‘A Tale of the Hijras’ by Indian writer Abdul Jabbar is a realistic short story set in 1969, bringing out the life of the transgender eunuchs of India derogatorily called ‘Hijras’. The correct term for the eunuchs of India is Kinnar which roughly translates to ‘transgender’, so they shall be referred to hereafter in this short story analysis as Kinnars. ‘Hijras’ is the common slang word used for the eunuchs whose sexual orientation and gender identities range from intersex to transgender to transsexuals to asexual, and more. This story by Jabbar brings out the tale of three kinnars who make their living the way most kinnars did in the early years of our Independence period, that is by playing music at the birth of a male offspring of mainly Hindu families, prostitution, and by begging. Rupa, Maina, and Bansri are the three kinnars of Calcutta who appear in Raipur, a rural area in the region, to play music and offer their blessings to the family of Hari Ghoshal. This short story will bring out several themes based on this visit to Raipur, namely the hardships faced by the Kinnars, their traditional customs, the bias of the Indian society, LGBTQIA rights, the humanity of the Kinnars, the binary world view of the patriarchal society, the lives of Kinnars as outcasts of Indian society, and partially about Bengali society during the time of a newly Independent India. Note that the rights of the Kinnars in the twenty-first century are improving for the better in India with Kinnars being independent earners, working in established firms, being parents to children, being involved in social work, playing an active part in the health, education, and social awareness sector and also entering politics.
Rupa is the Gurumai or teacher-cum-mother figure of this band of singing Kinnars. She is fifty-five years old and is a transgender person born a male but identifying as a female. That is why she had a growth of hair on her face, which she had to shave every day. Rupa was a doting and emotional Gurumai, but she was also indifferent, harsh, and physically abusive towards the Kinnars in her care. Since she was transgender, she is referred to as a ‘he’ in the text. Otherwise, there could have been another possibility of gender inclusiveness in the writer’s mind whereby through the pronoun ‘he’, the writer wished to indicate that Rupa preferred to be referred to by the masculine pronoun ‘he’.
Where Maina and Bansri are concerned, it is a different story indicating thereby the issues, customs, and ancient practices of India concerning Kinnars. Maina was born intersex, which means that at birth itself, her sexual organs and infant reproductive organs did not give a clear indication to the doctors to which gender she belonged. Usually, in India, such children with questionable genitals or genitalia are taken away or sold to the local Kinnar community. Sometimes, the Kinnar community would contact the family instead of the other way around. Mothers like Maina’s mother are the ones who ardently wish not to part with their intersex children but typically have no say in the matter in traditional orthodox Indian societies. That is why in the text, Maina’s mother mentions that Rupa came and just took the newborn baby named Kamala away from her. It is to Maina’s traditional, orthodox, and priestly middle-class family that the band of Kinnars returns accidentally to celebrate the birth of Maina’s sister’s baby boy.
Where Bansri is concerned, she identified herself as female. But there is a hint in the text that she was cared for by a band of Kinnars, including Rupa, who picked her up from lower caste parents after their demise in the Calcutta epidemic. This is not unusual. Kinnars are very empathetic to the needs of newborn abandoned children and adopt them, even bringing up such children as heterosexuals. Bansri must have been transgender by choice, identifying herself as female. She scolds Rupa for bringing Maina to the home of her birth family as it would only unsettle Maina psychologically.
Maina’s mother recognizes the grownup Maina instantly, after identifying the fifty-five-year-old and now elderly Rupa who had taken Maina away when she was a child. Maina’s mother and Ramala, Maina’s sister, shower love on their long-lost child/sibling. They lament their eternal separation from her but incidentally do not negate that what had happened was not right. This is because of the Hindu custom to regard the Kinnar community as worse than an outcast. Sections in the text allude to this terrible fact, but thankfully, this is changing in modern-day India. Kinnars, however, in 1969, were:
- They were looked down upon and not allowed to live in their birth family because of being LGBTQIA.
- To prevent themselves from being regarded as outcasts with their LGBT child, the families were more than willing to save the family’s honor by parting with them permanently.
- Kinnars were not respected in religion, society, and families and were not permitted to work, marry officially, look after children, or gain an education.
- They were relegated to a position worse than that held by the lower castes and prostitutes.
- As Rupa mentioned correctly, they were not allowed to stand witness in court even in a murder case because their word was not deemed convincing.
- Kinnars, until very recently, were not even considered to be completely human by the law courts of India, thus being subjected to an almost sub-human lifestyle.
Maina’s father was a priest. It was imperative for his job and his family’s honor, upkeep, and caste that he should not have anything to do with the Kinnars. However, on seeing Maina, he was choked with tears but was helpless in the face of their predicament. Kinnars are not given jobs in respectable society and are made the butt of lewd jokes, jibes, mockery, and degraded by society. Here too, we see them being jeered and mocked at by urchins, laborers, and young men wherever they went. Concerning the jibes, urchins, and uneducated lower castes and laborers did not have pity or empathy for the Kinnars when they should have known better, they being poor and of the lower caste. Where the jeers of the young men in the tea shop are concerned, their lewd jokes and ‘arousal’ on seeing the beautiful Maina is a paradox of Indian society that heterosexual men who degrade and treat the Kinnars as sub-human are the ones who are sexually aroused or stimulated by them. We see that Rupa forces the young and beautiful Maina into prostitution for perverted and LGBTQIA clients. Statistics show that as many heterosexual young men visit the brothels of Kinnars as LGBTQIA individuals. That brings out the bitter irony of this binary gender society debacle. We realize that Maina hated prostitution but was forced into it by the unwavering Rupa.
There are several traditional customs and observed ways of the Kinnars noted in this short story, which are as follows:
- They wear glass bangles, trinkets, and gaudy sarees, apply cheap makeup, and outwardly portray themselves as very jovial.
- They reveal their private mutilated genitalia or private parts to taunt or even shoo away lewd and intolerable people. However, this practice is not as widespread as some writers make it out to be, and it is only in sheer desperation that Kinnars resort to this act. The younger set of Kinnars in modern-day India has almost stopped this practice.
- They live communally with a Guru to guide and delegate work and train them as Kinnars.
- Most Kinnars accept donations by spreading the shawl of their sarees and, after taking the gifts, bestow their blessings on the family. Even Rupa receives a donation of paan, betel nut, sweetmeats, and money from Maina’s mother in the same manner. They are sought after in Indian society for their blessings, especially at the birth of a male infant. This is because of the irony in their situation that although they are abused by society, the same society in their customs, rituals, and holy books considers that a Kinnar can bestow the gift of fertility, bring good luck, and can remove the ‘evil eye’.
- Young married and unmarried girls love their company because Kinnars are believed to be heralders of the birth of a male child.
- They are mainly non-vegetarian unless they are undergoing a special fast.
- They are relegated to the outskirts of society and so live in slums among prostitutes. Maina, Rupa, and Bansri lived in the Tollygunge slum of Kolkata, which is one of the oldest slums of India.
- Their life is tough, so they take to drugs and smoke heavily. Bansri and Rupa seem to be fond of smoking marijuana even on the doorstep of Maina’s family house, unmindful of the jeers they receive. Note that they were jeered and stared at because, in the 1960s, it was uncommon to see a woman in a saree smoking a cigarette or a cigar, which was usually the prerogative of men.
- Kinnars under their Gurumai or leader had to give a significant part of their earnings to the Gurumai. The remaining amount was left to spend and save as they pleased. Some Gurumai were ruthless and greedy for money and used to rob their young Kinnars of their earnings. Probably that is why Maina does not disclose to Rupa the little money she managed to get from her mother and Ramala less the older Kinnar snatch it from her.
- Kinnars constantly chew betel leaf and love to receive betel leaf or paan as a donation from a client or patron. In this short story, Rupa and her band are gifted an ample supply of paan by Maina’s family.
The short story is written to bring out the empathy one should have for this otherwise mistreated community of LGBTQIA people. The viewpoint of the distressed family of such a Kinnar is also brought out in an emotive way, something akin to Munshi Premchand and the more serious writings of R. K. Narayan with the insight of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay but lacking the immensity of his pathos. This short story would be chronicled in today’s Indian literature as social issue fiction and LGBTQIA fiction. One cannot help but regard the plight of Maina with sadness, and her condition would have instead been better if they had never brought her to her birth home. Rupa’s accident heightens Maina’s love for her family. Still, even she knew that if she returned to them, as she tried to do that same night after returning to Kolkata, her family would be socially ruined. Her father would not be invited to go to people’s homes to conduct the traditional home-puja or worship ceremonies. She recklessly thought of returning to Raipur the way we usually see Guruji Rabindranath Tagore’s protagonists do in his stories. However, unlike in Tagore’s stories, Maina rethinks her action and returns to Kolkata. For a Kinnar, the only proper person she can count on is her present Gurumai. Instead of punishing Maina, Rupa allows her the privilege rarely given to others to sleep on her cot and revive herself from her fever. Rupa rightly puts it that even God in the form of fixed society shivers to think of Kinnars, in the sense that if taken rightly, the Kinnars’ existence can shake the very foundations of mainstream binary society.
There are some instances in the text which need to be explained before we end this analysis:
- The Moon landing of 1969 was treated as something inauspicious by certain orthodox sections of Indian society. Therefore, they tended to be against the whole act of the US moon landing.
- Kolkata was predominantly pro-communist, pro-leftist, and pro-socialist. The young men with red banners or flags protesting against the moon landing were communist party workers. They were protesting against the misplaced values of the Americans or the West, who had ample money to invest in moon exploration but not enough to save the lives of the poor dying people on earth. Also, they were the same Americans who bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing and maiming thousands for life, which they used as a protest point.
- We notice that during the protest of the Communists, even Rupa is motivated by their peaceful demonstration and shouts a slogan but is jeered and taunted by them. This indicates that even in 1969, the political voice of the Kinnar community was not so strong. This further shows that with the correct exposure and education, along with a change in the mindset of the socially aware public, even Kinnars and other LGBTQIA persons would soon be entering politics and social work in the coming decades. Only time will tell whether the world will see greater development and improvement in the lives of this community.
- It is mentioned that the harvest was not good, which is symbolic of the fertility of humans and their reproductive rights, which would keep on changing as the decades went by. Artificial means to enhance or stop reproduction where the culminating acts are concerned are symbolically indicated in that part of the text.
- There is a mention of an educated young man sitting under a yam tree and reading a newspaper with a transistor near him. He sits there supervising his laborers until he sees the Kinnars. This is probably the writer of the story himself as an empathetic observer and narrator of this tale.
- The pronouns used regarding the Kinnars are not utilized in LGBTQIA modern-day fiction. The pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ is now considered rude, abusive, and distressing. They have been replaced by gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronouns like they/them/theirs, considered more inclusive.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this Bengali Indian short story. I hope to read and analyze more Indian short stories and other fiction in the coming days. If you are interested in reading an award-winning collection of LGBTQIA short stories, you can check out my novel titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. If you were helped by this review and want to know more about me, you can check out my two memoirs titled The Reclusive Writer & Reader of Bandra and Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. I hope to read and review more social issue realistic fiction soon.
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