Beautiful People - the Eunuch community of Bombay

Eunuchs have been mentioned in the Mahabharata, in tales from the Mughal times and from ancient China. In all of these they played a role in royal and noble homes. But today, in Bombay, eunuchs are seen most often at traffic signals, asking for money. They have the image of 'aggressive' people who should be feared. Some grace weddings and birth celebrations - uninvited. They are believed to have special mystical powers to bless and (more importantly) to curse. And so they  are paid generously, to negotiate a blessing instead of a curse. Their wrath is feared and the eunuch community probably uses that fear as a tactic to sustain their livelihood. This community is poorly understood. Not only scientifically, but also socially. They lie on the outskirts of society and are seen as one of the menaces of society. To be ridiculed, to be shunned, and to be feared. Yet almost every individual I met and chatted with today, was soft-spoken and tender. Some were coy about facing my camera - like a young girl would be!   They were sweeter in their speech than I am...and as willing to chat as I was. Life has already dealt them a hard blow in their physiological differentness - and then society deals a harder blow by marginalising them. In my childhood I was herded away from them and kept 'protected' from them. Now as an adult, I decided to venture out to understand these people better. The rest of the article is about my first steps in that direction. *** Eunuchs  can be found at traffic lights, exchanging blessings for a little money - it's not exactly begging...because  a mere beggar could never expect to receive money in exchange for blessings. Met a few briefly. They all spoke a southern Indian language  that I did not know. Hopefully, in my future meetings some will share a common language with me and allow me a peep into their unique lives. One of them directed me to a temple in Antop Hill where they all congregate - to a Guru who is loosely the head of the community. Since I had a few hours, I decided to try my luck today. I had with me a kind rickshaw driver who had been taking me around all morning. He must have been enjoying this adventure himself, because when I requested him, he immediately agreed to park his rickshaw  and accompany me as my guide to the Kali temple - the haven of the eunuch community. After asking around, the temple was located. I climbed up the stairs alone...and found the Guru eunuch  in a deep conversation with someone else. I waited for a bit. Then I got impatient and thought that while the Guru was busy, I would get productive as well.  I took out the camera and started clicking shots of the temple. THAT was a big mistake - because this upset the guru since I had not waited for his permission before clicking. I apologised, I explained, and I pleaded.  I tried my best to make him see that my interest really lay in chatting with him and his community and I had little interest in the temple. But nothing I said worked. I had blown my chance. Sometimes you just have to walk away when it's too difficult to turn the situation around. So I left. But there are all the individuals at traffic lights that I am still determined to meet tomorrow. Oct 19th, 2010 *** Once again I set out today at 5 pm, determined to find more eunuchs at a few of the dozen traffic lights that I am familiar with. Once again I was blessed with a rickshaw driver who got completely drawn into the adventure and began assisting me in finding them. We met two eunuchs at the first traffic light.  My rickshaw driver in his attempt at assisting me began chatting with them and instantly made up a story about how my photographs would result in the government granting them a house!!!! After I finished admiring his ability to cook up such a story at a moment's notice....I asked him to stop misleading and to deal with them with sincerity. He understood. began chatting, and took a few pictures. They were a bit wary and on their guard - but just for a bit. Within a few minutes it became a friendly easy chat, and we spoke until we had exhausted the topics that our limited common vocabulary would allow us to cover. At the next traffic light at the Lucky Biryani place in Bandra, as we waited for the light to turn green, I saw the person I'd photographed yesterday and called out to chat. He came along and we had a friendly conversation and he invited to meet his friends tomorrow. He also wondered if my pictures would create any trouble for him. And I promised that I had no official use at all for the pictures, and assured him that there would not be any trouble because of me. This community, living as they do on the margins of society, have to resort to difficult ways to earn their livelihood. This gets them onto the wrong side of the police as well and they live in the fear of persecution. We went on to the next light and met a whole group. It took a few minutes to win their trust. And one by one they began talking.

They all spoke Telugu - which led me to conclude that they were all from the state of Andhra Pradesh. This made me wonder for awhile about how all of them could be from one geographical location! As I often do, I made an error in my conjecture: the language commonality led me to conclude that they all belonged to the same geographical location and the same gene pool. But when I heard the story of their community, I realised that I was on the wrong track. The custom in India is that at the time of birth, eunuchs visit the household - especially when a male child is born. If all is well, there is dancing and singing and a gift and the eunuchs leave.  In case all is not well  (I have no idea what that means) the child is taken away by the eunuchs and is raised as a member of their community. A community that has a hierarchy like any other institution. Therefore, children from all over the country are raised by a single group within a common environment. It is the common 'upbringing' and not the common geographical origin that created the common language! Today some of them laughed and shared a few happy moments with me, when I showed them their wonderful pictures and their bright smiles! I am hoping that someday I will win their confidence enough to be allowed to hear some of their life experiences. It is among the hardest lives I can imagine living...and yet they continue living and managing and not giving up. They seemed to have enjoyed the chats just as much as I did. My rickshaw driver's analysis was that no one ever treats them with respect or as an equal, or is interested in meeting them as people with a soul, and receiving that today, made them happy. They live in fear of the police, and in fear of the general public that only ridicules them. It cannot be easy to be in that life. Yet they have retained the laughter in their smiles and they have held on to joy .....it is heart wrenching and heart warming and inspiring and upsetting all at once ....that here are people to learn so much from, that life dealt a really bad hand to, and yet they can find things to laugh about! The image that lingers with me is one of the eunuch I met early in the day. He just sat on the road and made eye contact with me, allowed me to take pictures but would not speak a word. Heartbreak was written allover her face. We didn't speak in words but my heart went out to her and wished I could have done something to alleviate her trauma. Although the cause of the grief on her face was unknown to me,  that it was killing her was obvious to me as well as the rickshaw driver. If only outsiders could come in an make tragedies better! Who knows what tragedy upset her? A lover's betrayal? A death? Life itself? Lives can be so different and yet so similar! jm p.s. Times of India posted a weblink to this article on July 18, 2012


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