In India, the existence of the transgender community dates back to the 9th century BC, with Sanskrit identifying the third gender as ‘napumsaka’. It is interesting to note that the two ancient Hindu epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, along with Puranas, Manu Smriti, Kama Sutra, the earliest Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam, the Vedas, and political documents from the Mughal era contain evidence of the third gender or Hijras in ancient India. Even the Jain scriptures from ancient times have the concept of ‘psychological sex’ similar to the theory of gender performativity and gender expression. The Hijra community in India comprises of eunuchs, hermaphrodites (or intersex), and transgender people who may be pre-operative, post-operative, or non-operative individuals and goes by varied names throughout the country– Kinnars or Kinners, Kothis, Jogtis, Shiv-Shakthis, Jogappas, Khawaja Sira, Khasuaa or Khusaraa, Khadras, Aravanis, and Moorats. Hijras, who are considered to be divine and respectfully called to seek blessings on occasions of marriages and childbirth in the Indian culture, face the two-sided atrocities and ignorance at the hands of the same Indian society. The place of the third gender has always been controversial in socio-legal circumstances throughout the world. In India, the status of transgender identity was openly acceptable since the Vedic times, but in the nineteenth century, when the colonial powers came in, the third gender was criminalized, and identity and expression were curbed. Since then, the community is struggling to express, perform, and survive in the country, even after the remarkable judgement by the Supreme Court (NALSA v/s Union of India) in 2014, where the term ‘third gender’ was announced as legally acceptable for all purposes. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 is regressive to the 2014 SC judgement and has received major backlash and protests by transgender people from all corners of the country.
“She was slut-shamed for stepping out at night for the eunuch rituals and dances, and then they murdered her,” Madhuri* bit her lip. This was the seventh time she repeated this sentence. I turned my head to the left to take another glance at the graves outside the arched passage.
We were sitting on the white marble floor of this small low-ceiling chamber at the Hijron ka Khanqah in Mehrauli, Delhi. And by we, I mean Madhuri, the caretaker of this Khanqah, a friend of mine, and I. It took us 45 minutes to finally locate this place, and in those 45 minutes, every bewildering look we received from shopkeepers and auto drivers of Mehrauli on mentioning the name of the place told us they hadn’t heard the name before in their lives. Even though the gali is a local marketplace, the space in four walls remains serene and calm, away from the hullabaloo of the outside world.
I was lucky to have visited the Khanqah today at this particular hour of noon, for otherwise, I would have missed Madhuri, and this story would have never reached the world.
“How would you describe your relationship with her?” I asked, recalling an article about guru-chela relationships I came across the other day.
“One-sided,” Madhuri moaned. It was only then that I noticed her eyebrows were neatly shaped and done, and the forehead had lines that gave away her aging skin but lacked any sign of emotion as if she was repeating this story for the hundredth time now. With tight lips that allowed a hint of a dimple below her lips, she spoke again, “My former guru Rano* was free as a bird; a woman who knew what self-love feels like. She loved solah shringar and gajra and was a walking supermodel with the trendiest blouses and colors brighter than the rainbow. But the money she spent on herself was what we, her chelas, brought in. As her children, we would obey our mother’s commands and hand over to her every penny we made from the dances and begging, and she would keep it all to herself. Unlike other Hijras in our community who strictly followed the unspoken protocol of stepping out during the day and staying indoors as soon as it got dark, she would go out at night. “Weddings take place at night. What’s the point of going in the daylight then?” she would say. She wasn’t interested in badhai, and would rather go in baraat ceremonies. She had her own way of doing this. She would first enter the baraat and take neg (a monetary present as a traditional custom given to guests during occasions like weddings) from both the groom’s father and mother separately. And later would go stand beside the center stage where the couple would sit, and ask for neg from them as well. Other times, she would go to wedding banquets in Lajpat Nagar, RK Puram, and Pragati Maidan, would collect neg from each of them, and return home only when her purse would be overflowing. That’s what triggered arguments between the Hijra families and gurus from other homes who would call her a ‘whore’ and consider her to be in the prostitution business. All other children left her for other gurus, and only two of us stayed back.”
“How did it reach the point that she was killed?”
Madhuri licked her chapped lips, extended her hands into her bag to reach for her lip balm, and massaged it over her lips with her forefinger. Licking her lips again, she said, “It was all because of jealousy. Other Hijra families were skeptical of her appearance. I tell you, she looked no less than a fairy princess. When she walked, it looked as if she was flying. Being utmost confident in your skin is always attractive. She was attractive. But her actions weren’t appreciated. They hated her for having worn all the trendy clothes and expensive jewelry that she was gifted by her connections. They would ask her not to come to their specified area and that their sea of local Hijras that she, an outsider, had entered was polluted. At last, she was murdered by two hitmen in the forest, just walking distance from here, and her body was found after two to three days. The Hijra community of Delhi is too conscious of the members, and so she, who was originally from a Punjabi-Hindu family of butchers, threatened the consciousness of local Muslim Hijra families. Everything fell apart after that. I was forced to seek another guru’s shelter and start anew. But Rano has remained with me every day. She was the most carefree person I had ever met. Someone who loved herself and her freedom more than anyone and anything in this world. She might not have been a compassionate guru but she was an honest mother.”
I finally came to the question I was eagerly waiting for, “What do you think about the transgender adoption rights in India?” Parenting Rights in India are limited to heterosexual couples and single cishet individuals. Be it the Hindu Adoption Act of 1956, Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2015, or the Adoption Regulations of 2017, there is absolutely no mention of same-sex couples, transgender, or non-binary people.
“When a heterosexual person wishes to adopt a child and experience the bliss of parenthood, everybody and even the law makes sure it’s a mandated right for them to have it all on a silver plate. But when it comes to us, there’s a lot of beating around the bush. People make children when they like and abandon them when they don’t want them anymore. But it’s only us who know the value of parenthood. We, who cannot have children of our own. We find abandoned children on the road every other day but cannot take care of them without being criticized and humiliated by society."
‘How dare she think she can raise a child? She will do to the baby what she herself is,’ they would say. Whenever I or those like me come across a homeless child, we straightaway take them to the police station to avoid such verbal (and even sometimes physical) trauma," Madhuri mentioned.
I felt a weight on my chest. The privileges I have had as a cishet woman flashed in front of my eyes. Since childhood, I have always heard those around me speaking about marriage and a family of one’s own. Never did I realize that there were those who had to endure suffering for merely dreaming of parenthood. After a long pause, I gathered my thoughts to ask again,
“Do you know someone in the Hijra family who has been raising a child?” I think she sensed the discretion in my voice and words because she smiled.
“Your guru had adopted a child?”
“Yes. A boy.”
“Was that what you meant when you called her an ‘honest mother’ ?”
“Yes,” Madhuri let out a heavy sigh. She looked over my shoulder as she spoke, “One day, a woman walked into our home with a baby boy and handed it over to Rano. It was a baby born out of infidelity. I think she knew she wasn’t fit to raise a child when she said Yes. After everything you go through as a transgender in this society, you become too obsessed with independence and freedom in the Hijra community here that it is difficult to let go of the self-centered lifestyle and be responsible for another human. But she also knew what she was doing. A homeless child needed affection, and she was financially capable of providing for him. The soft side of her that not many had seen was what brought her to terms with motherhood. She was a proud parent who proved no law could keep a passionate mother away from a child who needed love.”
“What happened to the child after she died?”
“He was taken care of by a sister-chela of mine in the family I sought after Rano was gone. She admitted him into a hostel and provided for his education. He graduated from university and is a Physical Education teacher today. He is married, and the family lives together in Paharganj. Their home is full of photo albums from his childhood and their memories as a family.”
I smiled through tears. Madhuri smiled back.
“It was all because of Rano that an unwanted baby did not meet the disastrous fate of being killed. He is a well-educated gentleman with a happy family: him, his wife, and a Hijra mother.”
1. This Interview was recorded on 16 October 2021 at Hijron ka Khanqah, Mehrauli, Delhi, for the Likho Fellowship 2021.
2. All the names mentioned in the article have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.