The usage of words changes with time. Some words perfectly ‘safe’ and platonic in the age gone by assume newer connotations. For a man who grew up in times when being gay meant being happy, I find myself unable to use the expression to denote my glad state. Similarly, there is the not-so-insignificant expression, ‘transgender’. When we were young, and that admittedly was a few summers ago, the term newspapers often used when referring to them was the ‘third gender’. It did not strike one as odd. There was no hullabaloo, no objections, no ranting. Now, the reactions are starkly different. The expression ‘third gender’ has come to occupy a lot of space in our social discourse in recent days, courtesy the Supreme Court ruling through which the transgender members have finally got their due respect in the society. The attention devoted to transgenders over the past few days has had me completely stumped. Laudable as the highest court’s ruling is, our nation has treated the third gender better in the past. They have occupied important positions in the ruling dispensation, been central to administration and often even been military generals. They were accepted for what they were, no questions asked.

All the talk though forced me to revisit medieval India when the eunuchs were often the custodians of royal harems, and also acted as the king’s bodyguards. At times royal companions, at others dancing partners for kings — as in the case of Jahandar Shah and Mohammed Shah Rangeela — they were in the preceding centuries the king-makers too. A cursory reading of Abraham Eraly’s wonderfully well researched “The Age of Wrath: A History of the Delhi Sultanate” brought back a whiff of familiarity. Eraly, better known for his work “The Last Spring: The Lives and Times of the Great Mughals”, here opens a little window to the world of Malik Kafur, a eunuch who exercised great influence over the greatest Khalji ruler, Alauddin, the man who imposed a system of uniform weights and measures much before the British came. In fact, Kafur was regarded by many as the de facto ruler towards the end of Alauddin’s reign when the Sultan was ailing and clearly, past his prime, constant military exertions having taken their toll on his body.

When Khalji passed away, Kafur was virtually the ruler of Delhi as he installed puppet king Shihabuddin, who was a child of seven and was made to ascend the throne by Kafur so he could call the shots himself. Though the arrangement lasted only a little over a month, it was incredible in its enormity and the sheer dare of Kafur. After all, he was not a Turk; he was a local Hindu who had adopted Islam. Often he was criticised for getting rid of the sultan’s own hand-picked heir apparent, Khizr Khan, through a mixture of guile and blood.

He was also much abused for his treatment of Malika e Jahan. Yet the fact that he belonged to the third gender was never deemed important. Never once was Malik Kafur subjected to abuse or discrimination because he was a member of the third gender. Yes he paid with his life for his actions when he sought to get Alauddin’s third son, Mubarak Khan, beheaded by the soldiers. Mubarak proved a tough nut to crack, bribing his way to life by gifting his necklace to the soldiers, and instead urging them to kill Kafur for greater glory. The soldiers duly accomplished the task, beheading Kafur in his sleep.

Later the Sultanate was agog with the news of the death of the man who was once the prime minister in the Khalji dynasty. People talked of his long association with the sultan — Kafur had joined Alauddin two years after the latter ascended the throne in 1296. They even praised him for being the king’s confidant and his ability to rally other nobles to his viewpoint. Yet again, his gender was not the point of discussion. As it should be.

Later, of course, during the time of the Mughals, other eunuchs came to have the emperor’s ear, many of them going on to play a crucial role in the court politics. Some were loved, others loathed. But it was always because of their actions, never their sexuality.

In the liberal ways of the Delhi Sultanate and later the Mughals lie a few lessons for us today. Some of them having been just brought home by Eraly through a book that is engrossing, enlightening. And in its own ways, making a historian like Ziauddin Barani part of our life again. Am I gay, oops, glad!

The author is a seasoned literary critic.