Tuesday, May 13, 2014

On The Fringes

The first time I noticed them was when I was around seven, at a wedding in the family: just a few days after the wedding, I had found some strange looking men -- clad in saris and wearing women's jewellery and make up -- singing loudly and dancing awkwardly in our front yard. The young male members of the family had attended them, and we -- the children -- were not allowed outside. Some years later, at another wedding the same thing had happened, by this time I was old enough to realise that they were different, unlike any one else around us, but who were these men and why did they dress up as women? To make money, I was told. Some more years later, by sources such as friends and cousins -- equally ignorant, if not more -- I learnt that these were men who like to dress up as women and were called hijras. "What a strange world!" I had thought.

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 -- usually one of the smaller 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 men gave in while some -- clearly more adventurous of the lot -- would get into a verbal brawl with them. A series of abuses and threats to flash would follow. Although I had no idea why would men 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 don't come to me; my prayers never went waste, 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.

I was reminded of them some weeks ago after the Supreme Court recognised the third gender, 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, led to a long, detailed piece on the community and I suddenly had the answers to all my questions.

In ancient India it was often castration that rendered a man sexless. It was considered the most severe form of punishment, and it degraded the man to such a level that he was shunned by the 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 asexual, 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 the hijras

The Muslims however treated the eunuchs with respect: they were considered pious and trustworthy due to their lack of sexuality. They were 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 that was another era, an era that ended with the fall of the Mughals almost a hundred years ago and with it ended the respect.

Today, a hundred 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 -- rather force people to pay up, get into prostitution where they are exploited even more. Years of humiliation however, seems to have made them resilient and perhaps to counter their ostracisation, they have created their own alternate world. They might not have a family but they do live in common households with a guru -- often an elderly figure -- acting as their head. In some cases, they even have adopted children; this arrangement seems as good as a family -- just that the members are not related by birth but by destiny. In that sense, they do not seem to be any different than us -- the men and the women. But they, unlike us, continue to lead a marginalised life.

I am not sure if the new legal status will bring any change in their social status. Adding a column in a form, after all, is one thing -- an act of law. But adding a new section in the society is yet another -- an act of inclusiveness. It has taken us close to seventy years to acknowledge them, accepting them as a part of our own might take another hundred. In the meantime, I just hope we can try to show them some respect.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Old Boys

One of the first things that we -- my husband and I -- bought immediately after getting married was a handsome steel-grey Sony music system. It came with a multi CD changer which also played MP3s, two cassette players, a Radio, a VCD player and four speakers; twelve years ago it made for an impressive buy, as impressive as its price: twenty three thousand rupees. The amount was almost twice as much as my salary and the only reason we could afford it was the money that we had received at the wedding in lieu of feeding more than three hundred hungry souls. For husband, who loves his music to the point of madness, it was a dream that had come true (until then, I had thought our marriage was that dream).

After much thought it was set up in our bedroom, right next to the window, on the same cardboard box that it had come in. Husband's collection of music cassettes was set up on another carton next to the bed. He would diligently clean and dust them every single day, even maintained a log book with the names of the cassettes and expected me to label and number them, I had obviously found some way to escape. Sometimes it seemed that it was the music system that he had married, not me.

Over the next few months (or was it years?), every Sunday evening was spent at the Music World in Ansal Plaza, twenty five kilometers from home, we would go all the way,  just to buy a cassette or two -- the CDs were too expensive to be bought regularly and were reserved only for special occasions. It is from that store, during that period that the most amazing music made way into my life -- from the little heard Kishore Kumar songs to evergreen Asha Bhonsle, from RDs madness to SDs classics, from Bong Pop to English Rock -- most of the music that I now know -- and love -- is a result of the innumerable hours spent in the company of the music system.

While I learnt my music on it, Mishti learnt her motor skills with it. The knobs and switches  acted as the perfect stress buster for the toddler and in her walker, she would walk up to the cabinet to fidget with the buttons and create her own symphony -- of music and lights, it was not only our friend now, but hers too.

Some years later, we acquired an Ipod and a few months after that, a Bose docking station. The new, fancy gadgets became the centre of our attention and the old boy was left for Mishti to play with. And since our return from Bangalore, for the past two and a half years, it had been sitting in the store-room, yet to be unpacked. With two laptops, two Bose systems and an Ipod, we did not need it anymore. In the last few months, on a drive to rid the house of all old and redundant stuff, we had been contemplating disposing it off but something -- don't know if it was love or guilt --  kept pulling us back.

Last Sunday, after making up his mind to give it away, when my husband finally took it out and unpacked it, after many years I saw in him the man who had, twelve years ago, brought home his dream. He set it up with same love and care, cleaned it with same diligence, dug out his priceless collection of RD and Kishore Kumar, of Michael Jackson and Nachiketa with same pride and has since been spending all his waking hours with it -- the same way. While I know they will part soon, for now I am glad to see my two old boys together.