A few doors away from where Anita Khemka grew up in Delhi lived a band of big, sari-clad women with facial hair and deep voices. Whenever she was naughty, her grandmother issued a threat that was terrifying to the young girl: ‘If you don’t behave yourself, I’ll send you to live with the hijras.’
Many years later, Anita went to live with the hijras of her own accord. ‘I use my camera to deal with my fears,’ she says. ‘I photograph when I feel a compelling need, usually when something disturbs me.’
That was when she met Laxmi.
The first son of a Hindu Brahmin family, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi felt neither male nor female. She joined a hijra community, so adopting South Asia’s ‘third sex’, which embraces eunuchs, intersex and transgender people. For centuries, hijras have lived on the fringes of society in closed communities run by powerful leaders called gurus.
While working on a documentary about the hijra community, Anita learned about Laxmi’s childhood experiences of abuse: that she had been raped by several of the men in her family, and what a huge impact these events had had on her sexuality. ‘That’s when we first bonded,’ Anita remembers. ‘It took us a few years to start trusting each other.’
From a young age Laxmi had an aptitude for dance, and dedicated herself to the art as a way of coping with her trauma. Traditionally, hijras dance and dispense blessings in the houses of newborn children, for which they often receive substantial offerings of money, and as an accomplished dancer Laxmi fitted well into this role. She had no interest, however, in the other trades to which contemporary hijras are usually subjected: begging and sex work. Charming and articulate, she had a social vision and knew how to make connections. Anita witnessed the rise of Laxmi’s public profile; over the years Laxmi was invited to HIV conferences and transgender film festivals. She began to travel all over the world. She became a figurehead for hijras and sex workers, including with the UN.
Anita’s documentation of Laxmi developed into what has become a lifelong friendship bound by photography. ‘Sometimes I am with her and don’t feel like photographing her at all, and she says – because she’s a diva – “See how amazing I look right now, with the light falling at this angle. I am giving you an incredible shot. Pick up your camera.” ’
Laxmi remained biologically male, but she had her breasts surgically enlarged. Her critics called her a bahrupiya: ‘shape-shifter’ or, more vindictively, ‘impostor’. Anita recalls, ‘She told me she would never wish to be castrated – the hijras say “reach nirvana” – as that would mean a final crossover of sorts.’ The ritual removal of the penis and testicles is commonly part of a hijra’s initiation into the community, but for many years Laxmi resisted. After all, she was the eldest son of a Hindu Brahmin family. She was still negotiating her place within her community and society at large.