When Lord Rama was exiled from Ayodhya and his entire kingdom began to follow him into the forest, he told his disciples, “Men and women, please wipe your tears and go away.”
So they left. Still, a group of people stayed behind, at the edge of the forest, because they were neither men nor women. They were hijras, which in Urdu means something like eunuchs. Those people waited in the woods for 14 years until Lord Rama returned, which won them a special place in Hindu mythology.
There’s a bit of a mystery about the story’s origin - scholars say it’s not in the early versions of ancient Hindu texts - but in the past century this folk tale about the hijras’ loyalty has become an important piece of their identity. Hijras figure prominently in India’s Muslim history as well, serving as the sexless watchdogs of Mughal harems.
Today hijras, who include transgender, intersex and hermaphroditic people, are hard to miss. Dressed in glittering saris, their faces heavily coated in cheap makeup, they sashay through crowded intersections knocking on car windows with the edge of a coin and offering blessings. They dance at temples. They crash fancy weddings and birth ceremonies, singing bawdy songs and leaving with fistfuls of rupees.
Many Indians believe hijras have the power to bless or curse, and hijras trade off this uneasy ambivalence.
Gurvinder Kalra, a psychiatrist who has studied the hijra community, recalled the time when a troupe showed up uninvited at his nephew’s birth.
“The first thing people said was, ‘Oh my God, the hijras are here.'” Then there was a nervous pause, he said. Then laughter.
“There is this mixture of negativity and positivity, a laughter, a fear, this sense they are oddities,” Kalra said.
Behind the theatrics are often sad stories - of the sex trade and exploitation, cruel and dangerous castrations, being cast out and constantly humiliated. Within India’s LGBT community, the hijras maintain their own somewhat secretive subculture.
Radhika, a hijra living near a railway station in Mumbai, didn’t think of herself as different until she started school, a chapter of her life that did not last long. After being teased by other children, she realized she wasn’t exactly a girl, but she wasn’t a boy either. Her mother told her not to dwell on it.
“She told me, ‘You’re a girl. Stick to it.'”
It hasn’t been easy for Radhika. Her parents split up when she was young, and her mother died soon afterward. None of her relatives wanted to take care of her. After she was essentially abandoned, an older prostitute discovered her and put her to work in a garbage-strewn park selling sex. She was eight.
A decade and a half later, Radhika is still a sex worker. She wears dark saris, chipped purple nail polish, a gold ring in her left nostril and her hair down the middle of her back.
When asked how she feels each evening as she heads off to work, to stand in a line of other prostitutes along the railway tracks, waiting for customers, she shrugged.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I learned the world runs on money,” she said. “I learned that if I don’t have money, I don’t exist.'’
Puja, a 28-year-old hijra, said she felt a “sisterhood” with the other hijras in her house. Puja seemed a lighter spirit, happy in her own skin. She lives with three other transgender women and they cover their rent by dancing at temples and begging on the street.
“Personally, I don’t want to beg. Nobody wants to beg,” Puja said. “And the situation is worse now for begging. The police harass us. They don’t let us beg anymore on trains. But we aren’t given any other opportunity, and now you ask us not to beg? This is not fair. This is not justice.”
At end of interview, Puja looked at me and asked very earnestly:
“What do transgenders do in your country? Do they do sex work?”
The New York Times