I remember the first time I met a hijra. It was during my first weeks in Bangalore. I had got off the bus and a woman walking in front of me caught my attention. It was the way she was walking: swinging her hips from side to side in an exaggerated way. No Indian woman walks like that! Her sari blouse was cut low, exposing most of her back. I caught her profile and realised that this was a hijra. She was passing a vendor selling grapes. She provocatively grabbed a few grapes from the big pile on the cart and popped them into her mouth without losing her stride. She paused to cross the road. This is when I caught up with her.
I could feel her studying me while we crossed the road. “Sai Baba?”, she asked me inquisitively. I understood that she was referring to the Sai Baba ashram further down the road and thought that maybe I was on my way there. I pointed to the apartment building on the other side of the road and told her I was on my way home. “Marriage?”, was her next question. I said “Yes, I’m married”, and then asked her if she was married. She burst out in a fit of giggles and said no. “Had your lunch?” Another common question. I said yes and asked her if she had already eaten. “No, now I’m going home to cook”. I had reached my building. “Bye!” she said with a big smile and wave of her hand before continuing on her way.
Since then I’ve come across hijras many, many times. They’re usually in groups, dressed in colourful saris and wearing too much make-up. I see them making rounds of the shops, going from one to the other, asking for money. Shopkeepers always give them something. I watch how others observe them with a mixture of amusement and fascination and even a little fear.
Hijras are a fascinating sub-culture who live at the margins of Indian society. They consider themselves to be neither man nor woman, but rather a ‘third gender’. Despite their marginal status they are revered because of the belief that they have the power to bless or curse. Shopkeepers give them money because they fear they will get cursed if they don’t. Hijras are also famous for showing up unannounced at weddings and birth celebrations. They will sing and dance and bless the household. Again, the family will give them a generous donation to avoid ‘bad luck’ or being embarrassed by their suggestive behaviour and threats.
Here’s a video I found on YouTube of a group of hijras who unexpectedly show up at a family home the day after a wedding: