Transsexuals In The Indian Society As A ​"Third Gender"

The term ‘hijra’, of course, is of Urdu origin, a combination of Hindi, Persian, and Arabic, literary meaning ‘neither male nor female’. Another legend traces their ancestry to The Ramayana. The legend has it that god Rama was going to cross the river and go into exile in the forest. All the people of the city wanted to follow him. He said “Men and women, turn back”. Some of his male followers did not know what to do. They could not disobey them. So they sacrificed their masculinity, to become neither men nor women, and followed him to the forest. Rama was pleased with their devotion and blessed them. There are transsexuals all over the world, and India is no exception. The purpose of this case study is to show their positions in society. Perceived as the lowest of the lows, they yearn for family and love.

The two events in mainstream Hindu culture where their presence is acceptable – marriage and birth – ironically are the very same privileges denied to them by man and nature. Not for them the seven rounds witnessed by the fire god, eternally binding man and woman in matrimony, or the blessings of ‘May you be the mother of a hundred sons’. (10-11)In another version of The Ramayana, when Rama leaves Ayodhya for his fourteen years’ exile, a crowd of his subjects follow him to the forest because of the devotion to him. Soon Rama notices this and gathers them to tell them not to move and that all the “men and women” of his kingdom should return to their places in Ayodhya. Rama leaves and has adventures for fourteen years. When he returns to Ayodhya, he found that the hijras, being neither men nor women, have not moved from the place where he gave his order. Impressed with their devotion, Rama grants hijra the boon to confer blessings on people during auspicious occasions like childbirth, weddings and inaugural functions. This boon is the origin of ‘badhai’ in which hijras sing, dance and give blessings.

However these very same transgenders are treated as non-living entities. The use of the pronoun ‘it’ to refer to them itself expresses the grudge that the mainstream people have for these kind of people who are even believed to be infertile. So from the time of their birth, they are emotionally forced to hide or silence their natural desires – of being a part of a family, a mother, a father, a wife, a brother, a daughter – of being loved by others and to love others. They hence develop a sense of frustration and isolation. They feel that they are not the bonafide members of the society and hence keep away from it. However they always long to be a part of the mainstream society and this is best revealed in the laconic speech of the head hijra Champa when Uma goes to meet her in her house to talk about bailing out Anarkali and finding the truth behind the death of Kamla, “Please excuse me, madam. I did not know that. . . You see us also as society, no?” (33) Further Anarkali’s declaration that she hasn’t killed Kamla who was like a sister for her, “I did not do anything to Kamla. She was my sister. ” (12) These words of Champa and Anarkali further challenges the age-old belief of the mainstream society that the hijras do not value relations and hence doesn’t deserve to be loved, cared or respected as individuals. These words of the two hijras itself unveil their inner self which is torn by the fear of social code and legal provisions, and which, with great surprise, receives consolation in the love, sympathy and humane words of Uma. However, not all in this play are with hatred for the hijras.

As an exception there is Subbu who loves Kamla and as promised marries her. But the marriage is unacceptable to his father, the minister, who puts an end to the relation by burning the hijra to death. Anarkali, Champa and other hijras knew this would be the end of that relation and hence they had given timely warnings to Kamla. But for Kamla, her love for Subbu and the love that he reciprocated for her were sincere and true, and she felt that they both could endure any hardships if together. But as destined, they failed before the hands of power, authority and hatred of the mainstream that was totally blind to their love. They burnt her to death and even stay away from the legal procedures. The play therefore turns spotlight on the corruption, hypocrisies and repression that “the big shot” are capable of because they are beyond the reach of law; they being a part of the accepted social order can do any crime on these unaccepted and marginalised individuals and no one is going to trial them. In this light, the struggle of Uma, the playwright’s mouthpiece, to solve the case and bring the culprit before the law is, we can say, a struggle to create visibility, voice and social space for such transgendered people who will thereafter be no longer be frozen into stereotypes; instead they too will have the freedom of choice and existence as normal individuals. By thus representing the hijra community on centre stage, Dattani was again stressing his abiding interest in non-normative, marginalised sexualities.

As in his other plays, here also Dattani makes use of an object which serves to represent their identities and that is again a photograph: The photograph was what Mr. Sharma was after. A Polaroid picture that Subbu and Kamla had taken soon after their private marriage wedding in some remote temple – picture of Kamla as a beautiful bride smiling at Subbu with the wedding garland around him. The poojari probably didn’t know that Kamla was not a woman. (41)Though Mr. Sharma gets Kamla killed and erased out of his son’s life for her, Subbu is under shock. He becomes mentally unstable after witnessing the murder of Kamla. Mr. Sharma hastily arranges for a marriage of Subbu with an acceptable heterosexual girl from his society but things get out of his hands when the hijras, including Champa and Anarkali, make their appearances in the wedding. The presence of Anarkali dancing and singing upsets Subbu; he is reminded of Kamla and in a hurry, snatches Suresh Rao’s gun and shoots himself. As per the Indian customs, hijras are, in the past and even today, considered indispensable and auspicious on occasions like wedding and childbirth. It is believed that their presence and blessing is essential for the couple to lead a happy and fertile life. Even a barren couple will become fertile if a hijra blesses him. Yet, they are cruelly rejected and even eliminated from society if they dare to break free of the social structures that control them. They are labelled ‘abnormal’ because they cannot reproduce; they are “barren” and “sterile” and this is a matter of great shame. But Dattani uses this same reason to unite the hijra community and the mainstream community in this play. Just like the hijras, the heterosexual characters in the play are also barren and childless.

There is Uma’s parents who couldn’t have children of their own and hence had to adopt Uma. Even the educated Uma feels that her parents had to adopt her probably because they didn’t please the hijras with sufficient money during their marriage and so they had cursed them: Is it true? Could it be true what my mother used to say about them? Did they really put a curse on her because they did not allow them to sing and dance at their wedding? Or was that their explanation for not being able to have children of their own? Or. . . a reason to give to people for wanting to adopt me? (17)Uma and Suresh Rao were also childless. The doctor whom Uma consulted had said that she can conceive and give birth and so the problem was perhaps with her husband Suresh. But the latter refuses to go for testing his fertility/barrenness.

As usual, the patriarchy declares that the couple is childless because the woman has a problem, even without coming out to undergo tests themselves. What the socially committed writer Dattani wanted to communicate to his audience is that the concept of infertility laid perhaps in the body and mind of hypocrites like Suresh Rao who dots to refer to hijras as ‘it’. Unlike him, Uma dares to enter the hijra community with compassion, sympathy and a helping attitude and it is actually this stance which helps her to solve the case of Kamla. The play ends with the suicide of Subbu which again leaves Mr. Sharma childless, for Subbu was his only son. The suicide of Subbu can be seen as a historical act of protest. Lesbian and gay couples committed suicide when they are unable to marry each other and lead a happy life together, and that too simply because the mainstream heterosexual society doesn’t sanction it.

So they choose to end their lives rather than live a life as opposed to their real sexualities. Hence almost every dialogue and scene in this play revolves around the reality of hijras – their origin, existence, plight, dilemma and the social status that others bestow upon them. Educated people as well those in authority verbally declare that hijras are a part of their society but when it comes to real life, they regard these third gendered people as unwanted creatures amidst them. The play has also another reference to Indian history. The name of the characters Salim and Anarkali is worth analysing because these two names refers to an episode in Indian history where patriarchy was opposed to the love between Salim and Anarkali and therefore the young woman was killed to protect the Mughal dynasty.

Likewise here too, it is Kamla who was burnt to death to protect the Sharma dynasty. So Dattani’s dig is sharply at the fact that love is not a mere gendered or sexual feeling; it is an emotional bonding that is beyond the reach of norms and beliefs of the ordinary man. Dattani is perhaps the first playwright to write a full-length play on hijras and this is his only play which presents hijras as human beings on centre stage – as people with individuality and craving for respect and space in society. Dattani here makes a mockery of the gender oriented social system and the homophobic attitudes of the mainstream which makes the transgenders feel ashamed of being born as a transgender. And it is this sense of shame which actually helps the mainstream to control and silence them and further push them into the unseen peripheries of society where they exist as entities being torn between social taboos and personal desires. From these unseen and unheard realms, they have been silently screaming throughout their lives at their helplessness of being trapped in bodies that are alien to their gender. And it is this silent screams that Dattani voices in his theatre to position hijras in the Indian society.

For achieving understanding and concern for hijras, Dattani built the story of the play upon a host of incongruities and oppositions that unravel both psychic and social conflicts and antagonism. The play reverses what has been traditionally labelled; the eunuchs are shown to be rational, emotional, human and selfless whereas the heterosexual characters are displayed as irrational, stony, inhuman and selfish. The eunuchs who are believed to be those who do not value relations are presented as being committed and truthful in their dealings.

On the other hand, the heterosexual humans who are destined to be humane are depicted as callous and animalistic in their daily life. The police and the other prisoners beat up Anarkali whereas Anarkali is enthusiastic to reciprocate love and respect if shown towards her. Furthermore, Dattani employs his theatre crafts much effectively. The dialogues and words are pointed, crisp and taken directly from the hijra vocabulary. The bold yet abusive language that he employs makes his upper middle class educated audience feel the humiliation and disgrace that hijras face daily in their life. And this is accompanied by the typical clapping of the hands and the coarse hijra songs which have no rhythm or pattern.

As Asha Kuthari remarks: The fact that Dattani is intrinsically a theatre person, rather than a writer, is evident in the way he is able to structure the stage mechanism effectively and how he, at times, allows the texts to speak for themselves, and look at their own workings and methodology. He employs a language that is often pungent, clear and sharp, pushing the spoken word to its limits, and interspersing them with pregnant silences that only someone with an intimate inwardness with theatre can. (Kuthari, 105)To conclude, the play can be seen as a protest play against the injustices meted out to the downtrodden in the story, as one which questions the age old belief that marital relationship can exist only between heterosexuals. Dattani is frankly making out the point that true and heartfelt relation can also exist between homosexuals and also between a heterosexual and a eunuch. Hijra are quite often sexually exploited and socially isolated; they are bound to become the “invisible” sections of the society, the lowest of the low on the steps of social hierarchy who face a double jeopardy as targets of both nature and society. They are regarded as objects that have no voice, sympathy, love, consolation, justice and acceptance in the society and so the socially conscious and committed Dattani challenges this conception and presents them as real living human beings. Thus in Seven Steps round the Fire, Dattani dives deep into the psyche of the hijras to portray characters like Kamla, Anarkali and Champa and thereby raises many queries regarding hijra and their identity – their constitution, connotations, social acceptability and tolerability.

The Indian law regards the ‘third gender’ as part of the human kind which deserves to enjoy human rights, freedom and all the privileges of the accepted majority. But in the real stage of life, these people are still isolated, ignored, suppressed and taken targets of eradication. Dattani acknowledges the reality of hijras and therefore makes a successful venture to present the same onto stage. He, unlike any other Indian English playwright, dares to give voice to this unheard part of the society on his theatre. And to be frank, it is to be said that one cannot deny the reality of the hijra world that Dattani presents which stares you in the face. And this is certainly why he is regarded as an emergent voice on the stage, as one who uses the theatre as a platform to depict lived traumatic human experiences which, no matter how sordid, unpleasant or hard to accept, is real and human.

15 Jun 2020
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