Ancient and modern: India at 50

Michael Arditti takes a taboo-breaking tour of the underworld: The Invisibles by Zia Jaffrey, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 15.99

In 1984, Zia Jaffrey travelled from America to Delhi for a family wedding. She was astonished to discover the uninvited but tolerated presence of the hijras (eunuchs), who sang raucously, mimicked childbirth, insulted the guests and were paid handsomely for their pains. Her wish to learn more about this ancient tradition was discouraged. Instead, she was advised to "study something useful, like our urban development planning". Fortunately, stubbornness prevailed.

The result, 12 years later, was The Invisibles, which might have been titled The Unknowables. Although Jaffrey undertakes a fascinating voyage around the hijras, much about them - from their development to their current strength, variously estimated at between 25,000 and 1,250,000 - remains a mystery. Despite the apparent openness of a particular eunuch "family", their revelations are carefully guarded. They are happy to discuss the more socially acceptable aspects of their lives (their presence at weddings and after childbirth) while categorically denying any murkier practices: kidnap, mutilation and prostitution.

The Invisibles, appropriately for its subject, is a hybrid. The quest for the hijras provides Jaffrey (and the reader) with the opportunity to discover India. She describes herself as born with "that spiritual wishy-washiness" of being neither Indian nor American. The "otherness" of the hijras mirrors her own. Her aunt warns her that to study the eunuchs will make no man want her; the subject is so taboo in polite society that she is ushered out of a party when she broaches it. On the other hand, friends and contacts go out of their way to help her, battling with an inefficient bureaucracy.

One part of Jaffrey's scheme is to provide a historical perspective on the hijras. She is told that in contemporary hijra society "all castes are represented ... Hindu and Muslims alike". Their origins are, however, more contentious. They are mentioned in the ancient Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. It is probable that the tradition, which flourished in North India, derived from Hinduism and grew in prominence under Islam.

Jaffrey quotes Western observers from Marco Polo onwards on the role of eunuchs under the feudal rulers. Some commended their loyalty, most denounced their barbarism and servility. She notes the British attempt to destroy their privileges as part of the policy of ridding India of her "debased oriental practices". In the event, all they did was to drive the hijras from the countryside to become part of the urban underclass, which the British largely ignored.

Her exploration of this underclass constitutes the most engrossing sections of the book. She provides a gruesome eyewitness account of a castration ceremony, where a boy is made to sit on a thickly oiled wooden phallus prior to having his testicles removed. Other sources tell of the hijras cutting off their own penises (which palace eunuchs had to produce, pickled in jars, as proof of their impotence). One common way for the hijras to extort money is by threatening to expose themselves; another is by threatening to expose the impotence of married men. They have the licensed raillery of Shakespearean fools, witnessed when they sing at the birth of the first child (after 12 years) of a Hyderabad businessman and name the boy as the son of the family's cook.

In the last resort, there is a sadness about the hijras, exemplified for Jaffrey when she returns to India after 10 years and finds the original "family" who befriended her in ruins. Indian society is ordered around families. Excluded from ordinary families, the hijras create an alternative, grouped around a guru, but it is one born of desperation rather than freedom. The self-mutilation is the antithesis of any exploration of sexual ambiguity that might be welcomed in the West.

This is a lucid, sympathetic and unsensational exploration of a unique phenomenon. At the end, one of Jaffrey's correspondents writes that he hopes that "you will be fair in dealing with the subject, so that it may not hurt the feelings of any caste or creed or person". It is a hope which she has admirably fulfilled.

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada