Mona Ahmed’s neighbours – some sex workers, gravediggers, and beggars – still hang their laundry out to dry on the tombstones that surround her home in Mehndiyan, a graveyard compound in central Delhi where she’s lived for the past three decades.
Mehndiyan was first built to house a mysterious 19th-century religious sect, according to local lore in the Indian capital. But today it forms a warren of improvised homes, graves, and patches of shade where entrepreneurs and holy men sell car parking space, herbal cures and spiritual trinkets.
For Ahmed, an 80-year-old transgender woman, the once-desired opportunity to leave this peculiar community for a home among Delhi’s apartment blocks now holds little appeal, said Urvashi Butalia, a feminist author and friend of Ahmed.
Since she fled her family home in 1955, advances in gender reassignment surgery and LGBT rights have given “hijras”, as they are called, like Ahmed – male-to-female transsexuals recognised since 2014 as part of India’s “third gender” – new opportunities to integrate.
But, to Ahmed, Delhi’s boxy flats now resemble prison cells, after a life lived in public, plying hijras’ traditional trade of dancing at celebrations, while offering an open door to young transgender people in search of advice, said Butalia.
“The once desirable ‘normal’ life, is not so desirable any more,” Butalia told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview before giving a lecture in London on her two decade friendship with Ahmed. “Ostensibly, she could be living an normal life, but it no longer appeals to her because she can see the loneliness of it.”
In the last decade, activists such as Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, founder of the Asia Pacific Transgender Network, have raised the public visibility of India’s transgender women, who have traditionally been treated with suspicion.
Hijras, who feature in Hindu mythology, have long been considered auspicious in India, where their blessings are sought at weddings and births. But unlike Tripathi, from a wealthy family at the apex of India’s caste ladder, many of the country’s estimated two million transgender people live in poverty.
In her youth, Ahmed, like most performing hijras, became an “apostle” of one of a handful of male gurus who run Delhi’s hijra underworld, said Butalia, a well-known publisher and academic in India.
These patriarchs are the absolute authority in hijra groups, a unique form of “family” that strictly prohibits contact with certain outsiders, including police, she added. “The city is divided up between groups of hijras who claim certain territories for their own, and they build an extensive network of the underclass – the gardeners, the housekeepers, the shopkeepers and more – who keep them informed of births and marriages, new jobs, new homes and all kinds of auspicious and happy occasions,” she said.
In India’s mushrooming capital, blessings represent something of a growth industry, she said.
Newly married couples will hand over Rs 20,000 to avoid the public shaming that hijras can bring by exposing their bodies while superstitious industrialists can pay five times that to bless a new factory.
But those who conduct blessings represent the upper echelons of hijra society, while many continue to scrape a living as sex workers or beggars, blocked from renting homes, and often entirely cut off from mainstream society, said Butalia.
While young transgender people are no longer forced to go through the painful and dangerous backroom castration that Ahmed endured, public acceptance is still far off, she said.
Mehndiyan’s residents are legally deemed “squatters” and lack titles to recognise their properties, despite many homes having stood for decades.
The graveyard has resisted Delhi’s fast-paced urban development as authorities fear protest from religious communities if they were to allow construction on the site, which is also home to two schools of Islamic study.
Ahmed first staked out a plot in the compound in the mid-1980s by making an unverifiable claim that a handful of aged headstones, whose names had been washed clean over time, belonged to her ancestors.
From a square barely big enough to sleep on, she now has a house that includes rooms for her nephew and a domestic helper – expanding by taking advantage of others’ wariness of hijras.
But all this time her door has never been locked and, even after robberies, she welcomes strangers, many young people on the road to becoming hijras, who come in search of advice.
“The door is never locked,” said Butalia. “You just push it open and walk in, and she might be sleeping on her bed but you can go in and watch television while she’s sleeping, it makes no difference to her.”
Now nearing 81, Ahmed knows her unique home will probably last only as long as she survives before neighbours, unlikely to recognise her nephew’s claim to the land, take the space, Butalia said.
“Although she doesn’t get crowds of people coming there any more, the place is still open and if anyone wants to come they can. She won’t turn them away.”
This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.