Yearning

The Eunuch Mothers

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Two men who turned themselves into women and later became mothers by adopting little girls

The chandelier earrings almost touch her shoulders. Her face dark and beautiful, and eyes lined with kohl, Zeenath Pasha sits on an inherited old bed in Kamathipura’s Ramabai Chawl in Mumbai. Zeenath is a eunuch. In her lap is a 14-month-old girl, Saleha, who she is bottle-feeding.

There is someone else on the bed—a young woman, thin and pale, but cheerful. She is Saleha’s biological mother. But the infant is being brought up by Zeenath, who made a deal with the mother, a poor sex worker from Bengal ready to put her womb on rent. The baby was delivered in Zeenath’s name.

“We are like sisters,” Zeenath says, “We did business together. We slept with the same men. She had two daughters already and wanted to abort Saleha. I counselled her against it, told her I wanted a child, and paid for everything from her vitamins to her operation. The baby is not HIV positive.”

Saleha means ‘pious’. She is growing up in a brothel in Kamathipura, and was just a few days old when she came to live with Zeenath and ten other eunuchs in the three-storey chawl with bunker beds where they would trade sex for a few rupees.

Zeenath runs the brothel today. Almost 20 years ago, she had run away from Hyderabad, and her friends brought her to Sushila Ma, the brothel’s stern proprietor who was known to offer refuge to battered souls like her. For days, Zeenath sat under the tree outside and cried. She was young and broken. She couldn’t have gone back to her abusive husband, Ahmed. They had got married against the collective will of their respective families.

“A man can’t get married to a man,” the grandmother had announced.

The couple, madly in love at the time, consumed poison but survived. Zeenath, who was Mehraj to her parents, was so consumed by the idea of love that she stubbed cigarettes on her own feet in an act of rebellion during the days when her family was not letting her marry Ahmed. Her feet still bear those marks.

Finally, she married him. Her family arranged the wedding, gave her some jewellery, and a bed, and some utensils, and even celebrated it with a feast. But that was it. Beyond that, Zeenath would have to forget she had a family, forget her brothers and her sister.

The first seven months were good. They went to the movies, made love, and talked about a future together. One night, as they were returning from a theatre after watching the film Chandni, they heard a child’s muffled cries. Near a kabristan (graveyard) in the Charminar area of Hyderabad where they lived, they stumbled upon a newborn girl. An abandoned child. Zeenath took her home. In the morning, she announced she would bring her up.

As she goes back in time, her eyes are restless. But she tries. It is not easy recalling the hurt.

Over time, her Ahmed began to change. He began to beat her up every day. “Then one night, as he beat me up and I fought back, my two-year-old Saleha died. We killed her.” The infant in her lap was named in Saleha’s memory.

Zeenath was arrested for Saleha’s death. They took her to the police station and blamed her for it. Then one night, she escaped. Her friends got her to Bombay. Straight to Kamathipura, the red light area of the city. The room where she now lives with her children, and grants refuge to other runaways from their past lives, is also where she first met Sushila Ma, the hijra guru who was in charge.

On Sushila Ma’s death, members of the brothel broke their bangles ritually over the guru’s body and then chose Zeenath as their leader. In her will, Sushila Ma, who had two adopted sons, made Zeenath the Maalik.

The eunuchs offer sex in tiny dark rooms, on narrow bunker-beds, each shrouded in blue tarpaulin sheets. These are the infamous pinjras, the cages of Kamathipura. It is in this place that Saleha will grow up. The eunuchs adore her and do all they can to make her life happy. During the day, they sleep on the same plastic sheets, resting their ravaged bodies. Swollen and abused.

Sometimes, Saleha would be wrapped in their arms in these cages as they stole their own moments of motherhood. Nisha, Kajal and Kashish play with her. She runs around, crosses the threshold of the room, and is held back by Zeenath. Not that side of the world for her.

“She will study,” says Zeenath, “and she will get off these streets.”

Her seven-year-old adopted son Asif, whose mother was a sex worker who died of HIV-AIDS soon after he was born, leaves the brothel at around 4:30 pm for the ‘night school’ run by an NGO in the locality for children of sex workers. He returns at around 8 am. Before he returns, Zeenath sweeps the corridors and staircase, and rids the place of used condoms, cigarette butts and alcohol bottles.

“Perhaps he knows. He doesn’t ask,” she says. “It is difficult bringing up children in a brothel. They are young now. But they will grow up one day.”

Saleha smiles. She is a quiet child.

Her mother takes her away. There is a birthday party on the roof and DJs are playing new Bollywood songs. Zeenath, resplendent in black chiffon, climbs the stairs and surveys the men who have perched themselves on nearby roofs to watch the party. She hangs tattered curtains to block their view. But this is Kamathipura. You can’t hide anything. Everything is on display here.

For more than 20 years, she has lived in the building. This is where she fell in love the second time. Salim, who worked in a hotel, would stand in the doorway and tease her as she went in and out of the building. He would toss letters and flowers at her. Once, he gave her a watch. They fell in love—and married. His family, she claims, never guessed that she was a eunuch. But he, too, turned abusive.

Gauri Sawant, a transgender individual who has come to visit her, plays a song on her mobile: Pakistani singer Noor Jehan’s famous song from the 1962 film Mehboob.

Nigahen mila kar badal jane wale, mujhe tujhse koi shikayat nahin hai. Yeh duniya bari sangdil hai, yahan par kisi ko kisi se mohabbat nahin hai… Main ashkon mein sare jahan ko baha doon, magar mujhko rone ki aadat nahin hai.’ (This world is stone-hearted, nobody loves anyone; I could drain the whole world with my tears, but I am not used to crying.)

It is a song about betrayal, acceptance, forgiveness and moving on, and they both sing along together.

Zeenath’s father was in the police and mother was a lecturer. Her family was ashamed of the effeminate son and wouldn’t take her out, but she learnt to love her secluded life, cooking and cleaning, and her pets. “I had a dog, and nani had goats and cows, and I loved them,” she says.

One day, when she was nine, her friends adorned her hair with gajras, and pumped her eyelashes with mascara and shaped her eyebrows. They wrapped on a chocolate-brown lace sari that belonged to her mother, and painted her lips. They were playing their usual games when her brothers walked in. They gasped and called her names. Her uncle was a hijra, and the family couldn’t bear the thought of another son yearning to be a woman. Zeenath continued to sweep the backyard in her sari through the flurry of abuses.  She stood her ground.

Gauri and Zeenath now sing another song, a happy song.

Pankh hote toh udh aati re…’ (If I had wings, I’d come flying.)

Zeenath spreads her arms. She flaps them like a bird, and Gauri joins in. They listen to songs for a while. They alternate between sad and happy ones. The night ends with Sufi numbers.

Zeenath is preoccupied with thoughts of death these days. She has prepared a will. Her inheritance and her earnings have been divided into three. Nisha, the hijra she has chosen over others to be the next chief, will get control of the brothel. Her son will get a room in another part of town. For Saleha, she has kept away jewellery, cash and ownership of a portion of the brothel.

In a couple of years, the brothel will be demolished and in its place will arise a tall building. They expect an apartment there, Zeenath says. That’s the promise of the builders. What she has learnt in life is that promises are never kept. But she hopes, for the sake of Saleha, that the builder keeps his promise. And Saleha will be suddenly rich, at least by the standards of Zeenath’s world. “Saleha is the reason I want to live. For her, I can die,” she says, “Look how innocent she is.”

Under the bed, Saleha’s toys are lying around. A red deer, a green horse. On the dressing table, there are bangles and pencil liners and lipsticks. In a eunuch’s world, there is perpetual competition. “We should look better than women. We incomplete women always try to look our best. We decorate ourselves,” Zeenath says.

On the side, her wig and flowers are arranged neatly. For another time. On Friday, after prayers, and her hair tied in a piece of cloth, she squats on the floor with Saleha.

“Sallu, you make too many demands your poor mother,” she says.

A few old clippings and magazines are all that are left of Zeenath’s somewhat glorious past as Bombay’s first hijra to have worked with an NGO, Asha Mahila. It was back in 1993.

Almost a decade ago, she appeared on the cover of an issue of Tamil Post, a magazine. Juxtaposed with her photo is a picture of a popular Tamil actress Priyanka.

“‘Is this a eunuch or a heroine?’ is what the caption says,” she says.

Many years ago, a eunuch had walked the streets of Ajmer, and had fasted and prayed at the dargah of Khwaja Gareeb Nawaz Moinuddin Chishti. She wanted motherhood. On the mountain, as the legend goes, the eunuch delivered a son. Zeenath won’t take the eunuch’s name. It is forbidden. But she has been there, and has eaten the little berries that grow on a tree at the Sufi seer’s shrine. They refer to it as the Maji. It is said if you pay homage at the shrine, a eunuch will be blessed with a child.

“I have prayed there,” she says, “Saleha is my reward.”

Later that Friday evening, she goes to Haji Ali’s dargah off the coast of Mumbai, the way to which is a narrow pathway with brackish seawater on either side. As qawwals clap in unison and sing songs of devotion, Zeenath Pasha sits facing the shrine. It’s the tomb of Sayed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, and a short distance across the waters is yet another shrine. Of the saint’s mother.

That evening, sitting in the courtyard with the faithful all around, her feet dangling with all its scars of lost love, she discloses that she is HIV Positive.

Six years ago, the doctors had given up. They had said she wouldn’t survive beyond two weeks. She has miraculously made it. But her fear of death remains. She wants to live, she wants to see Saleha grow up to be a young woman who can go out into the world—where, Zeenath knows, there is so much happiness. 

In her arms, she holds Saleha. Pigeons fly, and a song reverberates across the courtyard, a song of faith, of love and of yearning, and of eternal hope. She never could hold on to love. It eluded her. The cigarette burns on her feet are testimony to the truth that she has loved and lost.

“I look at her and I cry through my nights. What is going to be her fate? I fought mine and I have given up,” she says. “She is so fragile.”

Gauri Sawant tells her adopted daughter that she should not clap like other hijras, and teaches her how to sing and dance. Her 10-year-old daughter, Gayatri, is gentle. Gauri scoops the girl’s hair, ties it into a ponytail, and feeds her with care. With Gauri is Mandwa, a young transgender who wears her hair short, and who has chosen Gauri to lead her through her new life, the transformation from male to female.

Gauri is a 30-year-old transgender and director of Sakhi Char Chowghi Trust—which works with transgenders and helps AIDS victims—in Malvani, near Malad in Mumbai.

She adopted Gayatri four years ago. She was a six-year-old then. Her mother, a sex worker who had green eyes and a fair complexion, had died of HIV-AIDS.

“I became a mother by accident,” Gauri says. She brought the child home, cut her nails, and fed her. Gayatri attended school in the neighbourhood, and spent most afternoons after school in the little room in Malvani, with her mother and some affectionate members of Mumbai’s hijra community who would play with and pamper her.

As a little child, Gayatri struggled to make sense of her world and differentiate between ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’. Those who had grown their hair and wore salwars and saris, she referred to as aunties. But Mandwa, who has short hair and the voice of a man, was an ‘uncle’.

One day, Gayatri got into a fight with other girls from school. And she started clapping and cursing like a eunuch.

“That’s when I knew I had to get her to a boarding school,” Gauri said.

Now, Gayatri studies in Pune. She comes home for holidays, wraps herself around her new mother at night, and sleeps soundly. When she had first come to live with Gauri, she was a withdrawn child, still dealing with the loss of her mother. Now, she calls Gauri mother.

Gauri was born in Pune. Her father was in the police and she had an elder sister. Her mother died when she was around nine years old. They lived with their grandmother, and one day she was found asleep wearing a bra under her shirt.

She was made to urinate with the door open so her uncles could ensure she wasn’t squatting like a woman while relieving herself. All those things were such torture, she says.

Her father, an assistant police commissioner, carefully chose her clothes—pants and shirts. He forced her to keep a moustache, and she hated it.

One night, when she was 17, her father held the door open for her and asked her to leave. She had nowhere to go. All of a sudden, just like that, she was abandoned. Finally, she came to Ashok Row Kavi, the famous gay rights activist based in Mumbai, and he gave her shelter and paid for her higher education. She worked with him, and went through sex reassignment surgeries to make her transition from male to female.

“Cutting off your genitals is not easy,” she says, “It is a part of you that you are letting go of. The truth is, we will always be incomplete women. Neither  here, nor there.”

She left her family and moved in with the hijra community. Once, outside Borivali Station, she saw her father. He looked worn and weary.

She wanted to call out his name. But didn’t.

Kya paaya, kya khoya,” she says, and looks away. (What do you gain, what do you lose?)

Now, she has a partner, and they live near Malvani.

Gayatri is a thin, wiry girl.

“Mummy tells me many stories. About queens and kings and princes and palaces,” she says.

Ever since Gayatri came into her life, Gauri’s life has changed. She wears traditional Indian clothes because that’s what Gayatri likes, and cooks for her. Together, they go to beaches and movie theatres.

“I didn’t want to be a mother. But I wanted to do something for her. She is so innocent. The community has been very helpful,” she says. Bringing up a girl child is like holding a glass doll, she adds.“You must be very careful. We are in an environment where we have all sorts of people coming in.”

In the narrow lanes of Malvani, a poor neighbourhood, there are many hijras. Like Chandni, a Hajji who has adopted two children. They live in the village, and Chandni won’t talk about them. She is afraid of the stereotypes that others associate with such adoptions. Or Rambha, who bought an infant girl for Rs 50,000 and is now bringing her up. Shahnaz Nani, an elderly hijra, recently had her daughter married and held a grand feast in Malvani. There are several such eunuchs who have adopted children of sex workers. It helps them achieve a dream—the semblance of a family.

“My daughter says she wants to be one of those who give injections. Nurse or doctor, we still have to decide,” Gauri says, chuckling.

It is difficult to explain why hijras would want to be mothers.

“My eyes are always hungry. They look at your face and move down, and we long for that complete body. We are a sandwich. We are just buried between the two genders,” she says. “It is a strong urge to be a woman and look better than any woman. We want to be mothers too. That is an inherent part of being a woman. All our lives, we have only wanted to be female.”

It is not for the fulfilment of an ambition of womanhood that she should do this, Gauri’s guru had warned her.

“‘Take on the responsibility only if you can do it,’ she had told me,” Gauri says.

Gauri is forever switching roles. To Gayatri, she is the doting mother who buys white fairy-like frocks and throws parties for her. For Mandwa, she is the hijra nani, the one who will ensure that the 19-year-old makes a smooth transition and adopts hijra ways.