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DEVIL DIVA

Somewhere else. A fat eunuch in a red sari lay splay, her dyed orange hair coiled tight in a bun. Bleak watery eyes stared out from a face that had launched a thousand ships, seen a hundred wars, battled and fought every day of its life. The Hijra Queen sprawled in bed like a giant toad, sighing with an air of grandeur, doggedly hogging her dickless throne with all the faux-majesty she could muster. Like all big old Queens, she had a touch of tragedy about her.

Five piggy toes poked out, little painted worms gasping for breath in an ocean of red and purple. I don’t where the others were. She grunted and heaved a pink pillow behind her back. One chubby arm pinioned with bangles elbowed its way into the light. It gestured at me.

‘Who is this?’ the arm asked.

My presence was explained; she peered at me, wanly consented to an audience, gestured to the sofa then studiously ignored me. I hadn’t met a proper eunuch before and didn’t know the etiquette so I decided to just shut up, grovel and applaud; Diva Rules would apply.

‘She’s very famous…’ Ifte whispered.

I don’t know why he had that strange expression on his face.

Poised on a tiny sofa in a turquoise room in a Kolkata slum, trying to look cool, I’m very aware that I don’t. The room is brightly lit, neat and impeccably tidy, chock-full of brass knick-knacks, old photos and plastic fruit arranged carefully around a huge raised bed covered in a purple throw. Heart-shaped satin cushions have been artfully arranged to frame my hostess in a riot of Carnival Pink, a bit like putting a tutu on a bulldog.

She clicked a switch and to my great surprise the plastic fruit began to perform a son et lumiere. Each piece had been wired and covered in tiny light-bulbs that lit up in sequence. I was particularly taken with the pineapple, now a glowing orange orb of twinkling lights. The lights travelled up the pineapple then down the pineapple, went round the pineapple then flashed. Then the entire pineapple lit up, from bottom to spiky green top. I don’t know which was better – the eunuch or the pineapple.

*

The room is tiny but perfectly thought out. It’s about the size of three double beds and bit more. One third is the eunuch’s throne, a raised platform with a border around it, a riot of colour – purple, turquoise, red and pink with highlights of cheap gold, tinsel and brass. From the rest of the room, her boudoir looks exactly like a Toy Theatre, specially lit and framed in a glittering proscenium arch of performing electrical fruit.

With all this distraction, it’s a bit hard to tell what she actually looks like. There isn’t really very much of her to see, just a bloated face and a neck, two chubby arms and those five terrible toes – all the rest has been abandoned to theatre. She was a cross between Bloody Mary from South Pacific and a bag of lard.

The rest of the room is a tidy den, a two-seater couch, a tiny coffee table and a chair. Cupboards cover every wall, a mass of little doors and shelves and drawers. There’s a television set encased in clear plastic high on a shelf, opposite the throne.  For once in India, it’s silent. The Eunuch Princess is the only show in town.

Everything is spotless, relentlessly so. The room seems half public space and half private; throne room, reception hall and waiting area. It was clear that I was just one of a passing parade of callers.

‘All arrangements go through her,’ Ifte said, ‘babies, weddings, funerals – everybody wants her blessing.’

Or more to the point, nobody wants her curse.

‘She is a true nirwaan,’ he whispered, ‘the real deal.’

‘Everything?’

‘Everything…

He made a cutting sign with his fingers.

‘Gone.’

*

Some consider the castrated nirwaan hijras to be the real deal. It’s not hard to see why. The operation, carried out by a traditional midwife, involves removing the penis and scrotum at a single stroke with a very sharp knife and no anesthesia.

Yee-owch.

The happy cries of the re-born castrati are masked by trumpets and drums.

The emasculation ordeal is thought to confer special powers. Folk-myth, truth, history and fiction have been combined in a mysterious cultural blender to create a lasting popular belief that stems from one basic assumption: that because the nirwaan hijra don’t have sex, they accumulate unused sexual energy in their body.

Maybe that’s what I could feel hanging so heavy in the air – accumulated sexual energy. Maybe there was a curse coming on. Well, fair enough – if someone had cut my little Dogster off without anesthetic when I was fifteen, I’d be cursing, I’d be incandescent with accumulated sexual energy.

Anyway, the eunuch’s repressed mojo can turn rancid unless you pay it lots of rupees. It’s best to get in quick; otherwise the accumulated oomph will spurt out like a lizard’s tongue to deliver a particularly nasty mega-curse.

A eunuch’s curse is a terrible thing. You can die from a eunuch’s curse. Your skin will crawl, your balls rot off, your arms will wither and your bum explode. Your children, should you live to have any, will be leprous, scabrous beggars. Your family will perish from the plague.

That’s their story, anyway – and as long as others believe that the Hijra will survive.

*

We were all on our very best behavior, rather as if we were having afternoon tea with an unpredictable maiden aunt – everybody on tippy-toes waiting for the explosion, that infamous cock-less curse. As at this point I knew nothing about the Hijra, I was unencumbered with baggage of any kind. For Dogster all is bliss and ignorance. It’s a delicious canine state; fully alert with no comprehension and no agenda. All you can do is react.

It was my own fault. I asked to be here but didn’t know where here was or what would be here when I got there.

Smart move? Well, no…

Nirwaan Hijra Guru Bloody Mary rose to the occasion and was very grand indeed, docilely accepting praise and grovel from strangers as her due. I watched and sat and smiled and was charming – but somewhere, somehow I’d seen that act before. Without any fore-knowledge of the deadly hijra curse, without any history about just how famously nasty these gals really are, our chai with the eunuch was all sweetness and light. To all intents and purposes she was just another stately homo, just another piss-elegant drag-queen crumbling on her throne.

While the Devil and the Diva dished the dirt I sat silently on the couch staring at Ifte staring at me.

Poor kid. He was starting to look a bit shell-shocked.

‘He’s a good Muslim boy!’ a friend explained later ‘and a guide.’

‘He’s a good guide, too.’

‘And as a good guide he has to take you where you want to go – but as a good Muslim, he’d be appalled!’ he cackled, ‘as a good Muslim and a good guide, he’d be too polite to tell you.’

None of this had occurred to me.

‘Hijra prostitutes! Ifte? In the street! I wish I’d been there to see his face!’

My pal hooted.

‘Muslims hate the Hijra! People are actually afraid of these guys. People believe in their curse. He’s probably the first Muslim ever to sit in a eunuch’s house!’

Well, I guess that would explain quite a lot.

*

This extraordinary band of ladies has adapted another survival strategy in tandem with their fatal curse; a unique theatre of Outrage that rather appeals to the anarchist in me. I haven’t found the historical precedent but this blissful piece of bullying has been going on for millennia.

As soon as they hear of a wedding or the birth of a male child, a gaggle of Hijra women will show up unannounced – and uninvited – to bless the event by singing, drumming, and dancing. In Hindu society births and weddings are hugely important ceremonial occasions governed by a set of traditions; everything is auspice, everything is aarti – everything must be correct. The last thing you need is a pack of eunuchs howling at the door.

Theoretically the performance is ‘a ritual entreaty for fertility on behalf of the bridegroom or newborn son’ but the reality is far more curious. The Hijra have cleverly adopted the politics of those who have nothing left to lose – they are the gate-crashers from Hell. Their dances and behavior become increasingly suggestive and relentlessly crude, a burlesque parody of civilized behavior – all calculated to outrage the party’s decorum. Imagine having your party destroyed by twenty-five over-excited drag queens screeching obscenities in the lounge room. The clear threat behind this escalating behavior is that if appropriate baksheesh is not forthcoming things can only get a great deal worse – and they will.

If the hosts are mingy or refuse to pay, everything gets completely out of hand. The Hijras hit back by screeching, swearing and exposing their genitals – or,  I assume, where their genitals used to be – loudly ridiculing the family to the neighbors or cursing them with a bitterness only a queen without a penis could understand.

Getting a curse from a Hijra is a terrible thing. A curse from an angry hijra dance troupe is worse. A curse from Bloody Mary would knock you down dead on the spot.

I caught Guru Bloody Mary looking at me through a crack in those old eunuch eyes.

I raised one eyebrow, winked, smiled and wiggled my head. I was trying to look cavalier, like Daniel Craig. That usually gets a smile. Yup, still does. Somewhere, beneath all that fat, I saw the faintest quiver of amusement.

I ached to take her picture but instead, pointed at one of hers. A faded black and white in a yellow frame of a beautiful young lady, turned to face the camera, her long black hair tumbling in a single loose plait down to her thighs.

‘Is this you?’ I mimed.

She flushed with pleasure, reached over and plucked her past from the wall. She handed it to me and dragged out an album. I cooed over the long black hair. Bloody Mary got my drift.

‘Here,’ she said, and thrust another picture at me.

There she was in traditional sari and jewels, dancing, here another full-length shot of a slim, gracious lady.

‘That was me,’ she said with a gesture. ‘Now look…’

‘You’re still beautiful, my darling,’ I said with an absolutely straight face. She squeaked with pleasure. The Diva didn’t understand much English, but she certainly understood ‘beautiful’. I don’t think she got many compliments. One limp hand came out and flicked coyly at my arm.

Ifte moved fast to fill in the gap between her hand and me.

‘Don’t let her touch you,’ he hissed.

*

Only one thing could stop a hijra curse and that was the rustle of rupees. The smart guys had learned to get ahead of the game, inviting the Hijra into their homes instead, paying outrageous fees in advance.  A prediction, a spell, a blessing or two; protection money smoothed the way – everything was available.

The Devil eagerly reeled off a list of prices, from a blessing to a wedding, a massed band of hijra to an elegant eunuch ensemble, from a disco-hijra to a big juicy curse. There were other services too, he hinted at that. I didn’t push for a price-list. He seemed keen to make the hijra scene seem a lot more vibrant than it probably was. I guess he wanted me to know that it was still a seller’s market; it always would be. There were only so many good hijras to go round.

The city was divided into districts; each run by an elderly nirwaan hijra. Some were more oriented to ceremonies and rupee gouging, some to sex-work, some to training, politics and repair. The number of girls working in each district varied from season to season – they followed the festival flow like showgirls, moved to Mumbai then Chennai then back again. The mother-eunuchs worked in tandem with the Devil, transferring girls from one job to the next, solving problems, swapping data; an effective mafia that had micro-tentacles into every family in their area – every pregnancy, every birth, every engagement, every wedding; a neighborhood held to ransom with threat of a Hijra Attack. Nothing escaped the Divas’ attention; no one escaped the Eunuch Gang of Four.

Slowly, drip by dreadful drip, it was becoming apparent that our new guide and hijra-fixer was a little bit more than the sum of his parts. He certainly had interesting friends. The Devil, Dogster and his bodyguard were having tea with the Fairy Godmother – and I mean that in the best Calabrian sense.

Maybe he was the accountant? Maybe he was Guru Corleone himself? I didn’t know – but everything that happened within that narrow strip of the socio-sexual spectrum was their department, everything was their business, everything was commission and politics and intrigue. These mutilated harridans held transsexual Kolkata in their grip; these four old girls and my Devil.

The Devil was the detail in between.

*

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