In the decade spanning my first visit to my field-research sites in 2008 to my last in 2018, we all discovered each other’s HIV status. We learned it from gossip, or confidences made in the middle of the night when we were feeling particularly melancholic, which was often. Moreover, the staff members of the NGO and the hospital serving small villages and towns did not keep their mouths shut: the HIV counselor would tell the NGO staff, and the NGO staff would tell our neighbours.

Meanwhile, the HIV-prevention programmes advertised constantly framed us as potential carriers of disease. The men who would visit us knew as well, so it is not as if it was our sole burden and responsibility to use a condom. One young man told Jaina that he was going to fuck another hijra. Jaina immediately told him, “Look, she has HIV, use a condom.” He said, “No, I don’t like it and I’m not going to use one.”

Jaina got angry, roped me in and said, “Look at what he is saying.” The young man quickly backed down and said he was not going to fuck that hijra, that he was just joking. With everyday exchanges like this, HIV and AIDS got absorbed into the web of relatedness in the village and into the large swath of poverty-stricken India as well. Unlike the beautiful, rich, white gay men of the epidemic, who were not meant to die in their youth, the poor hijra and her lovers in this corner of the world were the population to “let die.”

Absent were the metaphors of war that literary gay men used to characterised the loss of their and their friends’ lives in the West during the pre-ART days – the only instance when young white men died after WWII – and also absent was the rage or the feeling of injustice at those deaths. Yet this argument raises an old Foucauldian dilemma: biopower works differently at the level of the population than at the level of the person. Even if hijras are allowed to die by the biopolitical state, this does not immediately translate into why we would not use condoms. In other words, the key questions remain to be posed: How were we living with the risk of death that not using condoms entailed? And what was our relationship to dying that not using ART entailed?

Hijras would occasionally talk about their HIV status and living with HIV, and in this book I have sought to follow hijras’ sensibility in keeping that discourse veiled precisely to reveal the gap between the rules of global health and the everyday ordinary preoccupations of a high-risk group that made following those rules difficult. This book reflects the concerns that hijras had at the level of the everyday: love, sex, family, money – not HIV/AIDS, condoms, health, and death. Concerns of the everyday triumphed over a future that became more and more uncertain with sero-conversion. The experiences of hijras that I have tracked in the preceding chapters show that their lives were more devoted to the aesthetics of living – the flirting in the marketplaces and the fucking in the fields, the participation and modulation of the violence in domestic life, the demand for accountability arising out of a logic of non-cruelty in the transactions on the trains, and finally the labour of loving – maybe without optimism, but always with the hope that another world will unfold. “Accusations of illiteracy” and ideas of “condom fatigue” are folded into life and the everyday in unrecognised forms.

But still anxieties about contracting HIV did persist in Odisha, and the discovery of one’s HIV status did result in extreme distress – nobody wanted to die from it. The sexuality I am describing is not about fetishising the virus that marks the subculture of barebacking; rather, it is about not bother- ing with condoms in the hope that we don’t contract HIV.

Mangu once dismissed the use of condoms by saying, “When a man is fucking, even if a tiger approaches to kill him, he won’t stop having sex, he will first finish then he will see to the tiger – how will he stop to wear a condom?” I have attempted to show what is at stake in hijras’ sexuality that would muffle the discourse of the risks of contracting HIV. The pathology of the disease is such that it lends itself to a risk that is never then and there, like a tiger, but later in a future and meshed in a set of relations that is always uncertain.

Sex was always in such shortage that one existed in debt to desire, and emancipation from such a debt was the promise of love sought by hijras. HIV would come up when yet another hijra would die of AIDS; but it was never with a note of urgency, but rather with a sense of uncertainty – one that would be punctured with Damru beginning to dance or somebody distracting everybody with tales of passionate attraction. I, too, stopped raising the topic after a few years, since I was not sure I had any answers to why we were dying from a preventable and manageable disease. I once asked Guruma of Jajpur whether, to her knowledge, a lot of hijras had died of AIDS. She replied, “A lot of my sanghwale [associates] died in the last 20 years; now that I think of it, I know it was because of AIDS, though at that time we thought it was because they were alcoholics, or got TB, or diarrhea.” Guruma did not say this with anger or grief but only with a barely discernible tinge of pathos. She didn’t say anything more, and I did not know what else to ask. Now, I could read our snippets and silences as of the epidemic being folded into ordinary everyday lives and realities, rather than disrupting them.

Mangu’s observation about sex was similar to what Foucault wrote in The History of Sexuality: “Sex is worth dying for. . .And while the deployment of sexuality permits the techniques of power to invest life, the fictitious point of sex, itself marked by that deployment, exerts enough charm on everyone for them to accept hearing the grumble of death within it.” Though Foucault was writing before the birth of the epidemic, his words are prescient insofar as the grumblings of death made by the disease and the epidemic via biomedicine were accepted by hijras about whom I have written. Refusing that grumbling would not mean avoiding sex, given the availability of condoms, but it would be a refusal of the possibility of love and living, if not life. Foucault claimed in an interview that what bothers people is not that two boys have sex but that they “wake up the next morning with a smile on their faces . . . hold hands and kiss each other tenderly and thereby affirm their happiness.”

There is a relationship between sex and love for hijras that I describe here that was not like the stranger intimacy that has been studied by queer theorists (though there was a lot of that in rural Odisha between hijras and the men that traveled through the train stations of these districts). Neither was it the gay love that Foucault is talking about, one that entails tenderness, even though there was a great deal of that, as well. The relationship between sex and love that I have tried to describe is one in which sex is always seeded with love, allowing for beneficial misrecognitions thatsustain living, if not life.

Leo Bersani, writing about S/M, critiques Foucault’s formulation of gay love as desexualising pleasure and points out that “the most radical function of S/M is not primarily in its exposing the hypocritically denied centrality of erotically stimulating power plays in ‘normal’ society; it lies rather in its truly shocking revelation that for the sake of that stimulation human beings may be willing to give up even a minimal control over their environment.” Through this reading Bersani recovers the sex that Foucault seemed willing to forsake and extends Foucault’s argument to make place for fantasies. Bersani writes, “The shadowy figures of the loving child and the daddy he coaxed out of his terrorising and terrorised castrating identity, figures who may have helped them, Foucault’s couple, to spend a night of penile oblation.”

Excerpted with permission from Hijras, Lovers, Brothers: Surviving Sex and Poverty in Rural India, Vaibhav Saria, Oxford.