One of the most bizarre encounters I have had in India occurred while I was sitting in a car at a traffic light. It’s not uncommon to have beggars or street vendors weave through the cars, two-wheelers, and autorickshaws stopped at a light. The vendors sell fruit, newspapers, toys, cell-phone charger cables, even Q-tips. This time, I watched a sari-clad woman approach one driver after another. Each one seemed to give her money. She came to our taxi… and the driver fished around for some change. She smiled at me and brushed her hand along my cheek. “Daahling,” she purred, as she moved to the next car. Um, ok. Read on…
A few weeks later, in a different taxi on the other side of town, I saw a woman on the side of the street; she paused to give a man a little pat. At least, she was dressed as a woman, but I had my doubts. The taxi driver saw me watching and chuckled. In his limited English, he pointed at the woman and said “50/50!” with a knowing smile and a laugh.
These “women” are hijra, transvestites. Actually, it’s not that simple. As Wikipedia explains, they are considered part of the “third gender”, neither male nor female. (Some are truly intersexual, some have had surgical modifications, and some may be simply transvestites). Indian society seems to have an uncomfortable relationship with the hijra, in many ways treating them as outcastes. Interestingly, however, hijra are an essential part of certain occasions (such as weddings and birth celebrations). As Wikipedia notes, “Although the hijra are most often uninvited, the host usually pays the hijras a fee. Many fear the hijras‘ curse if they are not appeased, bringing bad luck or infertility, but for the fee they receive, they can bless goodwill and fortune on to the newly born. Hijras are said to be able to do this because, since they do not engage in sexual activities, they accumulate their sexual energy which they can use to either bestow a boon or a bane.”
Indeed, the drivers I saw tipping the woman were, I suppose, trying to discourage the hijra from applying any curses on them.
There is a fascinating look into the hijra culture, which is notoriously closed to outsiders, embedded in the book City of Djinns: a year in Delhi by William Dalrymple (middle of chapter six). “Through no fault of their own, through deformity or genetic accident, they found themselves marginalized by Indian society, turned into something half-way between a talisman and an object of ridicule. Yet in their own terms they seem fairly content with their lives, and they do not rail against the fate that has left them with this role.” [I recommend this book, too, for its funny and insightful portrayal of Delhi and its history.]
This post was transferred from MobileMe to WordPress in 2020, with an effort to retain the content as close to the original as possible; I recognize that some comments may now seem dated or some links may now be broken.