When we were kids, we had the most marvellous summer holidays. The years we didn’t make the long journey from Delhi where my government officer father was posted, to Kerala, our native place, we spent them in Delhi. I looked forward to it equally.
There was nothing gentle about the Delhi summer. The sun shone brilliantly and a hot breeze was its natural corollary. The afternoons would be so hot that “no one save mad dogs will be out at this time”, my mom would say with exasperation. But to my friends and I, the hot afternoons were the perfect time to be about. We would roam the housing colony we lived in, climbing trees, drinking deliciously cold water from various homes as the afternoon wore on, getting scared out of our wits by dogs in the stairways seeking the coolness of the stone floors there.
It was on one such hot afternoon that I got my first introduction, and look, at the hijras or eunuchs, such a part of the Delhi landscape. About 4-5 of them had decided to pay a visit to a house in our neighbourhood, where a baby had just been born. They were a raucous bunch. The way they conducted themselves – their clothes (the sari worn carelessly, the pallu like a brahmin’s sacred thread (poonool) across the chest), the devil-may-care swagger, the rough voice and the louder talk, the unruly claps – all combined, froze me to the spot. My friends had vanished. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They sauntered to the house where the new born baby was, called upon the gods to shower blessings on the baby, were suitably rewarded and came out a happy bunch. As they started towards me (or so it seemed to me), I vamoosed from there and watched them from the safety of my staircase.
I narrated this to my family in the evening. My parents then told us about a similar group who had decided to visit a close cousin’s home, who were new parents too. Now, this couple happened to be doctors. When the husband refused to pay up, the hijras threatened to strip right there. This cousin pulled up a chair, sat down with the air of a man who’s in it for the long haul, and asked them to go right ahead! As a doctor he had seen more than what they could ever reveal, he calmly informed them!! Needless to say, the hijras left, crestfallen.
This story did much to alleviate my fear of the eunuchs. They are a highly marginalised community. And though some pretend to be hijras to make a quick buck, the genuine ones are truly a neglected lot. I don’t like any kind of extortion and I do not endorse the extortion they resort to, playing on peoples’ fears and superstitions. But if people are going to be foolish and cave in, then one can’t really blame the hijras for trying to make a fast buck. After all, they are just using some native psychology and gift of the gab to part you from your money!
Now, I watch some of them at Mumbai’s traffic junctions. They seem to ignore the cars where the glass is up, the aircon on, a most effective shield they know, and target the cabs and motorists. They recite a litany of blessings and sometimes curses, in a singsong voice. Some give in, some don’t. As for me, I don’t oblige either, but that’s because I don’t fear them. Unlike that distant day in the past.