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Chelo! We’re in a cab, zooming away, Satan squashed in the back directing proceedings, juggling driver and phone calls in rapid Bengali. I can hear high pitched voices.

‘That’s my girls,’ he smiled, ‘they want to meet you.’

I don’t know what is going on, where we are headed and Ifte doesn’t either. He’s had enough.

‘I was thinking of going home soon…’ he said.

We squeal to a stop at an intersection.

The Devil leapt back on his mobile phone.

He waved out the window. Suddenly, to my complete astonishment, three pre-pubescent lads burst into the front seat of the car. Another jumped into the back seat. He’s sitting on Ifte’s lap. It’s like one thousand hyper-active children just joined us.

‘These are my girls!’ beamed Satan.

It hadn’t occurred to me that his ‘girls’ were going to be little boys.

I mean little boys. They looked eight, nine, ten years old.

They were all for sale.

The topic had dramatically changed. Up until a second ago I’d been dealing with curses, castrations, drag-queens and whores, kamikaze trans-sexual dance troups, even a flirtatious eunuch sitting on a bed. I’m cool with all that. I’d rolled with the punches when all around me were flailing, been relentlessly jolly, courteous and kind; complicit acceptance was always part of the deal for this evening – I’m an anthropologist in this situation, not a judge.

I just didn’t expect tonight to head into this little boy business, that’s all. I have a very non-anthropological attitude problem with this stuff. I see red.

I’m stuck in a swerving taxi through streets I do not know with people to whom the whoring of children is the most normal thing in the world. The Devil is perfectly charming, smiling indulgently in the back seat while his ‘girls’ show off to the stranger. The kids are bright and funny, if disturbingly effeminate, bouncing up and down, turning around to smile and laugh. Their English is fluent and natural; they are dressed in the neatest of groovy clothes, acting up for the foreigner in the most unnatural of little boy ways.

I am chatting and laughing and losing it, all in a single ride. The more they talk, the more I die. It is raining. Kolkata blurred by, surreal streaks through grubby glass, slumdog drizzle wipes the day’s dirt from the windows of the car. Can it wash me clean? This is awful. Suddenly, dreadfully, not cool at all, awful.


Ifte has gone very, very quiet. There are introductions but I don’t remember a single name. I’m dealing with what has just arrived; those limp little handshakes, those coquettish little smiles.

The Devil’s daughters are squealing and showing off in a most flamboyant way. Even little girls are not as effeminate as these little boys. They are already experts at the burlesque, I see; the extravagance of their campery is breath-taking. They have no fear.

I find the whole thing completely disturbing. The cab driver is quite alarmed. I hear the word ‘kothi…’ thrown around. Trust me – you don’t want to be a ‘kothi’.

‘Ne, ne, Hijra, Hijra…

‘Ahhh,’ the driver gets it, ‘Hijra...’ He looks scared, never the less.

‘I’m going to have the operation,’ said one, his voice piping high through the cab.

Satan sat back smiling.

‘How old are you?’


‘Me too! I will be a dancer!’ another one shouted. He waved his arms wildly in a perfect imitation of a pantomime dame.

‘I am twelve,’ the third lad said. ‘I will have the operation too.’

Just one boy was silent.


‘How old are you, uncle?’

‘I am one hundred and fifty years old.’ I always say that.

‘No, you’re not!’ laughed one lad.

‘I think you’re not even one hundred!’

‘I am old enough to be your grandfather.’

‘My grandfather is fifty-five!’

‘I am older than your grandfather!’

‘I have a very old boyfriend,’ one lad piped up, ‘he is older than you are!’

I’m bleeding here.

‘Is he nice?’

‘He gives me pocket money.’

The Devil sat smiling in the back seat.

‘I could make you feel very young,’ one simpered and wriggled his arse.

I just wanted to be somewhere else. The taxi slid through Kolkata. The children waved like little queens to the thousand pairs of Indian eyes that followed our every move. They loved the attention. Chakka-a-a-a! I heard, Chakka-a-a-a!

I don’t like this. I really don’t like this. I’m tarred by association.

‘Where are we going?’

‘To see our Nana!’

‘Will we get there very, very soon?’

Why am I worried? Through no planning of my own, I’m in a taxi, looking exactly like an elderly sex tourist hurtling through the back-streets of Kolkata about ten p.m., trading jokes with an inchoate guide, four wildly effeminate child prostitutes and their hijra svengali. Which part of this scenario could possibly make me feel just a little ill at ease?


Everybody tumbled out of the cab.  The driver sped away with a look of incredulity. The boys want photographs, duly taken as they mince and flip limp wrists at the lens, posing like elphin drag-queens. They seem fearless. I think in that moment, they probably are. Completely free spirits. They are attracting a crowd. So am I. I’m smiling and nodding, snapping away, totally embarrassed – completely uncomfortable being part of this public sideshow.

‘Chelo…’ Let’s go. Please.

Now here I was, surrounded by four of them, all chattering gaily, dancing down an alley in the dark. Two little hands slip into mine. Two other lads attach themselves to me. I’m the Pied Piper of little boys.

I know what this looks like.

Mm-m-m-m-m, I thought, that’s not a good look.

I shuddered, disentangled and stopped dead in my tracks. The boys ran ahead.


He’s plodding along behind me.

‘Stay with me, pal. Stay close by my side. This is really starting to spin me out. I think we’ll go home soon.’

There’s a single bed in the alley. On it sprawled another huge Hijra woman in her late sixties, sitting cross-legged in the dark. She’s the Wicked Witch of the East, a haughty eunuch with dyed orange hair pulled back tight from two chubby cheeks. She runs the district. Laser eyes strafe the street. The two smallest boys run to her and jump in her lap.


We’re attracting another crowd. Ifte has disappeared into it. He doesn’t want to be seen in this situation either. I can’t do that; I’m the visiting celebrity foreigner come to pay homage to Nana. I have a role I must perform.

I’m being overtly polite, sitting on the ground at the side of her bed. Mucho respect from the white guy, everybody is happy. Nana coos and pats over them, then they all insist on a picture. They pose. I dutifully take the shot.

Nana snorts when I show her the frame and looks away but I know she’s secretly pleased. I get a twinkle in her eye and a little smile when I stand to leave. It’s a beautiful picture; a kind grandmother and her two sweet grandsons posing in a faintly Victorian manner, looking directly down the lens. Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth.

Except the little boys are on sale to dirty old men, except Nana is really a big fat gay guy without a dick, except he is grooming those grandsons to be willing young daughters, trimming their masculinity, stunting their growth, watching over them like an embittered gardener – then Nana’s gonna cut their dicks off, too.

The kid sidled up to us when we were just a hundred yards down the road. He was the oldest of the four boys from the car, twelve or thirteen at the most. He’d been the one sitting quietly on Ifte’s lap.

‘Take me back to Australia,’ the kid whispered urgently, ‘take me with you.’

I started to smile indulgently and launch into my prepared routine.

‘Please Uncle, take me to Australia. I can be your servant boy. I can sleep on the floor.  I just need some rice and daal. I’ll do anything. I have to go away…’

I realized he was very serious indeed.

‘I know you can take me away. Please, Uncle. Please…’

Forget the higher moral tone. Forget the curled lip, the distaste. Forget ME and my ethical dilemmas. Here’s a kid in trouble.

What did he just say?

‘I don’t want to be a girl.’

Argh-h-h, this is awful. Wide eyes pleading. He has cut straight to the chase.

‘Where is your mummy?’

‘I don’t know, Uncle, I don’t remember.

‘Where is your village?’

‘I don’t know.’

What do I do? What can I say?

‘Please?’ He was looking around, anxious that no-one could hear.

‘You can take me away. I know you can.’

‘I can’t help you, sausage. That’s just a dream. You know that.’

‘It’s not just a dream.’ His little voice broke. ‘You can take me.’

Nothing to do but grit my teeth and harden my heart.

He lowered his voice. ‘I don’t want to be a girl!’ he sobbed.

‘Little sausage, sausage, don’t cry. If you cry then I might cry then everybody will cry…’ It’s all just soothing white noise to calm a little boy down. I don’t know what to say. Help me, Ifte, I was pleading with my eyes.

Ifte gently steered the youngster to one side. He knelt down and wiped the tears from the lad’s cheek with one giant thumb and stared into his eyes. He didn’t say a word.

The kid just stood in the road. He watched us go.

‘Take me with you? Uncle, ple-e-e-ease…?

I can hear the final slice of the midwife’s knife, drums and trumpets on the Kolkata breeze.

‘He is evil,’ Ifte said very seriously, ‘that man is evil.’

We turned and walked away.

‘Uncle, ple-e-e-ease…?’ was all I could hear for days.


So I think I did meet the Devil in Kolkata. He really was the guide from Hell.

He’s a spiky old guy with an eye out for his sisters, a demon with a touch of rouge. He lives a perfectly contented family life as guru and den mother to a pack of little boys, teaching them how to be women, bending their limbs and forming their thoughts with all the care and patience of an old ballet master. They are an investment, like a beautiful plant: to be nurtured and groomed, watered, fed and fattened, fresh meat for the market. The Hijra are reproducing, in the only way they know how.

These boys were given up for their task, willingly, with great enthusiasm. The Devil took these children in, adopted them at age six or seven at the insistence of their parents for this express purpose. These boys became the Devil’s daughters.

He educated these effeminate youths very well, sent them to a good school, free from bullying, free from tension and raised them proudly in the Hijra way with utmost care. They were fortunate children in the eyes of their community, never persecuted, never wanting – spoilt little ladies-in-waiting, already feared for the curses they might one day bestow, educated, confident and smart beyond their years.

From the evidence of my eyes, they were all having a wonderful time in the streets of Kolkata, happily trapped in a golden cage – perfect little lambs for a perfect little slaughter, sacrifice to the delusions of a most imperfect man.

He is their guru, guardian and only protector, preparing them, dressing them up in women’s clothes, smearing lipstick and powder on innocent faces, teaching them, showing them how; displaying them in public then sending them out to be paid, patted and pawed by rich old men who think that sex with an underage transsexual will bring them virility and a blessing. When puberty has rendered the boys useless for commerce, Satan will castrate them – then, he will sell his new girls all over again.

He must be the Kolkata Devil.

Only the Devil would dare to do such a thing.


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