By itself, it would be just another conference of a marginalised community. But behind the closed doors of the meeting, a whole underground culture will ebb and flow.
“For nine days, there will be a lot of song and dance between long spells of gambling sessions where the stakes will range from a few hundreds to a few thousands. On the last day, there will be the real surprise element. For that is when there will be buying and selling of chelas (disciples) by various gurus of the community,” says Salma Khan, a eunuchturned-social worker with Dai organisation, who has done an unthinkable thing. She has filed a non-cognisable complaint with the Surya Nagar Police station, Vikhroli Park Site, with a copy to most of the influential people in the country. The non-cognisable complaint number 925106, dated April 17, 2006, says, among other things, that “nothing will be done for the betterment of the community, but almost all Hijdas will be playing cards, disturbing the peaceful life of persons in the nearby areas.” The complainant is asking the police to withdraw the permission given to the organisers.
In the complaint, she has not recorded what will happen on the tenth day of the meet. The high drama of trade during which pretty eunuchs will be exchanged between various groups. Meeting coordinator Kokila denies the charges. “We assemble to pay homage to our departed elders and distribute food in their memory. There is nothing more to it,” she says.
On that day, all the leading community gurus will assemble in the hall and a thali will be kept in front. Then the gurus and their assistants will call the ones that they think can earn them a good amount. When the deal is struck, the agreed amount is kept in a thali with a red cloth draped over it. The thali is passed to the eunuch chieftain who agrees to let go of her chela. The chela then joins the bidder’s community to endure a whole life as a prostitute, extorter or in any other role that will make her earn a good return on the investment for the head eunuch who bought her.
The eunuch community follows the guru-chela tradition and has mainly three sources of income. Those who dance and sing at the birth of a child or at weddings are called badhai, those who are into prostitution are called dhandawali and those who beg are called mangti. Depending on her abilities, the chela could earn anywhere between couple of hundreds to thousands of rupees per day. Usually, the guru eunuch who owns her takes around 50% of the chela’s earnings, or even more. The guru and her bunch of chelas stay together and the guru takes care of the food and household expenses, just like a family. Often when the guru dies, the favourite chela gets the head’s assets.
But the tradition of human sale is a common truth among the comity of eunuchs. “What the chela does not know is that a long and horrible life lies ahead of her. Blinded by glamour and wealth, the chela is only too glad to be sold. She does not know that if she does not bring adequate returns or falls ill, then she will be discarded quickly,” says Salma.
Forty-year-old Maharani served her master for well over 20 years giving away more than half her daily earnings. But last year, she was diagnosed HIV+ and since then, has been discarded. When a person is discarded in the eunuch community, it essentially means that she is on her own and is often stopped from earning in the Mumbai territory.
Maharani is not the only HIV+ eunuch who is on the streets. According to surveys, about half of Mumbai’s eunuch population is HIV+. Within the clan, they are simply called “pojeetive”. The pojeetives often survive by begging because they are not allowed to operate in the other two trades. Once a eunuch has been discarded, she cannot carry on trade anywhere. If she does, swift retribution follows, say the HIV+ eunuchs, with resignation.
“When they die, nobody claims their body. They are burnt in anonymity. They die a talcum-powder death,” says Salma, alluding to the white ashes as she rattles off the names of those found dead and whose bodies were unclaimed. Pooja was found dead at Sion station, Santoshi near Dombivali station and Nazrana near Andheri station. All the three were labelled as unclaimed bodies by the police and burnt.
“They are used just like green trees. When the tree is green, everyone enjoys the shade and the fruits it offers. Once the tree becomes barren, it is just discarded or cut down,” says Salma.
Territories are marked within the city and the whole of Mumbai has seven eunuch clans — Lalanwala, Lashkarwala, Dongriwala, Punawala, Blockwala, Chaklewala and Bhendibazarwala. They are tightly knit and are each clan is headed by a Nayak. Five of the seven Nayaks stay at building number six in Lucky Chawl area near Khatau Mill Compound in Byculla. The building is guarded by undoubtedly male toughies.
Below the Nayaks are the gurus who in turn have hundreds of chelas or disciples.
Often the gurus or leaders live in comfort. While they do not have cars or an evidently affluent lifestyle, many have kilos of gold, silver and cash.
Though they live in a parallel world, they are a formidable economic block. In fact, one of the issues that may be discussed during the impending May 10 meet is a new threat to their survival. Apparently, opportunistic males are masquerading as eunuchs to scavenge on the formidable wealth on Mumbai’s streets. TNN