Vikas, also known as ‘Whiskey’ in the hijra community, is 26 years old. I noticed that all my respondents would refer to themselves by their female name that was assigned to them after joining the community but would hesitate to tell me the name they had before.
On asking why, some of them explained that referring to their previous life was seen negatively within the community and therefore, they did not want to be caught recalling their former identity. Some seemed uncomfortable when I asked them what their former name was and some even stopped me from writing them down as they did not want to leave any evidence of having revealed their former identity, fearing a negative response in case any senior member of the hijra community found out.
When I first met Whiskey, she was in male clothes, had short hair and wore dull colors. However, when I met her at a wedding a few weeks later, at the wedding of an NGO member’s brother, I could barely recognize her. It was in the peak summer month of June. I was invited, as were many others who were associated with the NGO. Even though I went to the wedding as a guest, I couldn’t help but make observations as a researcher while I was there. It was an opportunity to witness a social gathering where the respondents too, were invited as guests, rather than as members of the community who would otherwise attend the wedding to perform toli-badhai and bless the occasion.
Whiskey looked more beautiful than any woman present there and stood out amongst the crowd. People could barely keep their eyes off her. She was glowing and her smile was radiant. Her make-up was flawless and her clothes, bright pink, were designed by herself. She wore a long wig on her head. She would frequently sway her long braid from one side to the other and if she caught someone looking at her, she would blush, making her cheeks look as pink as her dress.
“My family is aware of my female characteristics, but they are in denial about my identity. They force me to behave like a ‘man’ at home. I had left home for a few months after my brother humiliated me in front of my entire family, pointing out the way I walk, talk and behave. We had got into some fight. My brother always condemned my behaviour and said that it was not suitable and that it brought shame to the family.
I decided to live on my own. That time I didn’t know much and I was apprehensive about finding a guru because I had heard that some of them are very mean. My kothi friends told me these things so I got scared. But 2 years ago, I found myself a guru because I found out that was the only legitimate way to enter the hijra community. Without a guru, a hijra cannot have an identity.
Just the way a woman can only have an identity after she gets married, we too can only have a hijra identity if we become a chela to a guru.
A while back, my mother fell really sick and appealed to me by emotionally blackmailing me to return home. I was scared that my mother’s condition would worsen if I cause her any stress. That is why I decided to move back home and now I am forced to lead a dual life. My parents insisted that I got married. There was no choice. My family told me that I was free to behave however I liked outside the house as long as I stayed with my wife and behaved like a man at home.
My wife thinks I am gay and I let her believe that, because the arrangement works. I think I am lucky to have a wife who accepts my feminine behaviour but I am scared that she won’t be able to handle the truth of me being a hijra. That is why I can’t tell her. You see, I am a father too.
My wife accepts me and my behavior on the condition that I take care of her and our child. We live like friends and I have sex with her as well. See, sex is sex. It doesn’t have anything to do with love. I love her as a friend. But I have rented a room where I can dress up like a woman and then I join the other hijras to do toli badhai so that I can earn. I get out of my house wearing men’s clothing and under the pretense of going to college, I actually go to my room to transform into a woman and be a part of the hijra community. Plus, this is the only way I get to meet my boyfriend. I meet him at that room and we have a great time, but then I have to return home.
We had this conversation in the NGO office and soon after, he also took me to his place. Before we entered his home, I was warned that I must not mention anything to his family. I went there pretending to be an employee of the NGO. I met his entire family, including his wife and child. The wife performed her wifely duties, served him food and spoke about her ‘good’ husband. After the meeting, Vikas left with me to go to his room, where he was supposed to meet his boyfriend.
This reveals a crucial aspect of duality as a mode of engaging with relationships of love. It is by fulfilling the role of a ‘man’ at home and through his marriage that Vikas is able to love the one he truly wants. Vikas readily accepts the duality of his identity as a gay man and a husband so that he is able to negotiate his space, outside the home, to find the love of his choice. If the wife finds out that he is a hijra, he believes that her belief in his ability to take care of her and her child will be challenged, as he will no longer be considered a man.
The family also uses contexts such as sickness, ill health to draw the person back into the fold of the family. There are families which use shunning, isolation and emotional blackmail to draw them back into the fold of the family but this drawing within the fold of the family has two aspects. One in which they can only come back to the family if they retain a conventional normative masculine identity, and the other, in which the masculine identity can be temporary and fragmented, wherein there is an understanding about it which implies that there is an acceptance of the femininity, as long as the feminine characteristics and qualities are not visibilised in their family life.
There are many hijras who accept this dual existence. This duality, in fact, is often used as a negotiation strategy so as to be able to be a hijra outside the household where there are no restrictions on the individual’s identity and also to be able to find love.
The dual existence is that they are married men within their family and hijras outside, while the other aspect of their duality is that they negotiate masculinity and femininity, and there is a recognition of this fluidity. Therefore, there is an acceptance of the fluidity in the ‘doing’ of gender, by the family. For this person, that duality and fluidity becomes a part of their identity such that they are able to define what the masculinity and femininity means to them at different points of time in their everyday lives.
This acceptance and recognition of his fluid identity, especially by the family, retains Vikas’ support structure. Therefore, while Vikas retains his family structure and fulfills the role of a husband and father, it is also a negotiation that allows him to find a partner of his choice, outside the fold of the family. The retention of family ties as well as having the freedom to be themselves outside of the household are some of the factors that necessitate this duality in the practice of gender by the hijra.
This piece is an extract from the author’s Master’s thesis at Tata Institute of Social Sciences titled ‘Hijra Lives: Negotiating Social Exclusion Identities’.