The Hijra – the Trans Community of India

Communities of transsexual women called Hijra have existed in India for centuries – they began as a holy group which could bless people and places and remove the Evil Eye. But as the British colonized India, the Hijra began to be shunned and stigmatized. These communities still exist in India today, but now the Hijra are generally beggars and prostitutes. They are often shunned by their families and by society in general. Those who were once great have fallen due to Western stigma. 



I will share my thoughts about two documentaries about the Hijra. The first is called Harsh Beauty, which was distributed by Frameline, a nonprofit LGBT media arts organization: 



This hour-long documentary is almost entirely in Hindi and Tamil, with English subtitles. It is interview style – focusing on several people. These people range from holy people who ask for alms in exchange for blessings to politicians to prostitutes. Unfortunately, it appears that the former (more “presentable”) categories have very, very few people, whereas the majority of Hijra are beggars and prostitutes. 

In some ways, the trans communities in India are tighter than those in the US. In India, the Hijra live, work, and die together. They form very strong bonds. However, this also means that they do not have strong relationships with their birth families. They do not live with their families or marry (at east not conventionally, as I’ll discuss later). In fact, many have been shunned by their families, or must visit them only discretely.  

Transsexuals in the US have to jump through an amazing amount of red tape for years in order to get their surgeries, but when they have the surgery it is in a safe, sterile, finely-tuned environment. A man->woman surgery can rearrange the nerve endings to form a clitoris. Although this is a major surgery in the US, and it takes much dedication to jump through all the hoops, it seems to me that the Hijra must be even more dedicated than American trans people to get their operation:.

In India, the surgery is much more “brutal” than it is here. There’s no anesthesia (because this is a spiritual ritual). The boy stands naked in a temple looking up at his deities. Then, the guru cuts off his “manhood” (testicles and penis). There is no delicate reorganization of the nerves in this surgery. After the surgery, hot oil is poured on the wound for 41 days to help it heal. 

This procedure may make me shudder in its “brutality,” but I doubt it seems brutal at all to the Hijra community. As I said, to them it’s a spiritual experience. After the surgery, Hijra from all over the area will come to have a huge festival of celebration – because a new member of their community has been initiated. 

I would say this documentary was an excellent introduction to transsexual culture in non-Western cultures. However, because of its format (interviewees speaking in a foreign language, and very little other action), it wasn’t the most dynamic of documentaries.
3.5 stars for good coverage of an excellent topic

The second documentary I watched was The Third Sex, which was episode 10, season 5 of National Geographic’s Taboo series. 

This film had a fantastic description of a Hijra festival which takes place in Koovagam, Tamil Nadu. This festival celebrates the wedding of the god Aravan, who was destined to die in battle in one day. He prayed to be married before his death, but no woman would marry him and become a widow so quickly (widows do not have very good lives in India). So the male god Vishnu came in woman’s form and married Aravan. Every year, Hijra from all around India flock to Koovagam to celebrate their own marriage to Aravan. It is a happy marriage festival with much celebration. Then, the next day, the Hijra cover their faces in turmeric, beat their chests, wail, dress in white, and morn the death of their husband. 

Watching this documentary was a much more enjoyable experience than watching Harsh Beauty. It was more dynamic and had beautiful filmography; however, it was also more sensationalized and less realistic and informative than Harsh Beauty. Of the two, I think Harsh Beauty was the better.   

3.5 stars for dynamic filmography and interesting topic

Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil

Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil
Narrated by Robertson Dean 
(This is an edited version of a review I wrote for my retired blog. I’m republishing because it is timely with a documentary I’ll be reviewing on Saturday.)

In this opiate-veiled book, Thayil introduces readers to the seedy underbelly of Bombay. It begins in the 1970’s and transitions with surreality into modern-day Mumbai–which has lost not only its tradition and identity, but also it’s name. The story follows several memorable characters, all of whom fight addiction in one form or another. Addictions range from opiates to violence to sex. 
The most memorable character is Dimple, a pipe-wallah, a prostitute, and an addict. Dimple was abandoned by her mother and sold into prostitution as a child. At the age of 9, she was castrated and her penis was removed, transforming her into India’s “third sex:” a hijra. Some men specifically prefer hijra over male or female prostitutes. When we are introduced to Dimple, she is a little older, and is suffering the ill effects of her surgery–including addiction to opium, which was originally given to her as a narcotic for her pain. The story follows Dimple as she transforms from a beautiful young woman to a sickly and shriveled middle-aged woman.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into the story (I think it would be clearer after a second reading), but I think Dimple was meant to represent India. When we met Dimple, she was young and beautiful, as was the young India. She had been docked and gelded, yes, but she was beautiful, intelligent, and had potential if ONLY she could get out of her rut. Perhaps this is meant to imply that the Westerners had “docked and gelded” India (by their colonization and then partitioning of the land), but that India still had potential. She was still beautiful. But time passed, and the slow-and-easy opium life in the “best opium den in Bombay…maybe even India,” was forcibly supplanted by frightening hallucinatory “cheap” chemical-laced heroin. During this time, Dimple became increasingly sick. Likewise, India itself was getting sicker from the negative influences of modernization. As time passed, Dimple’s name changed, as did Bombay’s, and their identities were lost in the harsh new world.

This book was allegorically very deep, and I’m sure that a second, third, and fourth reading would teach me something new every time. But, unfortunately, once was enough for me. I don’t regret reading the book…it will stay with me forever. But the violence, sex, drugs, and sickening human condition described was enough for me the first time around. Don’t get me wrong, all of these negative issues were handled with graceful tact. But it was still difficult for me to read.

Now, a note on the narration: I imagine this book was a very difficult one to read aloud. Robertson chose to represent surreal quality behind the veil with an airy tone of detachment. This tone was meaningful and perhaps necessary, but some might prefer to read the book instead. For me, Robertson’s tone of detachment didn’t distract from the story once I got used to it and understood the purpose. I was happily able to engross myself in the flow.