I will send someone to get you,” she says and hangs up, as I wait under the knotted cable wires in a three-storied building. Winter’s blowing into the Kolkata streets, and the moss on the walls is turning from green to grey. A brawny young man, with neatly trimmed eyebrows and bell-bottom denims, comes down the alley and takes me up a flight of stairs to Ranjeeta Sinha’s one-bedroom flat.
It’s a home like any other — with speckles of tiny mirrors across a wall, a stack of fat books on a rickety coffee table, and clay dolls in a glass showcase. Only the photos in the frames are different. In them, Ranjeeta — formerly known as Ranjit — has her hands suggestively slung around the waist of the brawny man who came to get me.
“You read a lot of books on sociology?” I ask Ranjeeta, looking at her Malcolm Gladwell and Max Weber books. She looks up from her reading glasses and smiles. “I’m doing a Masters in Sociology from Jadhavpur University,” she says in a low falsetto voice, running her hand through her long, coloured hair. She is wearing a cotton salwar , and looks to be in her early forties. Unlike the articulated hyper-feminine fantasies of other Hijras — of being Cleopatra or Bobby Darling or fashionistas — Sinha’s dream is to become a full-time academician and activist. She is currently the head of the Association of Transgender/ Hijra in Bengal.
Dressing up as a girl for a festival dance and later finding herself unwilling to shed those clothes, Ranjeeta realised in her early teens that she had left the “real self behind”. “How does a boy in a small, provincial Indian village even find the language to express these feelings, especially when he is expected to grow up in a hurry and take on men’s responsibilities?” For her parents, the idea of their son becoming a woman was beyond imagination.
And so, Ranjeeta ran away and found people like herself; people who slipped into the social fissures where outcasts make their own ghettos. They formed their own familial band with a hierarchical structure in the Hijra society, with the naik at the top of the pyramid, and gurus (leaders) and chelas (disciples) below. Some of the oldest Hijras are the head gurus who teach the chelas how to cook, dress and act.
Ranjeeta, though, isn’t a Hijra. She is a transgender who underwent a painful and potentially life-threatening surgery that meant a ceremonial break from her maleness. “ Kinnars or Hijras aren’t always the result of birth defects. Medical advances like ultrasound now help detect embryo issues and resolve them even before the baby is born. Hijras are mostly castrated now, whether unwillingly as children or willingly as they get attuned to their effeminate nature,” says Ranjeeta, who travels across the country fighting for the rights of India’s third sex, hoping to get them a more secure place in the society.
Hijras are mostly from lower income groups. Or even if they are from the upper classes of society, they have no support of any kind; not even from their families. Landlords refuse to rent out homes, schools suspend them for cross dressing, the law discriminates against them, and jobs in respectable institutions are hard to get. They have virtually no safe spaces that protect them from prejudice and abuse, not even familial. They are forced to live in cloistered groups, on the fringes of society and in extreme poverty. “For these reasons, they have developed this language called Gupti (the secret), as a weapon to defend themselves against any infringement in their cocoons,” says Ranjeeta.
And that’s where this story started from. At traffic junctions, or in baby-naming ceremonies, I always wondered about that distinct gesture of the Hijras , of flat palms striking against each other, with the fingers spread limply. A few published papers in journals such as International Journal of Humanities and Social Science imply that this is an extension of their physiological identity. It means ‘I am who I am’.
“There is a sense of instant identification of the community they belong to,” says well-known activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. Sociologists think there are subtle variations in the taal (beat) of the Hijra ’s clap that, apart from controlling the attention of ‘normals’ , are also used for internal codified messages. Besides, the visual beauty of the henna design on their hands gets a resounding slap — the accent on femininity is taken away.
Gupti or ulti vhasa has remained an esoteric language till recently, as the Hijra community stonewalls attempts to probe. Even well-researched works like Gender, Sexuality and Language , an essay by Mary Bucholtz and Kira Hall in Encyclopaedia of Language and Linguistics edited by Keith Brown, have failed to take note of the clandestine nature of this language. Tariq Rahman, a Pakistani academic and intellectual, and author of Language, Ideology and Power: Language Learning Among the Muslims of Pakistan and North India (2002), brings to light many languages of the sub-cultures in the subcontinent but makes no mention of Gupti .
However, a few reference it every now and then. A paper by Dr. Muhammad Safeer Awan from Pakistan says, “A Hijra can detect from the sound of a clapping that other Hijras are around. Besides when Hijras interact with each other, only gurus are entitled to clap. A violator of this norm is instantaneously fined.”
Ranjeeta says, “They have two kinds of languages. Muslim Hijras speak mostly Farsi and Hindu Hijras speak Gupti with regional dialects. So depending on where you are in India, a Hijra could be called hikra , kinnar , safadi or khujda .” A community that survives largely on alms has to have numbers and its own counting system. This counting system in some dialects of Gupti is used just for alms and compensations — dasola (Rs.10), adhi vadvi (Rs.50), vadmi (Rs.100), panj vadmi (Rs.500), katka (Rs.1000), and nira patt (Rs.10,000). The lingo does not have an equivalent for an amount more than this, perhaps hinting at impoverishment and financial conditions.
The streets of Sonagachi, Kolkata’s centuries-old prostitution district, offer means of livelihood for many such impoverished eunuchs. Mallika Bose* is a Hijra who is also a commercial sex worker. “I started when I was 11,” says the fair, clean-shaven young man, punctuating his confession with a wink. He’s in a frilly black blouse with gold embroidery and a pair of jeans so tight they seem to be sewed on. He speaks in a high-pitched voice, and twists the hemlines of his shirt when he gets excited.
Mallika was a victim of sexual abuse at an early age. When he was in the third grade, a neighbour lured him to his house promising the boy pieces of coloured Chiclets and then sexually abused him. “Every time the neighbour and his friends used me, I got Rs.50-100 as a reward. I was always short of money. There was no profession where I could respectfully earn so much. Gradually, I started enjoying it.” By the age of 13, he had in effect been turned into a prostitute, and would hire himself out through the night. “It seems like the ideal job,” he says, with a laugh.
“Sometimes I got caught by the police,” he says. That’s when he started picking up Gupti. “ Dengu, dengu , someone would shout. It translates to ‘Police, police’. I picked up a lot of other words too. Like nejma (tooth), chalka (breast) and chamki (skin).” There are also unique words that have no equivalents in other languages — for instance, chapti (the orifice left behind after castration), a feature found only in Hijras.
Mallika was eventually initiated into the Hijra society, and given that name. “ Hijras are always renamed and given girly names,” Mallika says. “The Hijra language has substitutes for words. For sister, it is gothia , and grandma is nanguru . Though they have words to describe male characters — like chodda for an aged man or tonna for a young male or parik for male lovers — there is no male role inside the Hijra familial and social structure.”
Later, over the phone, Ranjeeta tells me why people like Mallika joined the community. “There is so much of woman in us that it’s hard to hide it most of the time. That makes us a social taboo. It’s hard to get jobs because of this and most people resort to joining the Hijra community for financial security. During the post-Mughal time women had to be hidden. They weren’t allowed to go out alone or reveal their faces. It was almost like the men were ashamed of them,” she says, her tone almost resentful. “But women have come such a long way. The last few decades were a struggle for them. We might have to undertake this struggle too.”
The first step may be giving up the Hijra clap. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi discourages its continuing use, as it has come to signify begging and extortion. “We have to blend in,” says Ranjeeta. “That’s the only way to be.”
Hijras dropping this unique aural identifier in an attempt to assimilate into the rest of society? That could mean the birth of a new era for this long-marginalised community, and the death of a rich language, beautiful in its own way.