The first time I noticed them was when I was around seven, at a wedding in the family. They were, to me, strange-looking men -- clad in saris and wearing women's jewellery and make-up -- singing loudly and dancing awkwardly in our front yard. Some years later, at another wedding the same thing happened. By this time I had realised they were different, unlike anyone else around us. But who were these men and why did they dress up as women? To make money, I was told. As the years went by, friends and -- equally ignorant, if not more -- told me that these men were called hijras. "What a strange world!" I thought back then.
My first encounter with them happened much later: while in college, I would often travel from Lucknow to Delhi and the train made a customary stop at the outer stations. That is where they'd get into the train and bully the hapless passengers to pay them. "Ten rupees," they'd say. They would impose themselves on the men -- far too few women travelled alone in those days -- some of who gave in while others engaged in verbal brawls with them. A series of abuses and threats to flash would follow. Although I had no idea why men would flash at men, I would still be petrified and as advised by a friend, would look away, usually out of the window, frantically praying that they didn't come to me. My prayers were answered. In all those trips -- I made at least a dozen of them alone -- they never troubled me. Once in Delhi, I saw them on the roads, harassing people to pay them, usually at the traffic signals. By now, I had learnt to deal with them. Eventually they ceased to matter.
"Manabi was born a male to a not-so-well-off family in West Bengal and had always felt like a woman trapped in the body of a man."
I was reminded of them when the Supreme Court recognised the third gender last year, and I realised that even after so many years, I knew nothing about them. Just then, as if by magic, the chapter I was reading in William Dalrymple's City of Djinns, led to a long, detailed piece on the community that answered all my questions.
In ancient India castration was considered the most severe form of punishment, and it degraded the man to such a level that he was shunned by society in all possible ways. He was not given work and no one would trade with him. Such a man would then resort to dancing on the streets and entertaining people to earn his living. The other way was to be born a hermaphrodite, which in itself was -- and still is -- considered such a curse that the family spares no time in abandoning the child. Since both these groups were not accepted in the society, these men -- or women -- formed their own alternate society and came to be called hijras.
While the Hindus relegated the sexless to the deepest dungeons of the society, the Muslims treated eunuchs with respect: they considered them pious and trustworthy due to their lack of sexuality. They were appointed as keepers of the faith, confidantes of the kings and friends of queens; they helped raise children, guarded the harems and were placed as spies. They rose to powerful positions not only within the families but also in the courts, especially during the Mughal period.
But the respect and the stature went down with the Mughal Empire.
A 100 years later all eunuchs, Hindu or Muslim, share the same fate: ostracisation - not only by their families but also by the society. They are shunned for being born different - in body or in mind - and are forced to live a life only a notch better than that of a beggar. Those who do not beg get into prostitution. Even the educated ones from well-off families often find themselves at the same crossroads as their uneducated, underprivileged counterparts: the stigma associated with being "sexless", bisexual or transsexual does not discriminate on the basis of religion, caste, or class.
"In Manabi's victory I finally see a ray of hope for the entire transgender community and I only hope this serves as a catalyst for changing our mindset towards the third gender."
Even with their new legal status, I was not sure if they would live any better. It is one thing to make a law, quite another to change the mindset of an entire society. And then, last week, I learnt about Manabi Bandyopadhyay.
Manabi was born a male to a not-so-well-off family in West Bengal and had always felt like a woman trapped in the body of a man. She would stealthily dress up as a girl at home. But for the world she remained a man until she decided to undergo sex-change surgery much later in her life (2003). The surgery that was supposed to have ended her woes, however, was only the beginning to a new set of troubles.
Uncomfortable with her bold decision, the society let its wrath lose on her. She suffered mental, physical and emotional abuse. She was suspended from her college - where she was a professor - and was challenged in court for marrying a man. The woman, however, did not give up. With the law by her side she overcame all challenges one by one. And now she is all set to become the first ever transgender principal of a college.
In Manabi's victory I finally see a ray of hope for the entire transgender community and I only hope this serves as a catalyst for changing our mindset towards the third gender.