Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
G***du Bageecha …Ananta Kaalcha Andhera Aani Soneri Kinaara
O A*** – F*****’s Park! …An eternity of darkness Lined by a golden shore.
—From G***du Bageecha, by Namdeo Dhasal, translated by Dilip Chitre.
The G***du Bageecha inspiring Dhasal’s lines is Durgadevi Udyan, located on Duncan Road. A two-minute walk away lies Kamathipura Gully No 1, the nearest of the red light gullies. It’s called ‘ Hijra Gully’ for the specific sexual service it offers. Till 15 years ago, the park was a quick pleasure spot for those renting hermaphrodites, eunuchs or transvestites from the gully, hence the garden’s crude nickname. The lane’s proximity also led to community Hijra activities, including the emasculation ritual, which makes a man nirvan or a ‘true’ Hijra, and cataract operations for Hijras denied hospital admission. The park was then renovated, and secured by home guards. But despite replanted greenery, children’s jungle gyms and slides, and a woman’s-only area, no ‘decent’ citizen visits it today. It is populated only by occasional political or activist gatherings, and frequent junky and street gambler meet-ups. The latter ensure that the stigma imposed by its erstwhile occupants remains.
Hijra Gully, like any red light area, changes from surreal shades of blue, green and red at night to grey poor-locality-drabness during daylight. The Hijras live in a decrepit but vast four storey building, with a gigantic blue tarpaulin veiling slow repair work in one wing. Each Hijra belongs to a Gharana and a Guru, photographs of whom are framed and given pride of place in their rooms. The make-up and stylised glances of these portraits resemble a ’60s Bollywood heroine’s. ‘Zeenat Aapa’ is one such Guru, who, bedecked in orange chiffon and ornate gold for a function, might pass off for a heroine if captured on film reel. Hailing from the Poonawaala Gharana, she came from Hyderabad 17 years ago. Treated with respect by most Hijras, she has allied with many social work organisations (Humsafar Trust, DAI Welfare Society) and political parties but is too disillusioned to join any. She talks in between answering phone calls regarding a man in love with her, who’s telling everyone from the local police inspector to the local don that they’re married. “I only remember him creating a ruckus, and us throwing him out,” she replies patiently. “That doesn’t make me his wife.”
“We’ve received support from political parties like the Congress and Shiv Sena,” Zeenat begins, her gaze intent, intelligent and judging. “But old issues continue to haunt.” The root issue being a continuing social boycott, which means that no one will give Hijras jobs, or do business with them, leaving two recourses: prostitution and begging. “And prostitution too is now waning,” she continues. With Kamathipura being a publicised red light area, once regular clients are now scared to be seen here. An older problem compounds this one: policemen harassing prostitutes standing on the road, to only claim higher hafta. “I’ve retired,” Zeenat finishes, her lips hinting at a smile. “But I worry for the others.”
Dhasal, a dalit activist, indicates a broader meaning to ‘untouchable’ when speaking of Kamathipura as his “do number ki duniya” because of the way society regards it. This urban untouchability is categorised by poverty and prostitution. The Hijra’s untouchability is categorised also by sexuality, which can be traced to the beginnings of British rule. During earlier periods of Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim rule, the Hijras were treated with respect, given positions of official power and included in mainstream life. The proportion of Hijras in prostitution was more or less the same as that of women, or even men. The British labelled them as ‘sodomisers’, banishing them from society, as was done with transgenders in the West. And Indians who parroted such ‘modern western thoughts’ changed attitudes accordingly. Still, a Hijra being called ‘Chakka’ isn’t different from an Indian being called ‘blackie’, or ‘wog’, while being kicked out of train compartments, clubs and jobs.
We fell united by our untouchability then, as we stand divided by it today.