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.