It was just another mundane morning. I was flipping through the pages of The Hindu, when a distant melody caught my ear. It was coming from somewhere down the road. Within seconds, I found myself walking, propelled by my love for music until I came across the house where two very tall women clad in Indian attire and rouge-brightened cheeks were singing, imploring the owner of the house to let them in because there had been a birth in the family.
I had seen eunuchs (hijras) before, but today, I saw them in a different light. In a world that had not quite woken up yet, Preet Simran and Saraswati were telling us about the reality of their existence through a language understood by all: the language of music. They sang about their own solitude and segregation from the world, and their song carried sanctifications, promising that what has befallen them would never, ever happen to others.
I have been studying gender and queerness for over a year now, with a focus on sexuality. The more I read about queerness (and its representation), the more I am intrigued by my own insensitivity towards the subject all my life. The term ‘Queer’ stands for something that is unusual or ‘deviant’, and in the late nineteenth century, became an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities. The term ‘eunuch’ refers to a man who was castrated very early in his life and LGBTQ rights activists have sought to bring them under the umbrella of the transgender identity. People with these unique identities defy contemporary ideas of sex and gender, but even though they have been a part of the Indian society since times immemorial, today, they are forced to live ghettoised lives, restricted to their own communities, where most make a living by dancing and singing (ironically, given society’s treatment of them) songs of love, happiness, and companionship. Because of regressive binary notions, Indian society does not consider hijras as their equals and only opens its doors to seek their blessings before starting a new life.
I fail to understand how we, as a society, have grown so blind to the suffering of this community. What is ‘normal’? What is deviant? And who decides this? Wasn’t humanity supposed to be about thoughtfulness and compassion for all?
A ‘gender identity’ is the state of personally identifying as a man, woman or any other in a particular culture. Such an identity may give a person a sense of belonging, and of being in the right place, which can go on to become a force according to which we express ourselves to stay protected. However, in our current culture, anybody who fails to comply with the notions fixed by society is labelled ‘unfit’ for it; they are shunned, they do not belong to us any longer.
Artwork by Tanvi Jani
This sense of ‘unbelonging’ then leads to isolation (even abuse) and leaves one with perpetual inner turmoil. That morning, meeting Preet Simran and Saraswati got me thinking about the binaries of the world – this human tendency to segregate everything into twos: good and bad, white and black, normal and the ‘other’. These women and many just like them are among us, breathing, existing, and surviving. There is, unquestionably, no reason at all for them to think of themselves as inferior to the rest of us and lead closeted, derogatory lives.
One of America’s foremost public intellectuals, Adrienne Rich, said in one of her poems that this is ‘the cage of cages’ — a life that one lives on the terms and conditions of others, a life that is artificial in every sense, a life that we live for the world. Doesn’t life force us to closet our true selves and succumb to what others expect of us? Simran and Saraswati’s struggles are the same: of not being able to conform to what the world expects of them, of not being able to be proud of who they are, of everlasting fears and humiliation, of never getting to play a part in the world.
To be queer is to be unique. It isn’t something to be afraid of or to hide – and the world needs to understand this. Let people embrace their queerness with pride while you embrace yours, let them be proud of who they are while you learn to be proud of yourself. We ought to open our hearts and arms to humanity because only love has the power to heal and save this world.
Simran Preet and Saraswati left for another house after giving me the warmest hug and a silent message, “Let us not die while we are still alive.”
Let none of us not die while we are still alive.