At some point during Shoot Your Heroes Week here at PFC, I had an exchange with Eric Baker in our incestuous comments section that led me to remember the time I crossed the Rann of Kutch in a rickety van in search of the secret temple sacred to the hijras, the notorious eunuchs of India.

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton became the one and only hero I’d ever had around page one hundred of Edward Rice’s superlative best-selling biography of him, which I read when it first came out in the early 90s.  This is the kind of man I would have tried to become had I been a Victorian with the sort of linguistic and scholarly brilliance with which he was blessed.  Burton was a character far more extraordinary than his contemporary Rudyard Kipling in many respects; he didn’t just dream of the Indian subcontinent and the British Raj in poems and novels, he lived it, playing the Great Game to the very edge of brinksmanship with a level of chutzpah I aspire to.

With an arsenal of over twenty languages at his disposal, all of which he spoke fluently, Burton started out as a spy reporting to Her Majesty’s government from the badlands of the Hindu Kush in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, regions that are still a thorn in the world’s collective side, and were just as much so back then, except the battle was between Great Britain and Russia, not America and Islam.  Because he was swarthy, Burton could pass off as a fair-skinned Central Asian, and to account for his slight accent in various regional dialects he would claim to be from some other place in the Islamic world, and got away with it.  For example, when he went on the Hajj to Mecca, a place absolutely forbidden to Westerners at the time on pain of death, he pretended he was an Afghani Pathstun to account for his odd accent in Arabic, praying the whole time he wouldn’t get caught out by other Pashtuns on the pilgrimage.

Burton. I’m getting there.

 

Burton’s adventures and accomplishments were myriad and above all interesting in the sense that he was immune to taboos and Western social conventions, highly unusual for a Victorian, and it landed him in a whole lot of trouble back home.  He translated the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra and introduced them to our culture.  He “discovered” the source of the Nile in a hair-raising adventure during which he almost lost his life several times; after getting a short spear thrown in his cheek, he walked with it lodged in place to the nearest village for an entire day.

Burton was also probably gay, or at the very least bisexual.  We’ll never really know because his evil wife, the hyper-Catholic Isabel, destroyed much of his work after his death, in particular the last chapters of his translation of Skeikh Newfazi’s The Perfumed Garden, which are thought to have been about the virtues of homosexuality.

In researching that book and other aspects of Eastern sexuality, Burton became fascinated with the eunuchs he encountered in the various Oriental courts. He observed two important phenomena: firstly, that despite being fully castrated, meaning minus the penis as well as the testicles, eunuchs were able to transfer their erogenous zones to the anus, and achieve full orgasm; secondly, that they tended to become very pious in old age.  For some reason these details stuck with me as I became inspired by Rice’s book to continue my research into institutionalized castration in India.

Call me an Orientalist, but it was scenes like this one of young Burton that kept me in India.

I say ‘continue’ because Burton was not the first to introduce me to Indian eunuchs, a term I use to distinguish them from the modern European/American transsexual, even though they are the same kind of person in spirit, the “T” in LGBT.  Despite efforts by grassroots activist groups in India in recent years to make the transgender process less painful and more sanitary, the traditional hijra doesn’t enjoy the therapy sessions, the hormone treatments, the gradual surgeries that her counterparts in the West enjoy.  It is a far more brutal, dangerous, ritualized process, which I’ll describe later in this peice—you should probably think about scanning over that part if you’re squeamish, or at least cross your legs if you’re a man.

When I was in my early twenties, I was contracted by Indian film director Muzaffar Ali to write the biopic of a medieval Kashmiri poetess named Khaba Khatoun.  It was supposed to be Doctor Zhivago meets The Last Emperor, which had just come out, and for which Ryuichi Sakamoto had just won the Oscar for Best Musical Score with David Byrne.  Being completely smitten with Emperor, as well as with Sakamoto’s music, I contacted him and got him to do the music for our film, too.  I’ll blog about my week with him in Tokyo some other time; it was fun adventure.  Two-time Cody Award-winner Mary McFadden was doing the costumes.  It promised to be an amazing production.

Shortly after I settled in to write the script in Juhu Beach (‘the Malibu of Mumbai’… yeah, right), Muzaffar and I started doing meetings while he “jogged” on the beach in the evenings, followed by a posse of his retainers.  Muzaffar was the crown prince of Kotwara, and ancient principality in north central India, and as such was accustomed to moving everywhere with a retinue, even to exercise.

One evening while out on one of these group jogs, courtiers in tow, I was right in the middle of an important thought about some scene or other when we were suddenly surrounded by these very loud young trannies in saris, horrendously made up, clapping their spread open palms together and croaking, “Hai! Hai! Baba! Gimme bakshish, gimme bakshish!”  By that time I’d been in India for a month and was an old hand with the rampant beggar issue, but this was a hilarious new twist on it.

While Muzaffar and his retinue clammed up and picked up pace, I burst out laughing.  These creatures were ridiculous.  Plus, despite being closeted professionally, I was fluent in the International Language of Ghey.  If I’d been able to speak proper gutter Hindi, I might have said, Look at what hot messes you girls are.  You call that drag?  At least pad your bra and wash that sari.  Sashay away, bitches!

Instead, I said to Muzaffar, giggling, “What do they need money for?  Better nail polish?”  That was one thing I noticed: the nail polish on those clapping hands was horribly chipped.

“Shut up,” Muzaffar hissed.  “They’re hijras.”

I had no idea what this meant, but I was keen to find out; after all, these were the first Gheys I’d met in India.  Muzaffar wouldn’t speak more about it; this wasn’t the sort of conversation a prince had, certainly not in front of his entourage.  It was up to one of the production managers to explain it to me later on, after much cajoling on my part; there are a few things Indians are very uncomfortable talking to foreigners about, among them weird phenomena like hijras, or institutionalized transgenderism, and the caste system, or institutionalized genetic engineering.

A hijra prepares. Note nail polish.

It was explained to me that the hijras were roving bands of hermaphrodites who kidnapped young boys and made them just like them.  Shortly after almost every male child is born in India, the mother is visited by the local band of hijras and a negotiation is struck: for saris and money in exchange for them to bless the child, rather than curse him if demands aren’t met.  The eunuchs then agree to show their mutilated genitalia as proof they are real and not masquerading to con the unsuspecting new mother, after which they sing songs and comically reenact the pains of childbirth, and finally bless the child.  On specific days of the week, they come out and beg on the streets, threatening to lift their saris and flash drivers stuck in traffic if their demands aren’t met.  Prudish Indians often give in, especially those with children on board.  A few hijras, usually ones who are not in a group, are prostitutes, but in general that’s frowned upon.

I suspected something was wrong from the start about this “kidnapping” bit, not to mention the fact that hermaphrodites are pretty rare.  In fact, Muzaffar’s production manager was avoiding the word “eunuch,” if he knew it at all.  Although natural hermaphrodites are held in the highest regard by the hijra community, and are the most sacred, the majority are just men.  And because their voices are deep, croaky and broken, I had difficulty believing that they were kidnapped and forced to surrender their genitalia.

Just as we Gheys are accused by the ignorant in the West of being pedophiles, the hijras of India are blamed for stealing little boys and perverting them.  I suppose that’s one way to make your kid stick by your side in a crowded bazaar on the days these feral trannies are out and about: tell him he’s going to be snatched and have his dick and balls cut off.

Photo: Peter Cantor

After I began my informal study of hijras, it emerged that they don’t kidnap boys at all, of course. With their finely tuned gaydars, they spot effete young men in the bazaars who feel a woman inside them screaming to be free, and lure them to join the group.  Just as I suspected, the ‘operation,’ if you can call it that, is done willingly; had they been forcibly castrated as children, their voices would have remained high pitched, like the castrati singers of Baroque Europe.

I was a victim myself of this razor-sharp hijra gaydar a couple of years after my first encounter with them on the beach.  By then, the local hijras of Juhu knew me and I knew them.  They were aware they had no effect on me, that I was immune to superstitions and as unafraid of them as I would be of trannies in my native New York.  I would smile and wave and barked, “Wassup, ladies?” or something like that, clearly mocking them.  They stayed well away from the brazen American filmi-writer.

I was on my way to a script meeting with yet another director I was writing for at the time (an unsavory character with the very opposite of Muzaffar’s princely demeanor and lifestyle), when an eighteen-year-old boy caught my eye, one of the most beautiful creatures I’d ever laid eyes on.  I was only twenty-five at the time, but I had a beard and I’m tall, so I looked much older.  He spotted me coming out of my hotel and strutted ahead down the streets as if he knew exactly the direction I was heading.  Now that I think about it, perhaps he did.

On the outskirts of the bazaar, the boy, who was to become my first long-term relationship, crossed in front of me and licked his lips, which unbeknownst to me was the Indian way of cruising, of saying you like a guy and want to have sex.  The gesture was so erotic, and I hadn’t had sex in such a long time, that I instantly got hard, from zero to ninety degrees in one second flat.  It was hot out, so I was wearing light, voluminous trousers and boxer shorts, which meant my flash arousal was in plain sight and nearly impossible to hide.  Luckily, I was able to cover myself with my script pages.

But not in time to have avoided the hawkeyed hijras.  The entire group saw the whole episode: the boy cross in front of me, the licking of his lips, my reaction to it.  They burst into raucous laughter and screaming, pointing at me and my crotch and making lewd gestures, clapping their hands in that particular way, “Hai! Hai!

There was nothing lost in translation: their taunting was International Language of Ghey for Oh, snap! Gotcha, bitch. 

Continued here.

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