This article was written following an interview with a well-known hijra advocate in Mumbai. I was doing research on hijras for my BA dissertation and managed to get an interview with Laxmi Tripathi near the end of my research period. The Guardian also recently video interviewed Laxmi, you can find the interview here.
As I walk into a small office Laxmi has agreed to meet us in, I am met with a woman whose large brown eyes are framed in thick black kohl and whose curly brown hair tumbles down to her waist. Whilst her height and expressive eyes make an impression, it is her huge character which dominates the room.
Listening to Laxmi Narayan Tripathi is like listening to tinny recordings of Winston Churchill; if Winston Churchill wore bright red lipstick and had black manicured nails extending like talons from bejewelled fingers. Her voice rings out with conviction as she states the facts of her “sister” hijras lives, it fills with sadness when she discusses the effect society has on their lives and it becomes hard and cold when discussing who is responsible. But most convincing, is Laxmi’s persuasiveness. It pours from her; she urges her listener to agree and she does so in a way that leaves no room for doubt; “This is my perception, this is fact!”
Laxmi is a hijra. A famous one. This in itself is a paradox. Hijras are members of the transgender community specific to India. They are also referred to as third gender or eunuchs and are believed to have the spiritual power to bless and curse. They identify as neither man nor woman and are often marginalised in Indian society. Many hijras will undergo nirvana (castration) during their lifetime. It is practically unheard of for a hijra to do well in Indian society, at least by any other means than collecting alms, as is their right as disciples of their mother Goddess Bahucharaji. And yet here I sit with a hijra who has represented the Asian Pacific at the UN, she has been on the Indian version of Big Brother, she speaks to government councils regularly, she is respected. To say she is out of the ordinary is perhaps an understatement. And there is nothing understated about Laxmi.
As a BA Anthropology student at Queen’s University Belfast, I’ve been conducting research on hijras in Gujarat as part of my dissertation research. My aim was to find out what kind of discrimination hijras face and how they combat this. When I met Laxmi I had completed 16 interviews with 5 gurus, 13 chelas, two transwomen and 5 kothi (gay men) in 3 different hijra households and 3 NGO offices across 2 different cities in Gujarat. My research was coming to a close. I had an idea of what my dissertation would become and I had some answers to my questions and many questions about my answers.
Yet when I told Laxmi my research guidelines she scoffed. “They never fight back. They are happy in their own pretty world”. This is not exactly what I’d found, but as a high-flying activist, it is no doubt how she views her less well known, less successful “sisters”. And yet, the “sister” hijras she talks about believe the very same about her. The hijras I interviewed spoke of Laxmi’s publicity seeking nature and her lack of real interest in improving life for the “regular” hijras. They complained that they had seen no improvement since her campaigning began.
As you listen to Laxmi speak you can hear the self-promotion in her casual name dropping and in the way she plugs her book or movie. However, it would be very difficult indeed to ignore the passion in her voice and the pain in her eyes when she talks about the position of hijras in her country. She’s a charismatic, humorous person. She invites conversation whilst also commanding the room. Before the interview even begins she tells us a funny anecdote about something that happened to her on live TV during one point in her career. She related how, after all the recording equipment had been unplugged, she exclaimed “you fucking whore!” in response to the very politically charged questions she had been asked at the end of the interview. And yet in between all this modern, English swearing she peppers her speeches with quaint Victorian English phrases that wouldn’t be out of place in a Jane Austen novel. This mix of old and new, modern and traditional further emphasises the thin line a hijra walks between traditional spirituality and modern perks. Laxmi manages it well. She’s an obvious choice for the media, but perhaps not so obvious a choice for the people she represents.
Laxmi is Brahman caste, her family are comfortable, she is educated, she speaks flawless English, she ran a dance school, has been in movies and authored a book with another book on the way. It is quite clear that she is not your “run of the mill” hijra. A friend of hers, present for the interview, interjects “a normal person could never achieve what she has achieved in her life”. She was made head of a council for sex workers despite having never done sex work (although she was a bar dancer at one point). She has a knack for obtaining positions that she does not, entirely, have first-hand experience with.
Most hijras in India are poor. They are ejected from mainstream society and their families as soon as they join the hijras. They have been rejected from everything they know and so seek comfort in the akharas (guru households) despite the suffocating rules and, in some cases, abuse.
Therefore, one can understand why many hijras raise a sceptical brow when the subject of Laxmi, a well off and respected hijra, is raised.
And yet, Laxmi is very aware of the issues that most hijras face and is able to put a more practical face on a very mysterious culture. When I asked her if she thinks that hijrahood is always spiritual her face transformed. She lifted one cynical brow as the rest of her face remained motionless apart from a wry twist of her cherry red lips. “You got your answer” she says heavily. She argues that spirituality is the hijras bread and butter; this “almost-act” is how they make their money. In a society that won’t support hijras or trans people the only option is to collect alms as a hijra (or possibly to turn to sex work). Whilst there has been some progress for hijras in small pockets of India, some hijras have been employed as tax collectors for example (see here), the overall outlook for employment for hijras is still bleak. Thus, Laxmi argues that hijras must play the part of spiritual goddess in order to play to public expectations and be successful in collecting alms.
This practical, straightforward answer is the only answer of its type I have received whilst I’ve been in Gujarat. Whilst I intimated as much from my other interviews, Laxmi is one of the few who can afford to say this clearly. One can begin to understand why it is that some hijras don’t like the work she does, after all “she’s giving away trade secrets” as I’ve been told.
When I ask her “If you could meet Modi tomorrow, what would you tell him you needed, what do hijras need from the government?” her eyebrows met her hairline at Modi’s name but she quickly composed herself and begun one of her Winston-esque speeches. “Commitment”. She states simply, forcefully. Then she goes on, her eyes bore into mine as she lists the basic rights that all citizens have but she argues hijras are still yet to receive. Her voice rises as she states that “if a non-discriminative policy comes, that is the answer to many, many problems and movements in this country.”
George Saint George, a friend I’ve been living with in India during my research, begins asking his own
questions of Laxmi. As an American journalist his questions centre more fully on Laxmi herself and her thoughts on the wider LGBT movement, particularly in America. As the topic turns to Caitlyn Jenner (or Catherine Jenner as Laxmi repeatedly refers to her), she becomes restless. She reflects many Western LGBT+ members’ attitudes towards Caitlyn Jenner. Her voice climbs higher and higher as she expresses her incredulity that an upper class white transfemale can be celebrated and called brave when there are teenagers in the Southern states coming out and trying to deal with racism, transphobia and religious intolerance betwixt gun shots.
Her vocal volume has steadily increased and her tone is so accusatory both George and I lean back in our chairs, nodding vigorously and trying to intimate our agreement visually, since our auditory agreement won’t be heard over Laxmi. Her voice softens and she adds that she holds no ill will towards “Catherine Jenner” but that she wishes more attention were paid to the people who actually require the support that Caitlyn is trying to win for them. Ironically, many hijras say the same of Laxmi.
Talking of her own country, she speaks proudly of the TG and hijra traditions. She waves the progression of the West off with one hand and explains that India is a culture of sexual acceptance which, she intimated, the British colonists ruined and she is continuing to fight back for. After all, she points out, “We worship the lingam for god’s sake.”
She argues that hijras are the oldest gender non-conforming subculture in the world. Again, Laxmi ties her gender identity with tradition and spirituality; she argues that a Hindu and Muslim nation cannot turn their back on hijras without turning their back on parts of their religion since the hijra culture belongs to both. In a country with a nationalist government such a Modi’s this is a wise argument indeed.
Inarguably, passion pours from Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s eyes, they’re brimming with excited energy, urgency and a little irritation that she’s had to tell so many people the same story, since action is hard to come by in India. On first glance she is the embodiment of femininity, delicacy and softness and yet one gets the impression that if you crossed her, she’d cross you out. She has the kind of tone that could cut you in half if required. A perfect combination for Indian politics.
Is Laxmi’s passion for her own publicity? Or is it a passion for equality, for respect, for dignity for all of her “sister” hijras?
Ask her. I dare you.