Although my association with Gaysi has exposed me to a large part of Mumbai’s Queer community, personally I have always been intrigued by the lives of the regular transgender. So far, the only transgender friends I have had are either successful leaders within the community, or talented stylists working in the Hindi Film and Television industry – almost mainstream if one may dare put it that way. While their journey is remarkable, I have always been curious about hijras; the ones who we see – and many a times ignore – on the streets.
Last Sunday, Gaysi went on an impromptu adventure with the Hijras of Nehru Nagar, Juhu. Getting their contact number was not a herculean task because the security guards of most of the housing blocks are best friends with local Hijras and in some cases their agents.
We called Shilpa Sigh on her mobile number who at first sounded suspicious of us. She asked us to call back 15 minutes later since she was busy filling water from the local pump. Assuming it was just her way of politely declining to meet us, we did not call back. But 15 minutes to the dot, we received a missed call from Shilpa.
We arranged to meet Shilpa and her guru Anjali at a vada pav wala opposite Mithibai College i.e. neutral ground, to chat with them and make sure they were comfortable with us before we set out to capture an evening of their life. Us in our florescent shorts, them in their glowing saris…it was a match made to happen. Or so the on-lookers must have thought.
[Anjali (left) & Shilpa (right)]
Shilpa Singh (age: 26), Anjali Bhovi (age: 32), and Mona Bhovi (age: 28) greeted us with their starlet smiles. What was most intriguing to me was how openly and willingly they told us their story. Shilpa and Anjali, both ran away from their hometown 8-10 years ago in search of “someone like them”. Even though they are in touch with their families and have visited them a couple of times, they are not welcomed with open arms. It’s more the ridicule from the neighboring houses that keeps them away. Yet whatever little Shilpa and Anjali earn is sent to their paternal family. Anjali said to me that no matter what, our family means the most to us, and even though she was told not to visit her sick mum in fear of embarrassing the family, she gained some solace in being able to provide for her financially.
Mona on the other hand has a different story to tell. She lives with her mother in Nehru Nagar. And even though her mother has been supportive, Mona’s initial coming out lead her to self-isolation. Her loneliness resulted in over indulgence in alcohol. After a brief stay in municipal hospital, she found her guru and friend in Anjali.
These women don’t have much, but they make do with whatever little that is earned from visiting houses during marriages or childbirth in their neighbourhood, giving blessings to lost in love couples at Juhu beach and sometimes out of sheer generosity of Bollywood celebrities. Their average earnings per day can be anywhere between Rs.500 to Rs. 2000. Good part of their day is usually spent cleaning, washing and cooking whereas evenings are spent doing door-to-door visits and at the beach.
Though police harassment seems synonymous with the Hijra community, Anjali and Shilpa both have different experience. They are neither helped nor harassed by them. Recently Anjali had a break in at home, and in place of registering her complaint she was politely turned away and advised not to get into unnecessary police procedures.
Their World Within
Nehru Nagar is sprawling with people, tiny lanes and even tinier houses. From the outside it’s a little difficult to comprehend how those living there go about their day lives, unperturbed.
Shilpa and Anjali are on friendly terms with their immediate neighbours – mostly out of necessity. For advice they seek other members of the community. It’s a word often used by Anjali during our 30 minute conversation.
Shilpa, Anjali and Mona live, roam and engage with the world at large. They have families, they earn a living and they make friends. Yet, what became evident from our conversations with them is while their lives are as regular or mainstream as anyone else, there is still a latent marginalization at play against the hijra. Within society and without. Perhaps that explains why despite neighbors and family, it’s in each other’s company that they truly feel at home.