When Rama was leaving Ayodhya to begin his fourteen-year exile in the forest, such was his popularity, so great the devotion of his people towards him, that the entire kingdom followed him to the outskirts of the city. Touched by their support, Rama turned around and told his subjects, “I request all the men and women gathered here who truly love me, to please return to their homes. Once the duration of my exile is complete, I shall be back with you.”
At the completion of his exile, when Rama returned, he saw that there were several people still waiting at the same spot on the outskirts of Ayodhya where he had bid them farewell all those years ago. These were the hijras, my brethren, those who did not return to their homes, since Rama had implored only the men and women to do so and they were neither.
Overwhelmed by their dedication, Rama granted them, and future generations of hijras, a boon – we would have the power to grant both blessings and curses to men and women, which would always come true. When hijras were patronised and indulged by royalty, they were not only visible but respected.
It is this history and tradition of the hijra culture – rich, strong, textured – in our country that I found myself most drawn to.
A tradition in which even the mighty, macho warrior Arjuna could don the garb and identity of a woman and become Brihannala effortlessly. A culture that offers us characters such as Shikhandi, the transgender who managed to thwart the invincible Bhishma. Where the ultimate male god, whose linga unmarried girls worship, praying and observing fasts for strong, able-bodied men as their husbands, also acknowledges his feminine self, and even embraces it, literally. They subsume within one another, fuse to become Shiva–Shakti—the Ardhanareshwara. A history that speaks of hijras in eminent positions, as political advisors to kings, administrators, generals, and guardians of harems.
I embraced the identity of hijra deliberately; it was a conscious choice I made, one that not too many understood. Why, after all, would a male child belonging to an affluent, upright Brahmin family initiate himself into a cult, a tradition, a section of society that’s much reviled by the mainstream? Why, indeed?
It is seldom by choice that most hijras are hijras – it is, in fact, the lack of education and opportunities that forces many to find refuge in the hijra world. A lack that I, by the grace of god and my parents, never faced. So why would I, a privileged boy, become a hijra?
I was barely twenty when I met Lawrence Francis, aka Shabina, back in 1998. She was the first hijra I met and became close to. I used to work as a model coordinator in those days, and Shabina was the brother of a friend who worked as a model.
Until then I was like any other person, frightened and somewhat repulsed by hijras. I met Shabina at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station and coaxed her into going with me to Café Mondegar for a bite and a chat. I asked her many questions and learnt a lot about hijras in the process – the history, rituals, lifestyles, sources of income, the concept of gharanas, how your guru is like your parent, you are the chela, and it becomes a family.
A few days later, I went to Byculla where the head of Shabina’s Lashkar gharana, Lata Naik, held court. Nervous and unsure, I finally gathered the courage to ask those assembled there, “I want to become a chela. How much is the fee?” To my surprise, they all burst out laughing.
Lata guru, who went on to become my guru, said, “There is no fee, child. If you want to become my chela, come.” My initiation ceremony, the reet, followed soon after – I was given two green saris, which are known as jogjanam saris signifying the inculcation into a new way of life, and crowned with the community dupatta.
Whenever I hear the term “transgender”, which we hear so often these days, I always feel that it implies “transcending gender”. Identifying as transgender, I connect with being hijra the most – the word “hij” refers to a holy soul and the body in which it resides is “hijra”, hence they say the soul is hijra.
As hijra, I can access both states of being – and I can also go beyond.
In my strongest moments, I feel what a man feels, the power games that they like to play. And when I’m shining in my femininity, driving men crazy, I feel more like a woman than even the most womanly of women one could imagine. Like Cleopatra, or Umrao Jaan – both ultimate symbols of femininity.
I would really question things at one point. What is it about me that attracts men, I would wonder. These “straight”, patriarchal men. I am not a woman; I am feminine, but I am not a woman biologically, so what are these men about? So many men who’ve called me mother or sister have turned to me on an evening when they were drunk or when they thought I was drunk and have wanted to sleep with me.
But I don’t need motherfuckers or sisterfuckers in my life. “Get the hell out of here!” I would respond. They were ready to sacrifice everything to be in bed with me, even our relationship. I wondered then how that would happen – all these men were, in the eyes of the world and their own, heterosexual. And then I realised that the notion of heterosexual is, in itself, questionable.
If you think about it, a woman is complete – she is XX and therefore complete. It is the man who is XY and hence has the woman in him. This “manliness”, then, is just a show, nothing but a convenient construct, a pretence to keep patriarchy alive, to keep women tamed. I am fortunate to be able to traverse through both genders so well. It is why I understand patriarchy inside out, and why I can empathise with the things women do, and how they think, act and behave.
Being a woman is so beautiful though – if I could always stay in that state of being, if I had the choice, I probably would.
Again, I am not alone in this. Our heritage is full of stories that tell us how being a woman is a preferred state of being and existence. Take, for instance the story of King Bhangashvana, recounted in the Mahabharata, who lived his life both as a man and as a woman and who, when faced with the ultimate choice, opted to be a woman. And this was a king!
There is also that unmistakable element of mystery about a woman, which is so alluring, which everyone wants and desires, and something that men can never experience. Tera charitra swayam Brahma nahi samajh paaye, they say – the creator himself could not fathom womanhood and a woman’s character.
Being a woman is not easy in our culture, however. I often wonder how I come across as a woman. Slutty and available? Perhaps. But why? Is it because ever since I had the choice about my body and who I would give it to, I have only slept for pleasure? Or because I have opinions, strong ones, that I’m not scared to voice?
Women always have an image that men or the world constructs for them – it’s how they see them and how women see themselves. But that’s not how I feel. I think everyone creates their own parameters and boundaries and they live and function within them– charitra ke maap dand. And it’s the same for me.
As far as I’m concerned, I am the Ganga, the holy Ganga. My purity cannot be measured by society’s standards. My purity is to my own self, to my own parameters. It is how I have conducted myself throughout my life and continue to. I decide my own standards and I abide by them. I have my own sense of integrity that’s very strong and in place, which nobody else has decided for me. My spirituality is to my soul, and it is for me. It should work for me. The world cannot have a say in that.
Excerpted with permission from Red Lipstick: The Men In My Life, Laxmi, with Pooja Pande, Penguin Viking.