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THE DEVIL IN KOLKATA

I first met the Devil in a cafe on a Kolkata corner. He was a jaded pixie in his late fifties with a thin line of old mascara under each eye, plucked eyebrows and the faint blush of last night’s lipstick. His hair had receded to a mid-point right at the top of his head and grew into a fine, coiffed crown: from gay grey to soft orange merging gently into Rita Heyworth brown. Rather disappointingly, he was dressed as a man – but I guess even a hijra needs a holiday. Now he looked exactly like a man who dresses as a woman dressed as a man on his day off. I don’t know if he had a dick or not. I didn’t really care. I needed a hijra-fixer, with or without willy. Of course, I didn’t know he was the Devil at the time.

*

Ifte, Dogster and the Devil are hurtling through the darkness to the black centre of a downtown Kolkata slum. We’re lost. I’m strangely sanguine about this. I’ve been lost since I arrived in India – by now it was just a question of degree. We ditch the cab. On foot now, following the Devil’s retreating back through narrow streets, past the cows, the kids and the never-ending stare, down, around, first to the left, take a right, make a call, go back, take a left…

‘Where are we going, Ifte?’

‘I don’t know.’

We’re somewhere by a bridge across a river, stumbling down a rubbish-strewn bank and into the sunset, directly into a long street entirely lined with transsexual whores.

‘Oh, my God…’ he said.

It was just a few dozen transsexual whores, fifty or sixty at most. It was dinner-time; the ladies sprawled around chatting, stuffing their faces and laughing. Satan glided through the girls with a wave and a smile, a chat here and there to a castrated sister, pausing to throw a sentence or two over his shoulder to the foreigner.

‘That’s Desiree, she’s one of my girls…’

A waving arm and a shriek of laughter from behind a curtain.

‘That’s Anouk,’ he said with a smile. ‘She’s a very naughty girl.’

Anouk’s shouting something rude and friendly. I think I’m being discussed. Satan shouted something rude and friendly back. Everybody laughed. I wiggled my head and pulled a face.

‘What did you say to them?’ I asked the Devil.

‘I said you were old and your dick didn’t work.’

Our stately progress down the street of whores continued.

*

Ifte disentangled himself from a mass of enthusiastic transsexuals. He was a good-looking fellow with a self-confidence and disinterest that made him even more attractive. He drew attention everywhere we went, particular on a street filled with one dollar scrubbers.

‘Pretty boy! Pretty boy! What are you doing here? Why are you here? You’re too handsome.’

He looked horrified.

‘Oh, Ifte, you must know about these places,’ I joshed.

‘No-o-o, no-o-o, never. Never in my life. Really.’

He was remarkably upset. I couldn’t work it out. It was obviously all my fault.

‘I didn’t think he’d bring us here,’ the poor sod kept muttering, ‘I’m a newly-married man, I can’t be seen…’

‘What do you want?’ the whores all cried.

‘Pretty boy! Pretty boy! We’ll do it for free-e-e-e!

‘Oh, my God…’

Getting dark, the streets full of shadows, just the glint of teeth and gold in the doorways, Ifte sinking further and further out of his depth. Soon it would be time to take him seriously.

*

Up two flights of tiny stairs to a room inside a warren of others. It’s the width of a double bed turned sideways. I know this because the one I’m staring at just touches three of the four walls. An ingenious arrangement of shelves and protrusions house a collection of ornaments, plates and tumblers, neatly arranged in precise formation.

Living in such a tiny space needs organization and constant vigilance. Everything must have its place. Living in a tiny sub-society needs rules, too. Becoming a hijra is a process of socialization into the wider family of gender misfits. You have to find your place on the confusion shelf. The girls typically live together in a commune arrangement, a family of five or more chelas – disciples – supervised by a guru.

The chela’s bed is on a platform about a meter up in the air. There’s a small window looking down on to the street. Draped across one corner of the mattress, backlit by the afternoon sun, an attractive Nepali woman welcomed me in. My gracious hostess was somewhere in her mid-thirties with the patient face of a Buddhist martyr, draped in a pretty pink sari. She exuded an air of confidence, tempered with a slight melancholy. This gal was a long way from home.

‘Sit, sit…’ she indicated with her hand and smiled.

Only the Adam’s apple gave her away.

‘Kathmandu?’

She smiled and fluttered her eyes.

‘Do you miss Nepal?’

She looked confused, then sad. The Devil had to leap in with translation.

‘She says that she can never go home.’

*

A pimply girl with long straight black hair sat with her back to the wall. She was a little sulky and self-absorbed, spent her afternoons heartily distributing condoms for the collective. Make-up was caked heavily over her acne. Pimples was a large-jawed lad with not-very girlish features who looked exactly like a large-jawed youth with not-very girlish features in heavy make-up and a wig. The spotty lad might have the moves down – but Mother Nature forgot about his face. He was never going to cut it as a girl – which, of course, if you’re a Hijra, isn’t really a problem.

I watched this boy pouring out his woes. He looked exactly like every other self-absorbed youth with a pimple problem – although not many of the boys would have been wearing a fetching striped top with long frilly sleeves. Where did his breasts come from? Probably from the same place his acne did. I didn’t know. It looked like hits tits were wearing him, not the other way around.

He had crossed the line, that’s all that mattered. Pre-op, post-op, I couldn’t tell, the whole thing was spinning me out. I hoped it was pre-op. This kid needed to keep all his options open.

‘How much is this operation?’ I asked.

‘Boobs are three thousand rupees, everything five thousand more,’ said mine host. ‘Double it if you want a surgeon who doesn’t drink.’

‘That’s a lot,’ I nodded gravely.

At least they use anesthetic now.

*

A plump boy in tight white trousers and way too much gold bling sat fat on way too much bed. He wore a red t-shirt that said ‘No More Fear’, spelled out in diamante clusters across his chest. Let’s hope he looked better in drag. Miss Piggy went into a state of red alert when Ifte came in, his two little eyes shining with excitement as they X-rayed my handsome bodyguard. His diamonte clusters heaved; if they could have lit up and flashed ‘I love you’ they would have. I thought we’d have to sedate him soon.

‘Chai!’ An imperious squawk from the Nepali princess.

A swarthy man in a white boiler suit ran in from next door. Chai was brought. Now there were seven of us in a room the size of a double bed. All the hijra fluttered and whittered and twittered away to Satan as he explained our presence – then forgot about me in an instant and whittered and twittered some more, probably about Ifte. Nobody cared about the foreigner at all. Ifte was the man of the moment, so stunningly embarrassed he was a real pleasure to tease. So everybody did, including me. Everybody laughed, including, eventually, Ifte.

‘He’s very pretty,’ our Nepali hostess growled and leant back seductively.

Ifte blushed and squirmed.

‘Beautiful eyes…’

‘No hope of translation, Ifte?’

His head quivered. I took that to mean ‘No’.

Were they all prostitutes? Performers? I had no idea. Somehow I got the feeling they didn’t make their living just dancing at weddings.

*

There’s no exact equivalent for this phenomenon in Western society.  Hijra is the Hindi term we traditionally translate as ‘eunuch’, but that’s not strictly correct. In India the Hijra actually refer to what we would call male-to-female transgender people and effeminate homosexuals, overtly gay guys who optimistically think of themselves as a third sex. Not all Hijras are eunuchs but, these days, most eunuchs are Hijras.

The word ‘eunuch’ is becoming replaced by a glossary of transsexual, transgender, intersex terms I get confused with, together with some really strange sexual oddities I don’t understand. Ceremony has been replaced by surgery. A sex-change operation is a far cry from becoming a eunuch, yet the results seem exactly the same. Of course they are not. The difference is chemical. Gender reassignment surgery, as we so coyly put it, is accompanied with a cocktail of hormones, girlie pills and jungle juice that would turn Arnold Schwarzenegger into Britney Spears.

The ‘girls’ were drawn to the city by fate, genetics, exclusion, circumstance – who knows? There aren’t many options for an effeminate youth born into superstition. Some ran, some were pushed, some were sold. Nobody aspired to be a hijra. It was a refuge of last resort. Their ranks were topped up by the poor lads who had been kidnapped, drugged, tricked and castrated, unwilling amputees propelled into the lifestyle by grim necessity.

There were Hijras and Hijras, of course, high and low class; some worked the streets, some worked the clubs, some worked the festival circuit, some were do-it-yourself drag-queens, just new to Kolkata. Business straddled the cultural universe; from some very strange behavior at the top end of town to a bit of debt-collection by humiliation in the downtown alleys.

The Hijra dress in saris, wear heavy make-up, chatter and coo like amateur actors but, interestingly, make no attempt to pass as women – they embrace the burlesque travesty of it all and, as an act of visible defiance, remain men dressed up like women, behaving like men behaving like badly behaved women – which manages to insult pretty much everybody.

These days only a passionate few achieve a nirvan – a Hijra rebirth – at the hands of a dai. An unlucky few get reborn without warning – but that’s another story. The idea of savage amputation, lock stock and barrel, has been supplanted by the idea of gender reassignment and cosmetic surgery.

It’s not a lifestyle to aspire to. Most hijras exist on the margins of society with very low status and few employment opportunities. Most get their sole income from performing at ceremonies, begging or prostitution, the three traditional Hijra activities. They get picked on and discriminated against with relentless intrusion, they get beaten up, knocked down and abused – and still they survive.

They have for at least four thousand years.

*

I looked at Ifte.

‘Feeling out-numbered?’

He nodded slowly, very emphatically.

I sipped and sat, happy to be in such a unique situation, surrounded by a swirl of girly Hindi slang, a shriek, a giggle and a squeal, content to smile vacantly and wiggle my head. The whole thing was strangely familiar. It was the same gossip, laughter, the ‘oh!’ and ‘o-o-oh! and ‘ee-e-e-e!’ of any group of gay men anywhere in the world. I was struck by how relentlessly universal that behavior has become, particularly as I’ve never yet met a woman who acts like that.

The Devil leant over to me.

‘We don’t all do it,’ he said suddenly.

I had to focus. Wha…?

‘We don’t all have the operation, you know…’

He stared straight into my eyes.

‘Everything is in the mind.’

I knew I shouldn’t have mentioned the operation.

The Devil tapped his forehead and looked around.

‘She’s a proper queen,’ he said, pointing to Princess Nepal, ‘all gone.’

‘But she’s a queen, too,’ pointing to Pimples, ‘with tits and a pennis!’

Pennis rhymed with ‘tennis’.

He pointed at Piggy, glinting fat on the bed.

‘She’s a queen and she has a tiny pennis!’ Piggy gasped.

‘She’s a queen!’ he said, pointing at the man in the white boiler suit, ‘but you’d never know.’

There was a slow, swarthy wink in reply.

‘I’m the biggest queen of all! Do I have a dick? Who knows? Who cares?’ Satan said, standing up on the bed. ‘It’s up to you. It’s all in your mind.’

It was a strange existential outburst coming, as it did, from nowhere at all.

‘Don’t you get it? We’re queens! We’re all just big queens!’

He trilled with laughter and waved his hands delightedly in the air.

Then he smiled. Little black pin-pricks of hate stared down the barrel of two perfectly empty eyes.

‘You are one of us – or you are not.’

How simple it was. How scary he was. How elegantly true. He  was giving me the keys to the castle in that single exchange. I felt a shiver run down my spine. That’s when I first thought he might be the Devil.

*

PART TWO

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