Caste aside

What confetti horseshoes are to British couples, the Hijras are to the newlyweds of Hyderabad - bringers of good fortune. Yet, until Zia Jaffrey flew in from New York, no one in India had ever thought to investigate the history and lifestyle of the country's cross-dressing caste of castrated wedding guests. By Roger Clarke
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Madhur Jaffrey is more famous than her daughter everywhere except Hyderabad. Why? Zia Jaffrey has just written a book on a subject that makes many Indians writhe with discomfort, especially Indian men, who tend to cross their legs at the very mention of the disreputable Hijra (pronounced "Heej-rah"): a caste of uncleans so low on the caste radar that they are practically invisible. These are men who dress as women. These are men who have ritually castrated themselves. And nobody knows where their tradition comes from, only that it is very ancient indeed and mentioned in the Vedas.

Zia is American and strikes one as very New York indeed, in that way guaranteed to make you feel almost incomprehensibly British as she struggles solemnly to understand your vernacular. She is very pretty and petite, perhaps a little too serious, but this is simply an expression of her ardent need to understand everything. Her mother's family gently chided her when they discovered that this curiosity was being directed towards the shocking subject of the Hijra: couldn't she find something more respectable to write about? "Urban planning," suggested her Aunt Sarojini, adding, "We're a very advanced country now."

If the beginning of her book The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India reads a little like an out-take of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, it is because Zia first encountered the redoubtable Hijras at a traditional Indian wedding in 1984. This took place in Delhi. She was astonished at the spectacle of these cult transsexuals given admittance in all their foul-mouthed and ragged glory to a highly respectable society gathering, simply because their appearance was thought to bring good luck on the happy couple. When she began to ask around about these people, she was given short shrift: despite the fact that estimates of the number of Hijras range from 50,000 to a million, nobody knew anything about them or where they came from, only that they somehow always knew when weddings were taking place. The young New Yorker perceived that the Hijra, lower in caste even than the Untouchable dung-cleaners, somehow cut to the heart of the paradox of India. They were clownish and saturnalian in spirit: "I thought of them almost like Shakespearian fools, being given permission to comment on society and speak their mind in the way that no one else could."

But there was nothing clownish or light-hearted about the case of Jagmohan Dhysani, as Zia Jaffrey readily concedes. In 1994 Dhysani hit the headlines in India when he filed charges against a community of Hijras in Delhi who, it was claimed, had drugged and castrated him against his will 10 years earlier in the very year the Jaffreys had attended that wedding.

Since then, Zia had returned to her chic life in uptown Manhattan, working as an editor first for Marie Claire and then for Elle. Her mother Madhur also lives in New York, separated for many years now from Saeed, the actor father of Zia and her two sisters. "There was a change at Elle, a clearing- out of lefty editors like me," she recalls. "It was the catalyst to write my book about the Hijra, which I'd been planning for years." She mentioned her literary plans to old family friends Ismail Merchant and James Ivory (in whose second collaboration, Shakespeare Wallah, her father had starred back in 1965) and they immediately offered her a grant. Was the Merchant/Ivory combo in the habit of handing out grants, I wondered? "Only to people they like and things they are interested in," she says, a trifle sheepishly. Indeed, Merchant/Ivory knew all about the Hijra, having featured one of the caste dancing flamboyantly about in their 1983 film Heat and Dust.

As Norman Lewis recently pointed out, there is still much that is strange and anachronistic about India, despite its rapid modernisation and new- found self-confidence. (Lewis even identifies certain primitive peoples there who were apparently never aware of the British presence.) And Zia very rapidly felt the collision of her own Western values with those of the subcontinent. She was forced to revise many of her opinions, including, for example, her hostility to arranged marriages after meeting several blissfully happy examples of the tradition. Concentrating her efforts on the Hijra community at Hyderabad, she soon found herself confronting Foucault and sexuality just as much as caste.

She is at pains to draw me off the subject of sexuality: "this is a book about tradition," she insists. Yet the Hijra combines a variety of types: gay men, transsexuals, medical hermaphrodites, and a few examples of individuals kidnapped by, or perhaps even sold to, the often wealthy Hijra communities. Zia was surprised to find herself and her researches attacked in print by gay Indians in the US: on meeting some of them, she learnt that, when they had been at school in Pakistan, "They had been taunted and called Hijra by their schoolfellows." She didn't, however, want her book to be hijacked by the gay lobby or any other lobby. "I didn't know what axe they had to grind," she says. "Apparently I didn't cover issues of homophobia in the book, or gay women. But my riposte to them was, well, someone has to get the subject discussed out in the open; we have to start somewhere. I couldn't help noticing these particular Indians were middle-class and were somehow confusing sexual agendas with caste. They were disgusted with the Hijra not for sexual reasons but for caste reasons."

Indian gay men may have overreacted to the stereotype of the effeminate, but Zia found the Indian press a little more positive. "They said, `Good work, Jaffrey, you asked the questions we should have asked.' It was a nice response, a warm response." Previously, the subject of the Hijras had either been treated sensationally, by the media, or with cool disdain by anthropologists. "I wanted the book to be personal, not a travel book, and about storytelling, not journalism." The result is something very unusual: a book that successfully makes a virtue of its subjectivity, beautifully written with often eccentric flourishes. The delicacy with which she courts the naturally suspicious Hijras, and deals with a retired policeman who provides essential background information, is striking.

"I was disappointed the Hijras I knew wouldn't condemn the kidnappings of children, even though I'm convinced that these incidents are rare. And one thing I did want to include in the book, but didn't get round to, was to interview some of these kidnap victims. There's also a story about a Hijra who speaks English and was considering running for public office in Delhi that I still want to follow up."

What do her parents think of her book? "Oh, you know - proud. I never knew my father while growing up but recently we've become friends." Her mother has instilled in her some of her sense of adventure and maybe, without her realising, a little of that perfectionism so notable in Madhur's elaborate cooking ("I say, `Stop chopping! I'll buy you a Cuisine Art!' But no, she has to do everything laboriously by hand"). When her mother travelled recently to Hyderabad, she encountered something entirely unfamiliar; her daughter was more famous in the town than she was. "They said, `Oh, you're the mother of Zia!' I think she thought it was quite funny"n

`The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India' is published this month by Weidenfeld at pounds 15.99 / pounds 9.99

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