Street Life: Delhi - The boy who ran away to join the eunuchs

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MAROONED ON a traffic island near my flat is a minor Moghul tomb topped with a blue-tiled dome. Its official name is the Sabz Birj - the Green Dome-- but everyone seems to make do with blue.

For years I mistook it for the tomb of Emperor Akbar's wet nurse. But this blue Green Dome, which I drive past daily, reminds me to take nothing for granted and be ready for the unexpected. It seemed the perfect place to run into Shahnaz, one of our neighbourhood eunuchs.

Shahnaz waved at me from a rickshaw, flanked by two gaudy friends. The trio wore pancake make-up and shouted obscenities to the traffic. Eunuchs seem such an anachronism in a world with gay pride parades and video drag queens. Unable to procreate, they supposedly can make others fertile. That is why on the most public celebrations in an Indian woman's life, whether at her wedding or after the birth of each child, these mock females always show up, full of lewd menace.

Shahnaz both intrigues and repels me. Why would anyone choose to lop off his manhood in macho North India in exchange for the power to curse or bless?

I'd seen Shahnaz clapping flamenco-style at a wedding feast and spoken to her once at a Sufi mystic's shrine. Giving out my home phone number and address to eunuchs seemed dodgy, so I asked a go-between to fix a rendezvous nearby. This turned out to be a tactical error.

Normally, bothersome locals at Humayun's Tomb will back off when I utter my practised line: "I have come here for silent contemplation. Please go." It bewilders them and lets me stroll in peace. Now no eager guides crowded around me. Instead, gardeners and sweepers, who rarely look any memsahib in the eye, kept warning me about my rough company. Everyone tried to chase Shahnaz away.

"We don't allow their kind - hijras - in here," a ticket collector spat at me. There are an estimated 100,000 hijras in Delhi alone, and a tiny percentage are natural hermaphrodites.

"Well, I bought two entry tickets and we are together," I replied, as we walked up the monumental stairway, arm in arm. Again we were halted, by a gardener with a scythe. "Out, you disease-ridden whore," he growled, narrowing his eyes at Shahnaz.

Without the usual band of castrated cronies, Shahnaz was shy - the deep- set eyes cast down and fingers nervously twisting. It is hard to be brazen when you are outnumbered. "People always shove us around," Shahnaz complained. Two old women threatened to hit the hijra with their sandals. Surrounded by a hostile audience, it was impossible to ask Shahnaz any personal questions. Finally I tipped a guard to keep strangers away, and we crept behind a screen to chat.

In conversation, I wondered whether to call Shahnaz he or she. S/he used to be a boy. Now s/he lives and works with a band of bawds who appear like bad fairies at marriages and births.

If the lucky family will not acknowledge their fortune and give enough money for a blessing, the eunuchs make a racket and threaten to lift their saris above their thighs. Most people pay up immediately rather than be taunted in public with flashes of scarred genitalia.

If crossed, a eunuch's hex is believed to be as potent as a gypsy's. They have a right to claim any new-born whose sex is ambiguous.

Now 21, Shahnaz first ran off with the eunuchs at the age of eight. "If a boy walks with a sway to his step, it gets noticed," s/he explained. "Eventually everyone mistreats him, and the only place he can belong is with the hijras."

Eunuchs provided a community for Shahnaz, far more structured than a gay lifestyle. Eunuch gurus in Delhi recruit and auction off their young charges, and a comely dancer can fetch up to pounds 2,000.

A few eunuch queens wield their power with cruelty, while others develop business acumen and invest for the group's benefit. Ailing elders are nursed and property is passed down after a guru's demise.

Youthful misfits from the villages seek out the hijras and many eventually submit to a crude operation, which slashes away the testicles and penis with one cut. Bleeding is crucial: "It lets the male energy spill out," Shahnaz said, and the wounds are cauterised with a hot iron rod. "I am different," s/he told me coyly. "I was born this way. I did not have anything cut off."

Shahnaz's lap appeared completely smooth beneath her limp tunic, but a true hermaphrodite would not be so flat-chested.

"Destiny has me dance as a hijra, even though my mother brought me up as a girl. Whiskers won't grow on my face," s/he boasted, and added that she sometimes will not dress as a woman, especially on the road.

"To avoid rape, I disguise myself as a labourer in a tunic and dhoti. Lone women suffer indignities and atrocities. Eve-teasing is what I fear the most," Shahnaz confided. Feeling a little vulnerable, I walked Shahnaz, the eunuch, back to a waiting rickshaw while everyone stared. They are talking about us already.