It is dusk and the prostitutes of Kamatipura are readying to ensnare their prey. Flanking their clearly demarcated territory are claustrophobic lanes of two-storied sweatshops with glassy-eyed men sewing feverishly by the light of kerosene lamps. In one street of lust, 10 women listlessly dance the dandiya. In a corner, two boys are entwined to the rhythm of a Bollywood song. It is Navratri, but Kamatipura remains a nightmare tableau of desperation. Gali No. 2 is where the eunuchs reside. In front of their two-storied home, a group of tall, bejewelled beauties cluster. It is the 48th birthday of their Guruji, Zeenat, and this promises to be a rare evening of celebration.
Several policemen stand by, hands held out for a donation. The air is raw with anger. The day before, the police had arrested Nandini and thrashed her with a stick until she paid them Rs 1,200. But if you are a friend you will be cosseted, promised a thick slice of cake and offered cold water in a silver tumbler. The most voluble of the eunuchs is Neelam. Her face has been pancaked flawlessly allowing no hint of stubble. Velvety false eyelashes afford her face a hint of luxury. Her thick eyebrows are arched and coloured, her voluptuous lips painted silver. Every part of her visible body is decorated with care, as though it were a shrine. A faux gold and diamond mang ka tikka crowns a chunky necklace, chandelier earrings and bangles. Her cleavage is sprinkled with silver glitter, but her nails are cracked and
tobacco-stained. When Neelam isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t soliciting customers, she helps cook and clean for her community home. Taking out a Rs 1 coin from her choli she hands it to a servant boy who returns with a packet of Goa gutka. Then, on her doorstep, she unravels her life.
Neelam was born Shankar, in KamatipuraÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Gali No. 1, the street of prostitutes, to a prostitute and her husband, both from Andhra Pradesh. His father was unemployed and cruel; he beat his wife daily. Shankar was sodomised twice. At 10, on the school terrace and at 11, at knifepoint near a cinema. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Phir mujhe mazaa laga. Maine socha ki mein kuch kama sakoon,Ã¢â‚¬Â says Neelam, in her thick voice (I began to enjoy it and thought, why not make some money?). She speaks softly. She doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want her past to become fodder for local gossip. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Mera dost mujhe bolta, chal na mere saath tujhe tees rupiya doonga.Ã¢â‚¬Â (A friend would say, come with me for Rs 30, and I would agree). Ã¢â‚¬Å“In those days for Rs 1 you could buy 10 chocolates. Imagine how many I could buy with Rs 30.Ã¢â‚¬Â
At 11, Shankar was soliciting outside theatres. It was soon known than he enjoyed the company of men. One day, a group of eunuchs accosted him. Ã¢â‚¬Å“You enjoy sex with men. Join us.Ã¢â‚¬Â That year, ShankarÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mother immolated herself in her third attempt. She was HIV positive and Shankar, who had distanced himself from his family after joining the eunuchs, hadnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t spoken to her for months.
Shankar moved from Gali No. 1 to Gali No. 2. He underwent rites of passage. Allegiance to Zeenat, who became his mentor. Neelam says, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Guruji meri maa samaan hain. Woh mujhe samjhati hai, Ã¢â‚¬Ëœbeta customer ko condom pehna. Tere liye mein hi hoonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢.Ã¢â‚¬Â (She is like my mother and tells me to make the customer wear a condom. She tells me only she is there for me).
Zeenat taught Shankar the secret language of the eunuchs and helped him bear the pain of castration so he could start the process of becoming
a she. For Rs 30,000 a dai sliced off ShankarÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s penis with a knife, sans anesthesia. For 40 days, bandages soaked in hot oil and warm water were alternated on the wound. Meanwhile, he was fed fish and meat to expunge impurities from his body. Becoming Neelam brought security, but also abasement. She felt a sense of communion, and was comforted. She also knows that however corrupted her life before, as a eunuch she is at the bottom of the food chain. When policemen want a bit of fun, when they want to vent their frustration with a beating, or line their pockets, they head to Gali No 2. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Even prostitutes have a voice,Ã¢â‚¬Â says Neelam, sadly. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We have nothing. We may as well be dead.Ã¢â‚¬Â She knows some people regard her in shades of black or white. Either a beggar or a raucous carouser who will malevolently threaten to ruin a wedding unless bribed handsomely. Either way, a mutation of a human being the public would rather avert its eyes from.
Life wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t always this desperate. For three years before the ban on dance bars last year, Neelam was a dancer. For two days a week, eunuchs were given free rein in MumbaiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s dance bars including the famous Topaz on Grant Road. Their appearance was said to bring luck. Neelam often earned Rs 2,000 a night. She felt Ã¢â‚¬Å“sexy, sexyÃ¢â‚¬Â and says her beauty made an American photographer shoot him in the nude. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Bilkul model jaise thi,Ã¢â‚¬Â she reminisces melancholically. (I was just like a model.) The ban destroyed the one thing that brought her pleasure and pride. It also made prostitution her only source of income. She charges Rs 50 for sex. Half of her dayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s earnings go to Guruji, a further Rs 20 is given to Guruji as Ã¢â‚¬Å“rentÃ¢â‚¬Â for the space taken in the house when with a customer. She spends Rs 100 on Goa gutka daily and is trying to pay off a loan of Rs 50,000 by saving Rs 300 a day. The rest is spent on clothes from Chor Bazaar and on gold for her sister who lives and studies in a college in Andheri. Neelam hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t visited her for four years, his Ã¢â‚¬Å“shameÃ¢â‚¬Â at what he has become, he says, will not permit him.
Now Neelam lives with 10 other eunuchs in a seven-room building, which includes bathrooms and a kitchen. They are given meals of egg curry and tomato chutney twice daily at 2 p.m. and midnight. On the weekends, they feast on mutton ghosht and chicken. For breakfast, the eunuchs spend their own money on tea and bun-muska from a restaurant. Like her meals, everything in NeelamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s life is a choreographed ritual. She is expected to know her space, to occupy just that and no more. But no one can steal her memories. She craves for her sister and cries for her mother. Then she wipes away the tears and gets down to business.
The police have left, and the chief guest has arrived: the eunuch Lakshmi is revered by this group as their mother figure. When she enters, shimmying out of a red Maruti van, all talk ceases. The eunuchs alternate between standing to attention, and fawning over this six-foot tall vision in white, accessorised with gold, her curls a halo above her head. Lakshmi doles out hugs and kisses. Her effortless sensuality will disconcert the most determinedly heterosexual man.Lakshmi sashays to the second floor and like lambs, all follow. A 10 feet by 10 feet room with green walls is decorated with silver and purple streamers. Everyone squats trying to be as close as possible to Lakshmi. Her power is an irresistible magnetic field. The air is thick with cigarette smoke and the music of her throaty laugh and American twang. She screams in English: Ã¢â‚¬Å“You hijdas are so dramatic! Just get the cake yaar and letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s start the party!Ã¢â‚¬Â Zeenat, dressed in what seems to be a wedding sari, is coy but glowing. She stands quietly as a mammoth pink cake with red and yellow stripes is placed before her. The soft light from two candles brings a smile to her face. Zeenat blows out the candles and we sing Happy Birthday. Lakshmi carves a piece of cake and smashes it into ZeenatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s face to raucous laughter. Someone switches on the music and a mujra wafts across the room, through the window and down the street. Potential customers strolling past listen, captivated.
An elderly eunuch with flowers in her hair hands out the cake. Everyone digs in except Lakshmi. She is dancing with abandon. A young woman, hair down to her waist, joins Lakshmi. Someone points, Ã¢â‚¬Å“She once earned Rs 16,000 in a bar in one week.Ã¢â‚¬Â Lakshmi graciously acknowledges that there is no space for two divas on the floor. Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m a budhi next to her,Ã¢â‚¬Â she smiles.
In half an hour, the cake is consumed, the party over. We troop down. The eunuchs gossip in the glow of a lone streetlight. In this filthy street, Neelam, dressed like a bride, plies her trade each day. She says sheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s afraid she is HIV positive. SheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been tested four times, not once returning for the results. Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m happy,Ã¢â‚¬Â she says. But the smile doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t reach her eyes. She listens for the footfall of lonely men searching for company. She sighs: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Sometimes, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s better not to know the truth.Ã¢â‚¬Â Sonia Faleiro is the author of The Girl (Viking 2006).