Beyond Man and Woman: The Life of a Hijra

By Namit Arora

On being transgender in India and glimpses from The Truth About Me, a powerful memoir by A. Revathi. It aims to introduce readers ‘to the lives of hijras, their distinct culture, and their dreams and desires.’

RevathiMost Indians encounter hijras at some point in their lives. Hijras are the most visible subset of transgender people in South Asia, usually biological men who identify more closely as being female or feminine. They often appear in groups, and most Indians associate them with singing and dancing, flashy women’s attire and makeup, aggressive begging styles, acts and manners that are like burlesques of femininity, a distinctive hand-clap, and the blessing of newlyweds and newborn males in exchange for gifts.

Most modern societies embrace a binary idea of gender. To the biologically salient binary division of humans into male/female, they attach binary social-behavioral norms. They presume two discrete ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ identities to which all biological males and females are expected to conform. These two gender identities are imbued with ideal, essential, and distinct social roles and traits. In other words, the binary schema assumes a default alignment between sex, gender, and sexuality. In reality, however, gender identities and sexual orientations are not binary and exist on a spectrum, including for people who identify as transgender—an umbrella term for those whose inner sense of their gender conflicts with the presumed norms for their assigned sex (unlike for cisgender people). Transgender people often feel they’re neither ‘men’ nor ‘women’.

According to biologist Robert Sapolsky, ‘Gender in humans is on a continuum, coming in scads of variants, where genes, organs, hormones, external appearance, and psychosexual identification can vary independently, and where many people have categories of gender identification going on in their heads (and brains) that bear no resemblance to yours’. Many cultures have granted a distinct identity to various types of transgender people, including South Asian, Native American, Indonesian, Polynesian, and Omanese cultures. A landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2014 legalized a third gender in India, including hijras and other transgender people.

Hijras in popular culture date back to ancient times. The fact that procreation underpins the social and familial order in all societies may partly explain why in some societies transgender (and homosexual) people have been seen as useless, perhaps even a threat. What likely helped the hijras survive is that since ancient times, they have been endowed with certain spiritual powers, including to confer blessings and curses, as with ascetics. Perhaps it also helped that even Gods and heroes manifest transgender traits in Hindu mythology: Shiva has an androgynous form, half male, half female; Arjuna disguised himself as a eunuch during the Pandava exile; the goddess Yellamma has the power to change one’s sex; Krishna turned into a woman, Mohini, to marry and spend the last night with the warrior Aravan before his final battle; and so on. The hijras even have a patron goddess, Bahuchara Mata, whose temple in Gujarat is a pilgrimage site for both hijras and others.

In short, while Hindu mythology and scriptures see human equality as unnatural—and uphold a caste hierarchy—they largely accept transgenderism (and homosexuality) as natural, if not socially desirable. And while the Mughals held the status quo and even patronized the hijras—especially a minority among them, the eunuchs, as harem keepers—the British were utterly scandalized by the hijras. They saw in the hijras ‘a breach of public decency’, ‘the vilest and most polluted beings’, and sought to curtail ‘the abominable practices of the wretches.’ They outlawed the hijra practice of castration, took away their legal right to collect alms from peasant households that had been granted to them by many Indian states, and classified them as a ‘criminal tribe’. This also transformed the attitudes of Indians, strengthening the more reactionary strands in their midst. The net result was a long, multi-generational decline for the hijra community.

For the first time ever, the census in 2011 counted transgenders using an ‘other’ gender category. But due to the social stigma and shame attached to being trans, they’re likely quite underreported, and overrepresented by trans men, the most public group among trans people. Estimates vary from half-a-million transgenders reported by the census to over six million for just the ones who identify as trans men, a subset of transgenders. Whatever their social status in earlier eras—including acceptance and even respect of sorts—hijras today are shrouded in an aura of fear, secrecy, rumor, prejudice, and ‘magical powers’. They mostly slink in the shadows, in the margins of social life where discrimination and abuse rule the day. What are their lives like? What are their common struggles? What social structures and customs mark their communities?

A few ethnographies on hijras exist—the most significant being Serena Nanda’s Neither Man nor Woman—but even fewer unmediated testimonies have come from the hijras themselves. One extraordinary example is The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story by A. Revathi (2010). Translated from Tamil by V. Geetha, a writer, social historian, and activist, this is apparently the first hijra autobiography to appear in English. (Translators remain unsung heroes even as they play a pivotal role in bridging cultural divides and raising mutual understanding.) In Revathi’s own words, her memoir aims ‘to introduce to the readers the lives of hijras, their distinct culture, and their dreams and desires.’ What follows are a few glimpses from her life and of others in the hijra community.

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From Doraisamy to Revathi

Revathi was born a boy, Doraisamy, the youngest of four brothers and a sister, in a working class family of Gounders, an intermediate caste, in a small village in Tamil Nadu. His father was a lorry driver who ran a milk delivery business. His mother worked in their fields and tended to their goats and cows. By the age of ten, Doraisamy ‘would go to the village school along with the girls from the neighbourhood and return with them.’ At school he played with the girls and ‘longed to be like them’. Returning from school, he’d wear his sister’s long skirt and blouse, a cloth braid, and walk like ‘a shy bride, eyes to the ground’. His family would laugh, thinking he’d outgrow this silliness in due course.

Koovagam-57At school Doraisamy was bullied and punished for behaving like a girl, for speaking and holding his ‘body coyly like one’. He was caned for ‘not being brave like a boy’. For not playing boys’ games, the PT instructor would box his ears and yell, ‘Are you a girl or what? Pull your trousers down, let me check.’ This made him cry. She knew she behaved like a girl, writes Revathi, ‘It felt natural for me to do so. I did not know how to be like a boy.’ Doraisamy’s confusion grew further: ‘I felt drawn to the boys who did not tease me, and I imagined I was in love with them … Was this right or wrong?’ The harassment grew so much that Doraisamy often skipped school (he’d eventually drop out in high school).

During a village festival, when other boys in the neighborhood dressed like bears, tigers, policemen, and gods, Doraisamy disguised himself as a female gypsy. But he was afraid of being discovered by his brothers, who had started beating him for his behavior, which they felt was shaming their family. He was thrilled when others complimented him for looking like a real woman. ‘To the world, it appeared that I was dressing up and playing a woman, but inside, I felt I was a woman,’ writes Revathi. ‘As I re-emerged in my man’s garb, I felt that I was in disguise, and that I had left my real self behind.’ In the mid-eighties, around the time Doraisamy reached class 10, Revathi writes,

‘I experienced a growing sense of irrepressible femaleness, which haunted me, day in and day out. A woman trapped in a man’s body was how I thought of myself. But how could that be? Would the world accept me thus? I longed to be known as a woman and felt pain at being considered a man. I longed to be with men, but felt shamed by this feeling. I wondered why God had chosen to inflict this peculiar torture on me, and why He could not have created me wholly male or wholly female. Why am I a flawed being, I wondered often. I might as well die, I thought. I could not study, yet pretended to, and all the time I was obsessed, confused and anxious.’

Still in high school, Doraisamy discovered a few young men who assembled every evening on a hill by the village. They addressed each other as women and sang and danced. From them he learned of ‘people like us—who wore saris and had had an ‘operation’’. A famous ‘amma’ in a nearby town had had this ‘operation’. One day he and his friends snuck away to meet amma, who received them warmly. They changed into saris, put on wigs and jewelry, and learned the social customs of amma’s hijra community. Doraisamy was 14 or 15, tall and slim, with no facial hair. Someone complimented him that he looked like the movie actress Revathi. The name stuck and Doraisamy henceforth became Revathi, a hijra. ‘I looked at myself in the mirror and felt a glow of pride. I did look like a woman. It was at that moment that I was convinced I was indeed one.’

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A New Family and Escape to Delhi

But to become a ‘real woman’, Revathi learned at amma’s, she needed an operation called nirvaanam, or castration, where her penis, scrotum, and testicles would be removed (only a minority of hijras undergo this operation). That was usually arranged by a guru. Hijras, she learned, almost always lived in a household resembling a commune, comprising chelas (disciples) and a guru. A guru was like a mother to ‘daughters’ like Revathi, and ceremonially adopted her chelas, provided shelter, clothing, food, security, and arranged their nirvaanam.[1] The chelas too had obligations, of working and giving all or part of their earnings to the guru, respecting her wishes and of other elders in her family, and caring for their guru in old age. It was like joining a family whose members were all trans women, who, unlike their own biological families, supported each other through thick and thin. In the face of their greater adversities, caste and religious distinctions tend to collapse in hijra communities.

Koovagam-90At amma’s place, Revathi found a guru she liked and ceremonially became her chela. Unfortunately, her guru had to go to Delhi for six months. In just a day, Revathi had become deeply attached to her affectionate guru and pleaded to be taken along but the guru advised her to go home until the guru could return from Delhi. Revathi spent a month with her guru’s hijra family in a nearby town—dressing and living like a woman—before returning home.

Revathi’s biological family was not amused by her disappearance. Her elder brother beat her mercilessly with a cricket bat, declared her unfit for school, and put her to work on the family business, cleaning lorries. She had to wear a lungi again and live like a man. ‘I doubt if words quite capture the anguish I experienced at having to be a man,’ she writes. ‘I was like a worm, out in the sun, squirming and ready to die. I wanted to run away, but feared that if my brothers caught me, they would surely kill me.’ With the help of a friend, she mustered enough courage to catch a train to Delhi to find her guru—she hadn’t even seen a train until then—with a mere 80 rupees in her pocket. She was not yet 16. (Running away from insensitive, shame-ridden families is a remarkably common story among hijras.)

With some luck, she found her guru in Delhi and joined her community, starting at the bottom of the hierarchy, doing chores like washing clothes and cleaning spittoons. She learned the social customs of her new community and even some Hindi. She pierced her ears and nose and was soon inducted into begging—about the only livelihood open to hijras besides prostitution and dancing at ceremonies. Many shopkeepers considered an early morning visit by a hijra auspicious and gave them alms. Revathi’s guru told her to not flirt with men and risk losing their goodwill. Using a friend’s address, Revathi wrote a letter home saying she was safe. One day she ran into a lorry driver from her village, who likely went back and told her family about her ways. Some days later a telegram arrived: her mother was seriously ill. Revathi decided to rush home, this time dressed in a sari and traveling in the ladies’ coach, though she changed into a man’s dress before going home.

The telegram was a trap. The moment she got home, her middle brother attacked her with a cricket bat. ‘Let’s see you wear a sari again, or dance, you mother-fucking pottai [hijra]!’ Revathi recalls, ‘He beat me hard mindlessly, yelling that he wanted to kill me … I felt my hands swell. I was beaten on my legs, on my back, and finally my brother brought the bat down heavily on my head … there was blood all over, flowing, warm.’ She even heard her mother say, ‘That’s right. Beat him and break his bones. Only then will he stay at home and not run away.’ Her brother stopped only ‘when he was tired and his arms ached’. She had greatly shamed her family. ‘How can someone from a good family do that?’ her mother asked. ‘Do you know who we are and what caste we belong to?’

The next day they took her to a temple to shave off her long hair and implore the goddess to banish ‘that seducing female demon who even now has a hold on him.’ Her hair, which hijras are obliged to grow long, was now so central to her identity that its shaving caused her more emotional pain than her brother’s beating (in rare cases, if a hijra severely flouts the rules of her commune, her guru may order her hair cut to publicly shame her). In ensuing days, nosey neighbors would stop by and offer free advice: why not rub holy ash over her body to ‘cure her’? Soon she was forced to wear a man’s dress and work again, ‘loading and unloading milk cans as before’. Some workers at the cooperative would tease and pinch her chest and caress her bum. Everyday was an ordeal. She wanted her hair to grow before returning to Delhi, ‘for one with a shaven head has no standing amongst [hijras].’ Three months later she escaped to Delhi again. For her safety, her guru decided to send her to Mumbai, to join another house of hijras.

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The Mumbai Blues

Mumbai was a whole new world of discovery, joy, and suffering for Revathi. Hijras in Mumbai, too, lived in ghettos and were organized in seven clans, or houses, each with a naik at the helm. Every guru-chela relationship had to be approved by a jamaat, or council, comprising the naiks of all seven houses. Gurus in each house had exclusive rights to work in certain territories—whether begging, prostitution, or ceremonial dancing—and didn’t take kindly to trespassing from members of other houses, or by independent hijras. Revathi chose a new guru and was consecrated. Six months later, her guru arranged for her nirvaanam. Rather than the painful and illegal traditional method—which apparently raises a hijra’s esteem in her community—it was to be done under anesthesia by a medical doctor. Revathi was overjoyed and set off for a small town hospital in Tamil Nadu that performed this operation. Her surgery was successful but her aftercare was poor, causing her great physical suffering that lasted many weeks.

Koovagam-67Forty days later, her house hosted a big ceremony for her—a rite of passage similar to certain puberty rites done for girls after their first menses—with all the trappings of puja, incense, flowers, gifts, chanting before the goddess, haldi-mehndi rituals, feet-touching of elders, sermons, and more. In her own eyes, Revathi had now ‘truly become’ a woman. (Not all hijras consider castration as central to their gender identity as does Revathi. Other hijras, such as rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, hold contrary views, that what makes one a hijra is only the soul—inner feelings—not surgical or hormonal alterations.)

Revathi continued to earn her living by begging in the market. But she was 20 and troubled by sexual desire. ‘It seemed as natural as hunger, this hankering of the flesh.’ She felt drawn to some of the men she met. ‘Till I had my nirvaanam,’ she writes, ‘I had not acknowledged my sexual feelings … I had learnt to suppress desire and had told myself that it was important for me to become a woman first.’ As is common among hijras, Revathi even longed to ‘marry and settle down’ with a husband—like the presumed trajectory of all good Indian women—but she wondered ‘who would want to marry a hijra?’ The few such marriages she knew of had mostly ended badly, with much physical and mental abuse for the hijras. It struck her then that perhaps she could fulfill her sexual urges if she joined ‘a house for sex work.’ One day she walked out of her guru’s house and found a guru in another house whose chelas did sex work. ‘I became a chela to my new guru because of my desire for sexual happiness, in order to fulfill my sexual longings.’

Her heart sank when she discovered that she’d have to live in, and do sex work from, a couple of decrepit shanties by a railway track, which rattled whenever a train passed. Her customers turned out to be ‘mostly drunks and men who could not afford to spend more than fifty rupees.’ She didn’t like most of them but couldn’t turn anyone away. Her guru sat outside, collected the money, and tried to shield her from the rougher sorts as best as she could. Rather than finding sexual happiness, Revathi found herself ‘having to treat sexual experiences as work’. But in other ways, she felt freer and more valued by her new family. ‘Though we lived poorly and in a hut, I was indulged by all, and was the darling of the household, chiefly because I was fair and pretty and spoke nicely.’ It helped that she also fetched the highest price among the lot.

But some rowdies often came to terrorize and steal money from them. One night, a large rowdy chased away her guru, pulled out a knife, and raped Revathi. She’d never had anal sex before. ‘He spat abuse at me and forced me into the act … I was hurting all over, and yet had to give in and do as he told me. The skin down there felt abraded and I was bleeding.’ He stole her purse too. It had been only two months since she started sex work. ‘I was beginning to discover the horror and violence of this choice. I cried and confessed that I wanted to go home to my parents, that I would fall at their feet and beg to be taken back.’ Within a few days, she was on a train to see her parents.

Koovagam-4For the first time, Revathi entered her home in a sari. Her mother began wailing and her brother flared up again. This time Revathi was more assertive, ‘Look! I’ve had an operation and I’m a woman now. From now on, I’ll live as I wish…. If you dare hit me, I’ll go to the police.’ She lifted her sari and showed them. This only raised her mother’s sense of family shame, and she promptly fainted. When the brother insisted that she change into a man’s clothes, Revathi refused firmly. Before the matter escalated into violence, her father came home. He seemed calmer and invoked fate. ‘It seems this is his destiny. Who can change what has been ordained? … Let him be and eat of our food.’ Tempers cooled. She was told to not roam around the village or attend public events. She thought it ‘remarkable that they had accepted me wearing a sari and being a woman.’

People in the village were curious about her and stared at her. Some women were even eager to talk to her and wondered if she had real breasts (she had started taking hormones). ‘For such people, I was a thing to be looked and laughed at, an oddity, a comic figure.’ Her family began to accept her for who she had become but her mother worried incessantly about her future. Revathi visited the local Mariamman temple and thanked the goddess for helping her realize her wish, and for uniting her with her family. Three months later, she was back in Mumbai.

Once again, to earn a living she began sex work but in a different house on a busy street known for its prostitutes, both hijras and women. Revathi had to solicit customers on the street. She vividly describes a Hobbesian world unlike any she’d seen before, where hijras fought over clients and were cheated by their mistress, where many hijras had contracted STD and even died, where clients often ‘paid them a mere fifteen or fifty rupees’ and ‘used them as they wished, brutally, and left them with bite marks on their bodies, as if they had been bitten and abandoned by mad dogs’. She describes some hijras who were ‘carried away by the police for no fault of their own, who were beaten with whips and lathis and stamped upon by police boots, had electric current run through their bodies, who could only leave after paying the police a hefty bribe.’ She got introduced to alcohol and soon began drinking every day. Her pleasant memories from this phase of life in the early 1990s are few, and include memories of rain, watching Tamil films, and visits to her two ‘favourite shrines every week—to the Haji Ali dargah on Thursdays and the Mahalakshmi temple on Fridays.’ She eventually fought with the mistress of the house and quit.

She went back to her parents and spent the next year with them. The villagers and the family began accepting her more, and she felt grateful for it. After more horrid family drama, she even got a share of the property her parents had sold, and so now had about one lakh rupees. She bought a scooter and rented a home to live by herself in the village. Briefly, she even had a half-fling with a man, which severely tested her family’s tolerance and provoked the wrath of her brothers. She lamented, ‘If society scorns us, then we turn to our families … But if family scorns us, who do we turn to? Is this why people like me do not stay in touch with their families?’ She had heard of a hamam, or bath house run by hijras in Bangalore, and she decided to pack her bags and go there.

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Moving to Bangalore

She was warmly received in Bangalore. Some hijras worked in the hamam for low wages, others, as usual, begged or did sex work. Here too, life was harsh. People frequently threw stones at their door at night. ‘When I went to buy groceries and vegetables in the vegetable market, people sometimes threw rotten tomatoes at me.’ She became a chela to a new guru. She had seen that ‘In this world, it is enough that one has money. Respect and regard follow.’ To get money, she decided to take up sex work again, soliciting customers on the street. This came with the usual troubles: rude and violent clients, harassment by rowdies, police beatings, bribes. One time a policeman locked her up in a cell, forced her to strip, and stuck a lathi into her anus. ‘Sometimes, I wondered if I should continue to do sex work at all. But what else was I to do? I had no choice but to suffer it.’ She even sent money home to help her father rebuild their house. Respite from sex work came whenever she got hired to dance at weddings and temple festivals. She went home often, but her family’s shame and people’s reactions to her meant that she couldn’t bear to stay for long. ‘I think this is why God makes sure that people like me seek out others of my own kind.’

Koovagam-74One day she was approached by three young city-bred, college educated hijras, who didn’t live in traditional hijra communities, and even had their nirvaanam done on their own. They pleaded with her to become their guru. Revathi agreed, and decided to forge a more open and nurturing guru-chela relationship than what she came to see as the norm: overly hierarchical and often economically exploitative, a world full of ‘rules and tenets’ with ‘all its particular sorrows and joys.’ They introduced her to Sangama, an organization that fought for the rights of sexual minorities. Sangama was looking to hire a transgender person, and Revathi made a bid for it. She joined Sangama as an office assistant for a meagre salary, quit sex work, and moved into her own place—rented to her on the condition that no hijra would visit her. At least, she writes, her landlord thought of her as a woman and didn’t discriminate against her. The year was 1999.

She soon became involved with activism and social work at Sangama, participating in events ‘about hijra culture, hijra ways of living, and the violence and discrimination that we faced…. As a spokesperson for hijra rights, I also gave interviews to newspapers and spoke at public meetings.’ At first she didn’t talk about her sex work out of fear and shame. But this changed as she realized that the fault lay not with her but with ‘the way the world perceived me and refused to accept me, the manner in which it snatched away my rights and made it difficult for me to earn a living except through begging and sex work’. She spoke in colleges on sexual identity and even approached her own community to educate them about their rights. But, she adds, ‘fear and suspicion lurked large among hijras. It was only when they faced violence because they were hijras and Sangama helped them get out of the false cases foisted on them, that they began to come to us.’ She writes:

‘Just as how dalits have come to oppose the violence inflicted on them, why cannot we hijras get together and fight for our rights? Do we not have the right to change our sex? Aren’t we human too, born of mothers, as others are? We have not descended from the sky, have we? We have rights, just like the others. We are citizens of this nation. Don’t we want all those rights that are granted to other citizens: the right to have a ration card, to hold property, to have a passport, the right to work, to marry, adopt or raise a child?’

In the course of her work and travels at Sangama, Revathi and a senior colleague, a bisexual man, grew close and she started falling in love with him. He reciprocated too, and they soon began living together in an apartment, sharing their household expenses. Revathi did all the house work, laundry, and cooking. She felt happy, for she was ‘leading a normal family life, much like other women’ (curiously, as seems common with other trans women, her idea of being ‘womanly’ harks back to a ‘traditional’ ideal that many modern cisgender women in urban India may find regressive). She was thrilled when the man proposed to her. Since he didn’t believe in priests, circling the fire, or the thali, the marriage was simple: an exchange of garlands at a temple next to the hamam, with her hijra family and four of his friends. Marital life began well but soon cracks developed. He didn’t tell his parents about their marriage, even when they visited. He grew less romantic, more aloof, and immersed himself into work. He rebuffed her overtures of love. ‘Living by his whims and desires, I felt my own retreat till there was nothing left,’ she wrote. Perhaps class divides between them played a role too. Their marriage ended a year later, leaving her utterly heartbroken.

‘But my work turned out to be the healing balm that I needed,’ she writes. She began collecting testimonies from other hijras to write her first book, Unarvum Uruvamum. Many of them ‘sobbed and screamed when they recounted stories of their mothers, lovers, husbands … My difficulties were nothing compared to some of the things I heard.’ Then came two shocks in quick succession: one of her chelas committed suicide, and some rowdies stabbed and killed Revathi’s guru at the hamam. This unsettled her greatly. After the mourning period, she left her activist work, went home, and stayed for many months to care for her ailing mother. She looked for a job at home but no one would hire a hijra. Back in Bangalore and finding herself pushed back into poverty, she briefly turned to sex work again (social activism, she writes, didn’t pay enough), which hurt her a lot. Now in her mid-30s, clients called her ‘aunty’ and chose younger hijras. ‘Unable to make a living, I wondered if I should end my life,’ she writes. Her activism had changed her too much and she could no longer flourish in the hijra community. At the end of this memoir, we find Revathi returning to work at Sangama again.

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Revathi’s story is almost too painful to read. It portrays, vividly and honestly, the vulnerability of a young person struggling to reconcile the gap between her inner sense of gender and society’s presumed norms for her. She faces hurdles and indignities at every step. What she confronts may be worse than most social oppressions because even her own family turns hostile against her, which must count among the most intimate of traumas and betrayals. Her testimony, highly representative of the hijra experience, holds a mirror to our social world, which dehumanizes and is frequently violent towards those who do not fit the mould. It also exposes some more limits of the ‘famed Indian tolerance’.

Koovagam-116The Indian Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that ‘it is the right of every human being to choose their gender’ and legalized a third gender, granting hijras and other transgender people the same legal rights as others. Application forms for many government IDs, such as the passport, voter identity card, and Aadhaar card, no longer force them to choose ‘male’ or ‘female’ and include a ‘transgender’ option. The court’s ruling also paved the way, via the Rights of Transgender Persons Bill of 2015, for their inclusion under Other Backward Classes (unless they’re SC/ST), reservations in public sector jobs and college admissions, and tougher prosecution of certain crimes against them. For transgender rights activists in India, this was the culmination of a long struggle.

But while changing the laws and providing reservations are obvious first steps, changing minds is the ultimate and harder endgame. Revathi’s memoir reveals the distance yet to be traveled on that front. Not many want to provide employment, housing, education, or healthcare to the hijras. Sexual prurience and degrading myths surround them. For instance, many Indians believe that they abduct and forcibly castrate children, that they have bizarre nighttime funeral rites, etc. However, even their sporadic public displays, or threats thereof, of their (post-nirvaanam) sexual anatomy are survival tactics—meant to extract money from a discriminatory society by pushing its norms of sexual decency. The reality is that the hijras have one of the worst socioeconomic indicators across all social groups. The majority are still illiterate (they drop out of school or don’t regularly attend due to harassment and shame) and aren’t even aware of their rights. That said, a handful of hijras of the new generation are breaking barriers and gaining social mobility through education and activism.[2]

But Revathi represents only one kind of transgenders in India: trans women. A lot more stories of hijras and of other transgender people—of those who are born female but identify as male (trans men), who consider themselves agender, who variously identify with both genders, and who inhabit yet other permutations of gender identity—are yet to be written. What will keep emerging from such testimonies is that the ‘sickness’ or ‘defect’ is not in their authors, but in those who continue to deny them an equal humanity.

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[1] In her ethnographic study on hijras, Neither Man nor Woman, Serena Nanda describes nirvaanam as “a rite of passage, moving the ‘nirvan’ (the one who is operated on) from the status of an ordinary, impotent male to that of a hijra. Through the operation, the former, impotent male person dies, and a new person, endowed with sacred power (shakti), is reborn”, one, ironically, with the power to bless infertile women.

[2] Read the perspective of another hijra and rights activist, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, interviewed by Shanoor Seervai, India’s Third Gender, Guernica, March 16, 2015.


All photographs were taken by the author at the Koovagam Transgender Festival 2016, which happens in the tiny village of Koovagam, Tamil Nadu, about 70 km inland from Pondicherry. It’s centered around a temple dedicated to the warrior-hero Aravan, who is also a patron god of the hijra community (trans women) in India. Aravan is Arjuna’s son and a minor character in the Mahabharata. In a Tamil version of this epic, the need arises for a warrior to sacrifice himself for Team Pandava, and Aravan rises to the occasion. He would go down fighting the next day but today he has a last wish. The bachelor hero wants to marry a woman and spend his last night with her. But no woman would come forward, for who would want imminent widowhood thrust upon her? It is then that Lord Krishna transforms himself into the enchantress Mohini and marries Aravan. The next day Aravan dies and Mohini mourns as a widow.

Over 5,000 hijras from all over India descend on Koovagam to participate in this multi-day festival. On its second-last day, each of them symbolically marries Aravan in the temple (they play the part of Krishna who had transformed himself into a female), for which they wear their best saris and put on mangal sutras/thalis (a necklace that married women traditionally wear). They hang out with old friends and sing and dance all evening. On the morning of the last day, a statue of Aravan is taken around the village on a multi-level, hand-drawn ratha (“chariot”), and he is symbolically sacrificed. All of the hijras (aka Aravanis) become widows, break their thalis, change into white saris, and ritually mourn their husband’s death. For more pictures, visit


More writing by Namit Arora?