The heat is appalling. The midday sun beats down mercilessly upon our bare heads. The tarred road seems to undulate under my feet, and I feel as though wave upon wave of hot air, incensed with cow dung and dog piss is reaching up to my nostrils. I trip over the hem of my saree. Lata grips my elbow, steadying me, patting me in reassurance.
Sita cackles, ” Whore! Can’t you watch where you are going?” She is particularly waspish today. Disappointed that her tryst last night didn’t go well. I ignore her, and huddle closer to Lata.
Our motley crew makes its noisy way forward. There is a lot of discordant singing. We clap our hands together, as only we can. Brazen, defying all social taboos. We are the hijras.
I don’t remember when I first realised I was different. I grew up in this community of strange half men/ half women. I knew no better. Lata was the mother I never had. Tender in her surrogacy, and fierce in her protection. She was the one who taught me how to wrap a saree around my angular body, how to shave closely so that the 5 o’clock shadow wouldn’t show up too soon. How also to apply the makeup with such precision that my masculine features would soften and blend into an accepted caricature of a woman.
” Move it girls. Move it! Not far to go now. It is on this street. “, Radha urges us on. She is the guru. Our leader of sorts. The one who keeps us together. Binds us in our misfortune.
Sita stops in protest. She uses the edge of her saree pallu to wipe the sweat off her face. Sighing dramatically, she looks heaven wards and declares,
“I cannot move another step I tell you! This heat is destroying me. Look, all my makeup is washing off. Radha ji are you sure we are going the right way? Only, the last few times, you have led us astray.”
Her cronies giggle. Radha frowns at her. She knows where this is going. Her leadership has been in question for a while. Radha is ageing, and sometimes her memory fails her. Sita has been biding her time. I shudder to think how things will change, as and when she does usurp the top slot.
We follow Radha, and Sita and her band join us again after some discussion. A hawker stares at us open mouthed. He is but a boy. Sita winks at him lasciviously. An old woman we encounter crosses the street hurriedly, spitting in our direction, mouthing prayers. Ultimately we come to a corner shop. I lean against the peepul tree and fan myself while the others drink the Fanta offered by the shop keeper. He is a garrulous sort.
“Yes, yes. They had the baby on Friday. What is today? Hmmm, Monday. Yes, the girl has come to stay with the mother. She will stay at least two months. Husband hasn’t come with her. What?? Yes, it’s a boy. Happy day for the family. After three girls, they finally get the boy. “
More probing, and he chats on happily.
“Business family…Jains you know. But there was some talk of the husband leaving her if she didn’t have a boy this time. Yes, yes. Very happy. They distributed sweetmeats to everyone in the colony.”
Radha offers him money for the drinks, but he refuses to take it. He wants our blessings. I cringe as we go through an elaborate display of blessing his shop, and he, in turn, touches our feet with such humility. To him, we are the ardhanaris, an amalgamation of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. We are divine, and therefore able to confer blessings.
It is nearer 2pm when we arrive at the house. My feet feel swollen in my slippers, and the shiny straps chafe on the blisters that have sprung up under them. The gates are locked and there appears to be no sign of life. We are used to this. Someone must have tipped them off. Radha clangs the gates, and motions to us. Immediately we start our raucous singing. Some of us start to dance, swaying our hips in a strange parody of a Bollywood number. We sing a medley of songs. At first they are happy songs, but slowly they turn acerbic. Our singing is louder now, and harsher. The curtains twitch.
An old woman comes out, head bowed and palms joined together. Politely she asks us to leave. Sita cusses her out.
“Ayah? They send an ayah?? Who the bloody hell do you think we are? Fucking bastards!!”
Radha interjects, and calmly directs the woman to tell her memsahib that we won’t leave till we have seen and blessed the baby. The old lady shuffles back inside.
We are in!
The new mother sits with the infant at her breast, looking scared and swollen. Her mother hovers nearby, offering us water and ladoos. We want neither. Radha politely asks to see the baby, and the mother reluctantly hands her son over. Gently, his clothing is removed, and his genitals checked. My heart palpitates over this process, and a lonely lament leaves my lips unbidden. They sit dumbstruck as my song weaves its magical spell on my audience. I sing with my heart, and rarely are the recipients unmoved.
With a nod and a smile, Radha returns the child to his mother. All is well. The mother smiles shyly at me, and I give her head a little pat. Something wrenches in me as I belatedly realise that perhaps my mother was not quite as lucky.
We are offered Rs 2000.
” Too little! “, spits out Sita.
Radha bargains with a practised air. It goes on a while. I watch the baby suckling at his mother’s breast.
We leave, happy to settle somewhere between the amount offered, and the amount demanded. It has been a good days work.
We dress in our finest for the wedding in the evening. Gaudy sarees and jangly bangles compete for attention with the lurid lipsticks and the jasmine flowers in our hair. In twilight, we are nearly attractive. It is no wonder that so many husbands come to find solace in our arms. We cannot offer them domesticity, but we can offer oblivion. If only for a few hours.
The shamiana is decorated with a myriad coloured lights that twinkle from a distance. The cacophonous band blares an assortment of hindi songs. It drowns out our approach.
Suddenly we are in the midst of the wedding guests. We are thrusting our pelvises and grinding against the men. It is our usual modus operandi. They move away from us in disgust. The women mutter and glance our way, riveted nonetheless.
We proceed towards the podium on which the bride and groom are being felicitated. There has been no offer of money yet from the stunned hosts. So we must continue to embarrass them till we are dispatched with a suitable payment .Sita is now threatening to disrobe, and we lustily egg her on. Quite suddenly she stops. Her eyes are on the groom, who has moved the flowers away from his face to view the kerfuffle. It is her paramour no less! With a renewed cockiness, she resumes her gyrations. I watch her closely. There is a brittleness to her.
The lathi charge comes so suddenly that for a moment it seems to be a frozen tableaux. The groom’s uncle is a sub inspector, and his police reinforcements aren’t far behind. We are shoved out of the marquee to the sound of cheers. Outside we are beaten to a pulp. Sita’s saree is torn off her.
” You wanted to get naked?? Come, let me help you. ” , the policeman jibes. She clings to her the tatters of her vestments, shaking in terror. Radha tries to intervene, and the heavy stick comes down on her head with a loud thwack. She is left to bleed on the side of the road, while we are taunted and groped and hit mercilessly, all in the name of law and order. Not a single passer by comes to our aid. The wedding party continues inside with an added frisson to its gaiety.
It is a broken and humbled crew that reassembles and limps our way back. We lean on each other : Radha on Sita, Lata on me. The tears come later. Much much later, when we are in our respective beds, cocooned in our loneliness and pain. We soothe ourselves to sleep. We have an early start the next day. We have work to do. We have money to earn. With this thought, I drift off to sleep. To the land of dreams. The only landscape that affords no judgement.