27 August 2007, Bombay
We climb up to the fourth floor of the meat market in Vakola, Santa Cruz East, on wooden stairs that are surprisingly sturdy. Upon entering the drop-in center (DIC) of The Hamsafar (“companion”) Trust, which caters to the hijra (the third sex) and MSM (Males having Sex with Males) communities, the first thing you see on the reception desk is a basket of condoms. Then you notice the pink curtains. The mission statement above the desk read:
Mission: A holistic approach to the rights and health of sexual minorities and promoting rational attitudes to sexuality
Today is a special “Transgender Mondays”- it is the day before the hijra festival, and many of the hijra and transgender clients are dressed up in their finest saris and jewelry. Fragrant flowers adorn their hair, some of which are made into buns with hair extensions. Most of the hijra are too, too thin – their falsies slipping out of their bras and sari blouses; a few have decent breasts and round bottoms, the result of hormones.
The celebrations begin with bhajans (devotional songs) sung before the alter bearing a wooden deity wearing a sari. Time is kept by hands clapping to the beat. After the prayers, one of the hijra places tilaks on everyone’s foreheads, both red (kumkum) and yellow tumeric, with a grain or two of rice. Then the dancing begins. Filmy music blasts out of a CD player and different hijra perform, solo (there is not enough room for more than one dancer at a time). Their dancing is expert, and suggestive, with a few “nontraditional” gestures thrown in, much to the amusement of the other celebrants. Appreciation is demonstrated by surprisingly loud clapping, a carry-over of the trademark double-clap of the hijra who beg for a living.
Strong communities of hijra exist in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In order for a hijra to become part of a community, they must be socialized by another hijra and adopted as a “sister” or as a “student.” Some of the hijra in this community were castrated in a procedure performed (without anesthesia and without instruments!?!) by a traditional healer somewhere in South Bombay. I am told that hot oil and water are poured on the genital area for 10 days after the procedure, and the hijra is isolated (cannot leave the house or look at a man) for 40 days. In the area that this drop-in center covers, there are from 5,000 to 7,000 hijra between the Malad station and Malvani, a resettlement slum in Malad, in the western suburb of Bombay.
This drop-in center of The Humsafar Trust (funded by NACO) provides workshops, a library of resources, and a place for the transgender and MSM community to gather. (Aside from “Transgender Mondays”, Friday evenings are for MSM.) The DIC also provides links to the Voluntary Counseling and Testing Centre and the STI Clinic. Outreach workers and members reach out to the community to distribute condoms and teach safe sex as well as inform about the services available at The Humsafar Trust.
Sachi Maniar, Avani Shah, Anurema Chatterjee, and other members of a group called Beyond Borders, are working with The Humsafar Trust to see if they can engage the community in awareness activities through the development of a cultural program. These young college women (girls, as they refer to themselves) have become accepted by the community, attend meetings after the Transgender and MSM gatherings, and seek to get the buy-in of the community in some kind of program that will bring attention to the needs of the community. They propose to have workshops, film screenings, and plays centered around the themes of gender, sexuality, and identity.
Today, the celebrations last an hour longer than the usual 6-8pm – a time period that allows for the beggars and wedding/birth ceremony dancers to get there after work, and for the sex workers to leave for their jobs. The beggars, dancers, and sex workers make a living based on the following myths:
- Eunuchs can bestow fertility – therefore they are paid for dancing (usually uninvited) at weddings or birth ceremonies and blessing the couple or child; or paid not to curse the recalcitrant victims of groups of hijra who extort money from shopkeepers or motorists and passengers caught at traffic stops.
- If you have sex with a eunuch, you won’t get AIDS.
- If you have sex with a eunuch, you will get cured of AIDS.