Before proceeding to read this review, be sufficiently warned that there may be a conflict of interest as the book is strewn liberally with my photographs in various places; they are like scars inflicted in battle. I don’t think they mean anything to anybody except me because the author, the hijra activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, has a wonderful habit of putting up scarecrows as she reaps a rich harvest of admirers and lovers all over the globe.
Her biography, ‘Me Hijra, Me Laxmi’, was first ghost written in Marathi by a dear friend’s wife, Vaishali Rode, and has now been co-translated into English by no less an academic and writer than R Raj Rao. Practically everyone in this enterprise is either a friend or foe, comrade in arms or an icon (like Raj), so this has been a difficult review to write.
Before starting on Laxmi, let me say that R Raj Rao is the star here for the novel addition of an afterword – a lengthy monograph placing Laxmi in an historical context in the LGBT movement, which, unfortunately, she has been distancing herself from under the great pretense of “activists are trying to put us inside the MSM culture”. These words are quoted by Salman Rushdie in his interview with her, where she says, “The MSM sector is getting so strong”. Those words were a dig at me for challenging her at every step in her rapid journey to stardom. In the meantime, I too have made a long journey from transphobia to accepting the whole concept of gender as a pusillanimous performance art, at which Laxmi has excelled.
Once, in a hotel room in Melbourne, I saw her transforming herself from a simple Thane boy into a glamorous girl who stopped cars on the main road. Reading this book is like a roller-coaster ride into nostalgia with, of course, snapshots of our meetings stuck in between like those bandages soldiers wear when they return from the front. Being an integral part of that painful and passionate pilgrimage has turned me sometimes into a bitter man (Well, it’s time for true confessions).
What gets tiresome is Laxmi’s huge “I”. The book is full of “I”s without telling us what that “I” does for the society around her or what it observes as symptoms, which threaten people like her.
But, in Laxmi’s case, let me mark out a milestone she never mentions. To avoid widespread exploitation of the younger hijras who join gharanas, I have always counseled younger kotis wishing to join hijra clans to never cut off relations with their natal families. It is advice that Laxmi took very much to heart with me sensitising her mother every step of the way. Hence, for her to say: “The decision to become a hijra is traumatic. Once one becomes a hijra, the door to one’s earlier life is shut for ever” (page 157), is not totally true.
For Laxmi, this transition was incredibly smooth. Her parents and siblings loved her celebrity status. On the same page, Laxmi recounts how hijras then invent fables of being kidnapped (Do I see fairy tales in comparison?) and being taken away to a no-man’s land called hijra culture. This is what fascinates me about them. So consummate have they become at lying about their sexuality, their sexual life, and their gender that it flows liberally like a secret Ganga into every aspect of their lives.
This book has the glimmering Laxmi zircon all over it. Like the reason why hijras take to sex work: “Our main occupation is to perform badhai at weddings or when a child is born,” she says with a straight face. But badhai alone cannot fill stomachs? Obviously not, and so “we supplement our earnings by begging (mangti) on city streets and going to shops. We also do sex work and dance in bars and night clubs”.
Of course, it’s too simple an explanation. Though sex work is the largest component of hijra activity in today’s monetised economy, Laxmi places it last. What gets tiresome is Laxmi’s huge “I”. The book is full of “I”s without telling us what that “I” does for the society around her or what it observes as symptoms, which threaten people like her. For example, there is an amazing description of a visit to her mother’s sister in Bangkok and of meeting her cousins for the first time. They accept her like a long lost bosom brother (She’s changed into male attire) and only towards the end does she say that her cousin hugs her to say good-bye and whispers “sister” into her ear. It’s a huge high five for acceptance in Indian families.
Compared to that, there is nothing about the sheer horror of Thai hijras or kathoys with HIV/STI rates as high as 30%. And there’s nothing about how there are no support systems for HIV positive kathoys and about their high death rates. It is like a visit to cuckoo land and that aspect saddened me. If there is a genuine moment in the book, it is when Laxmi describes her daddy’s death. It would have been fitting if there had been some interview with the man who saw his eldest male child become a hijra.
How did he see it from the perspective of a patriarch in a stubborn patriarchal society? As somebody who knows the family, I believe that it is here that Laxmi could have done us the greatest service. Like her comrade Revathi in Bangalore, she could have dissected the mentality of a proud Indian male who sees his son becoming a daughter and still taking charge of the family. I think Laxmi fails miserably here. I went through the whole book several times to see if she is able to have any real impact on hijra society and I found little evidence of that.
What Laxmi does achieve is to open that small exotic window on the dark hitherto-unknown world of the hijra, India’s most visible but mysterious sexual minority, which everybody has seen but few have ventured to understand or sympathise with.
I think every school needs to buy this book for its library. It has R Raj Rao’s impeccable English, and a lot of information about a third sex (tritiya panthis), which we see everywhere but never seem to know much about. But the vital stuff is all missing. It is like reading the Grimm Fairy Tales (Well, in some way, she is a fairy), where the prince somehow dances with Cinderella before she runs down the staircase to disappear into the night.
Only, here, the prince comes racing down the staircase, sees that glass slipper, tries to slip it on and then remarks with surprise: “Oh, it fits!” To a lot of us, it did fit though Laxmi has moved on – too big for her boots!