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INDIA’S EUNUCHS SEEK FREEDOM FROM ‘BONDAGE’

March 11, 2012

By Jayashree

As the soft sea breeze blows, Chandrakala’s masculine hands try to hold back the fluttering synthetic saree resting on her shoulder like a shawl while her large palm coyly tucks the ends into her waistline. For a eunuch or a transgender, someone who is neither accepted by society as ‘he’ nor ‘she’, wearing the traditional Indian attire is akin to making a forceful statement of recognition — that she is a woman and not a man as popularly perceived.

But it seems like cross dressing or behaving like women is not the way out for eunuchs like Chandrakala whose need for self emancipation is greater.

Neglected over decades and often ridiculed by the mainstream society for their queer traits, eunuchs, nearly two million in India, lead an isolated existence in secluded groups run by elderly brethren. Illiterate and poor, young eunuchs feel obliged to their group heads, who give them shelter and food, and meekly submit themselves to slave for their seniors or gurus by begging and prostitution.

“I want to lead a free life. To do what I please. Take up work, learn something, perhaps opt for a career…”, said Chandrakala in a gruff voice. Her vocal chords amply reflecting a dilemma that stems from an innate dichotomy of being born with physical attributes of a male, but wants to feel like a woman.

“I want to stop begging,” she stressed, to break the stupor.

Perhaps for the first time a group of young eunuchs with help from a Mumbai-based social group called Salvation of Oppressed Eunuchs (SOOE) has filed a petition in the Mumbai High Court to seek a way out of being bonded like slaves – a system that has evolved out of a sheer desperation to survive in a society that treats them as misfits and has ostracized them over the years.

This may, however, not augur well for their gurus who in old age are unable to beg or do anything to earn a living except manage groups like their fiefdoms. Part of solving this problem lies in rehabilitating gurus along with young eunuchs like the SOOE is trying to train them in vocational courses. For now, if a harassed eunuch expresses her wish to leave the group to join another, she loans money from her new guru to pay the old one as a levy, which usually is a hefty amount and runs into thousands.

Being runaways or abandoned by families at a young age, eunuchs, much like bonded labourers, have to partake their earnings to their guru who has provided food and shelter under her roof. Failing to pay, calls for harsh punishment and torture at the hands of seniors. It’s a vicious circle in a ruthless system of give and take unknown to the outside world – the guru too in her heydays was subjected to a similar fate. Hence when begging does not sustain them, the harsh reality of economic sustenance drives them into prostitution for quick money.

Usually a gregarious lot, eunuchs dress in bright-coloured sarees, trinkets around the neck, ears and hair decorated in flowers they draw attention with loud claps. While begging alms they mock, curse and even throw a few expletives when people refuse to oblige.

At the same time they reciprocate kindness by profusely showering blessings, especially, when they get to sing and dance at Hindu weddings and baby-naming ceremonies, events that supplement their income. Historically, they were known to be dancers or as trusted harem attendants to royals.

Chandrakala and her fellow mates live in a colony of eunuchs in a downtrodden area of the city’s northern suburb, Virar, under the tutelage of a guru. While she wished she had been a doctor, she expressed her desire to work in a related field to help ailing people. “Perhaps a nurse,” she opined. Her fellow mates voiced their options for working in the areas of grooming in beauty salons, masseurs in spas or simply learn to speak the English language hoping to find some job.

Rehabilitation is a huge task. Deprived of basic documents such as a birth certificate because most eunuchs have severed ties with families or are school dropouts, procuring a proof of identification is difficult. A bank account or a passport is a far cry. They are rechristened with female names, some take fancy to Bollywood film stars’ sobriquets; and follow the faith, usually Islam, practiced by the guru.

Apart from surmounting such hurdles the SOOE in the petition has also requested changes in the Indian Penal Code’s Section 375 dealing with rape so that the law would protect them against sexual assault and have sought protection under The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 so that anyone using derogatory language against eunuchs on the basis of gender is punished.

“This would give them the right to approach police and register a first information report when they are subjected to abuse or harassment,” said Dr Piyush Saxena, president of SOOE, who is pursuing the petition in the court. He has also written a detailed book titled “Life of A Eunuch” on social and psychological factors responsible for their alienation.

The book compiles their quaint traditions and lifestyle in India and exposes covert and crude methods employed by quacks to castrate eunuchs. Castration, referred to as ‘nirvana’ or liberation, “…gives eunuchs higher status in their community and this is the primary reason behind their decision to undergo the procedure,” writes Dr. Saxena in the book.

In reality the mention of this surgical process leaves people frightened and bewildered. Because of which: “They threaten to lift their clothes if you don’t oblige to pay (money),” said Ajay Rao, an adman, explaining his encounter at traffic signals when he is waiting with his family in a car for the lights to turn green. “I feel harassed and embarrassed.”

But according to Vinay Vast, President of Social Activities Integration, a social group that helps in providing free medical care and support to commercial sex workers and eunuchs, problems multiply owing to bad communication. Eunuchs are unable to express in a civil manner and society makes no effort to understand. They are deprived of everything be it education or healthcare, he opined.

The SOOE is presently creating awareness through a short film named ‘…Aur Neha Nahin Bik Payee’ (…And Neha Could Not be Sold). The film poignantly traces the story of a traumatised young lad who runs away from home after being repeatedly beaten by his father shamed at having borne a transgender. The misery of eunuchs is quite like the film’s protagonist who finds succor in a group of like-minded people only to realise that it was to be the beginning of another sordid saga – a life of a bonded labour.

“They die slow deaths, a little everyday…hiding their tears and misery behind their mock smiles,” Dr. Saxena added.

————————————————————————————————————————— Accompanying photos taken from the short film titled “…Aur Neha Nahin Bik Payee” produced by SOOE.

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