BOOK EXCERPT

Why I chose to become a hijra: Laxmi in her own words

Born biologically male, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi chose to be transformed into Laxmi.

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.

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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.