come out and beat me if I don’t have a guru.” Ritika pays her Rs 4,000-5,000 a month to ply her work. But the guru shares some functions with those of a more traditional hijra: she enforces community rules, like those against hair cutting, and provides help or shelter if one of her disciples is in need. Unlike a pimp, she does bring in customers, but Ritika has no shortage of demand.

Her phone beeped constantly while we talked. As she scrolled through her text messages on a smartphone, there were thousands of separate conversations. There were pricing requests, pick up lines, more penis photos. A text came in every 15 minutes or so. Facebook messages came too: Ritika had to open a new account because she’d passed the 5,000 friend limit. Calls came in frequently, and one came in while she was showing me her phone. She was brief and direct. She quoted him Rs 3,000 (about $60) for an hour of “fun” with him and his friends, but turned them down because they didn’t want to use protection. Fifteen minutes later, another man sent her a text message. He’d had sex with her the night before and wanted to buy Ritika’s panties. Ritika couldn’t stop laughing.

The 22-year-old has seen everything. She sees between 10 and 15 clients a week and the amount she charges them depends on the kind of car they drive; the best prices are for those who show up on scooters. Sex happens wherever it has to, including in a client’s car or simply in the park, but Ritika also meets clients who call ahead in a small apartment she rents for the purpose. The others pick her up roadside.

The whole affair is pure business, services rendered for payment. She became a prostitute at 16 because she wanted the sex, and wanted to find people who liked her because she was a hijra. She stayed a prostitute because the money is unbeatable, and because, she confided, she still enjoys the sex. But the streets are too cruel to offer community, or the acceptance she craved when she first stalked the night six years ago. Sometimes clients are rough, or the police come and beat her with bamboo sticks. Her guru is demanding, and Ritika calls her for help only when absolutely necessary. The greatest reminder of the danger is Ritika’s name. Two hundred meters from where she waits for clients, her boyfriend’s sister was stabbed to death by an enraged lover. His sister’s name was Ritika, and Ritika took the name as a tribute to her love.

But Ritika is not a victim. She is a sex worker by choice and it funds her life as she chases bigger dreams to be a social worker. She spends her days working at MITR Trust, an NGO dedicated to helping New Delhi’s LGBT community, or at school, where she’s halfway through a bachelor’s degree in social work. Her dream is to help build the community she worked so hard to find.

On the second floor of the plain cement building where MITR Trust houses its offices, that community is flourishing. It was a simple space — mats on the floor, a few worn out speakers, and a clinic in the back for free STD testing. A rainbow flag hung on the balcony, over the dirt road and tea vendors below. In the five times that I visited the offices, it was never empty. It was there that I met Ruppa, and had my most honest interviews with the hijra.

MITR is the refuge the city doesn’t offer. It is a place where the hijras — and many gay men — can let their hair down. On Wednesdays there are community meetings, and all the mats are filled. When I went, everyone was passing around tea and samosas and seemed to be conversing with everyone else. When Ritika introduced me, half the group crowded around to sit next to me, and though a few spoke English, all smiled and then came over to pose for a photo. Then they started blasting Katy Perry and danced like mad.

It was in this space that I saw Ritika in her element, laughing or dancing or just sitting with the group. She knew everyone by name — where they came from, what their story was, what kind of problems they were facing. During the weekly meetings, she would often lead group conversations. When attendance was sparse, she would sit and talk with whoever came through the door. At night, when the work was finished, she would give haircuts or curls or do makeup for other hijras. She could come to work decked out in whatever she wanted and wore bright scarfs and her stuffed bra and low cut short and a hairstyle that bunched her long hair in a playful ball on one side.

It made one wonder whether Ritika would walk the streets at night if she could find the sex she wanted without it, if there were a community of openly gay males who could openly say they cared for her. Perhaps in such a situation her love for her boyfriend would have a chance.

But it wasn’t the case, and instead Ritika found what she wanted through furtive night visits with anonymous faces, organized online. The second floor of MITR Trust was the full expanse of her refuge, and it was there that the carefree worlds of the traditional hijras, the millennial transsexuals, and the closeted gays melded and ended. Nobody would even follow me out into the street for a photograph; we had to shoot on the roof.

But things are improving.

If Ritika and Ruppa had been born at the same time, they might have followed the same paths. Thirty years ago, there were few options for a transsexual male. You became a hijra, or you hid. But attitudes across India’s cities have changed. Hijras can find places to relax that are not in a guru’s house, like MITR Trust. They can use the internet to find others like them and the refuges where their womanhood can erupt from within them unrestrained. The web has given them freedom and a way to broker services to those who desire what they have to offer. The modern city — powered by mass transit systems and remote communication — has also given the hijras and their customers anonymity. It is the perfect recipe for a booming sex industry, a new option for transsexuals. But it is also the foundations of their integration into society’s formal economy. Though they still face intense discrimination, opportunity is there where it wasn’t before: they can get education, they can get jobs. One hijra I spoke to worked full time as an electrician, others worked in call centers, and it was a hijra who served me the cup of McCafe that helped power the writing of this piece. They would not have found those jobs when Ruppa ran away.

One of India’s most closed and mysterious traditions is evolving because of the twin forces of economics and social progress. It will die, eventually, because the fear of the hijras and the belief in their mystic powers will completely disappear. It will die because gurus, at the heart of their hidden culture, are no longer needed to broker transactions or provide a community. They remain there as a force of tradition, or as pimps — providing some security against the violence of the streets the new hijras walk by night. It will die because hijras can now find work and independence without abandoning their transexuality.

The story of the Hijras speaks to the dizzying change that is happening in India. As the nation’s young generation migrates to the cities to find work, they enter a cosmopolitan culture vastly different from what their parents had experienced. Old class divisions are starting to fall away and the economic boom has brought opportunity to many who never had it before. The urban youth feels empowered, optimistic, and is starting to speak the rhetoric of a more egalitarian India.

It will take a while, because the shift is not being driven by legal change, and requires a cultural shift. But the stares will start to disappear and the accepting community that Ritika is striving so hard to find will find its foothold. It will be the last breath of the hijras.

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anonymous June 27, 2013 at 4:14 PM
I simply have one question out of pure curiosity: how did you engage the hijras into talking to you? I am an amateur journalist and find it difficult to approach people - but the hijras and the LGBT community interest me deeply.
Do you have any tips? Thank you!
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Life | Lifestyle | June 2013

Image gallery

Priya, a guru, (front) and members of her hijra community on the balcony Visitors at the MITR Trust, an NGO dedicated to helping New Delhi’s LGBT community. Ritika, left, leaves a meeting with Priya, a guru, right. Visitors socialize at the MITR Trust’s office. Radhika poses with the author at MITR Trust offices. Ritika with her sisters, nephews, and mother in the family home. Radhika Ritika on the roof of MITR Trust. The 22-year-old has seen everything.

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