The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India, by Zia Jaffrey. Vintage Books, ISBN 0679-74228-X (paper).

First published in Triple Echo, v. 1 no. 2, 1999

Several years aginvisibles3o when I was in Africa, I was struck by how little use my Western ideas and values were to my new African reality. If you go there firm in your belief that all things Western represent the Truth, you quickly find yourself on shifting sands. The natural inclination is to cling to what you know, but the best way to survive is to adapt to your new culture.

This is a simplified explanation for why ethnocentrism is the great horror of anthropology. It explains why no anthropologist will ever equate the hijras of India with Western trans people. That’s fair enough. The hijras have a long and colourful cultural tradition to define them. We, on the other hand, are stuck with the DSM.

Today the hijra culture is evident, superficially at least, at weddings and births, where they arrive uninvited, sing, dance and then get paid to leave. Zia Jaffrey happened to be at such a wedding when the hijras arrived. As an American woman of Indian ancestry, aware that she didn’t belong completely to either culture, she found them fascinating. She recognized in them and in herself what Marjorie Garber describes in her book Vested Interests as a “crisis of category”:

Everything about them suggested paradox; they were not men, nor were they women; they were not invited to perform, but neither were they uninvited; they carried the instruments of song, but made no pretense of being able to sing; they blessed the bride and groom, but through a stream of insults; they were considered a nuisance, even extortionists, and yet they were deemed lucky; they were paid not to perform, but to leave everyone in peace; they partook of the rites of passage that they themselves were incapable of – marriage and birth.

Although primarily a book on the hijras, The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India is also an amusing account of Jaffrey’s own crisis of category. It is “a hybrid book, with a hybrid subject, in a hybrid form, written by a hybrid herself.”

Her decision to write this book the way she has, not as a scholarly work, nor a conventional piece of Western journalism, but as a non-linear investigation was largely due to two uniquely Indian circumstances. The first is the general indifference of the Indian people to the hijras, and the ignorance that naturally follows from such an attitude. The second is that the hijras themselves are so secretive about who they are and what they do that prevarication is their preferred mode of communication, to outsiders at least. Consequently, she has to piece the story together in a haphazard fashion, making contacts here and there, gently insinuating herself into hijra houses or “families” and earning a fragile trust.

It’s a complicated story with many geographical, cultural and psychological variations.

The hijras at one time had a specific role in Indian society, which was literally as a go-between for the segregated male and female populations. They were keepers of the royal harem, cooks and attendants to the women, often becoming their confidants. Their role at weddings was not unlike that of the Shakespearean fool. They sang songs and danced and made jokes at the expense of the groom’s family.

Different roles in the household required different eunuchs. The more masculine, brawny eunuchs were keepers of the royal harem. They wore men’s clothes and thought of themselves as he. Another portion of the hijra population wore women’s clothes, performed women’s chores and considered themselves she. Hijras were, in short, a part of the royal household.

Jaffrey inserts portions of historical documents into her story which provide a background to her own investigation. These documents demonstrate the abhorrence with which hijras were viewed by European travellers and their eventual displacement under British rule. As western thinking became dominant, Indians grew to be ashamed of them and, by extension, of a part of their own history. Their role diminished and their dignity now non-existent, the hijras have become defensive, secretive and at times obstreperous, qualities which have further alienated them from the population.

The reason the hijras survived as a class is a historical one. In recognition of their valuable service to the royal household, many hijras had land bequeathed to them.

Land is, of course, a valuable commodity anywhere, and especially so in India. By organizing themselves into households, or families, and by establishing strict rules that have been passed down through the years and maintained by the house guru, they have managed to avoid the destitution that is so common among the Indian population.

While that may explain their economic survival, how do they acquire new adherents? After all, for the majority of the population castration is not a preferred life choice. Despite a belief that hijras kidnap boys, and Jaffrey does refer to several such cases, it seems likely that most hijra societies now continue because of sexual “misfits”. The tradition of hijras showing up at births, for example, which was not a part of their duties in the royal household, seems to have started when intersex children were willingly handed over to the hijras. All of which leads us back to the issue of trans people and the hijras of India.

Obviously a complicated cultural tradition cannot be equated to Western concepts of transsexualism and transgenderism. It seems equally clear, however, that the hijras represent a ready made cultural institution into which Indian trans people could integrate, provided they followed the strict rules of the house. These rules, while repressive, may seem a small price to pay for acceptance, food and a roof over your head. (Jaffrey calls it the repression, not freedom, to be what you are.) A lot of Western trans people only dream of such a fate So while it is clear that all hijras are not trans people, surely a lot of them are. And as the cultural eunuch disappears, there no longer being a role for a brawny eunuch to guard the royal harem, the gender eunuch takes his place. Or are the anthropologists suggesting that no such creature exists in India? That seems dubious to say the least, and even more so when one considers the alacrity with which one portion of the hijra population, the non-landowning zenanas who survive mostly through prostitution, are labelled transvestites. Apparently if you lapse into Western forms of survival, the parallels become easier to make. This is not to suggest that landowning hijras do not engage in prostitution also. Apparently some do, although their oaths of secrecy and perhaps their delicacy prohibit them from admitting it.

The point I am making is that there has to be a broader means of interpreting trans people than their behaviour within a specific culture at a specific time. At what point does the anthropologists’ avoidance of ethnocentrism become a tacit support for the current gender system? Does the DSM define me? Hardly. Do the restrictive rules of the hijra houses define them? I don’t think so. That is culture, not gender. As one of the hijras tells Jaffrey:

“What I am explaining is if the child’s soul is feminine, then whether there is an operation or not doesn’t make any difference.”

The hijras are prone to vagueness when speaking about the “operation”, but her observation on the soul is undoubtedly sincere. And after all the obfuscation of culture, the soul may provide the most accurate definition of what it means to be trans.