I

I first met Mona at a birthday party in a graveyard. That proximity of birth and death has stayed with us through the many years of our friendship. The back wall of her home abutted that of the morgue of a local hospital and Mona would often say to unsuspecting visitors – knowing full well the possible impact of her words – ‘I have the dead behind me and the dead beneath me.’ Then she might point to the graves on top of which people had built houses and add: ‘It’s a good way to live.’

At the time of that first meeting, I was looking for unusual stories about the Partition of India for a book I was researching. Friends suggested I talk to Mona and offered to take me to meet her. More than a decade has now passed since we met and got to know each other and, looking back, I sometimes wonder what either of us wanted from this unlikely friendship which crossed the barriers of class and gender in curious ways. I’m not sure I am any closer to understanding what, if anything, we’ve gained.


It was the 26th of January in Delhi, a crisp, clear, spicy-radish-and-tomatoes-in-the-sun winter morning that makes you glad to be alive. On this date, some fifty years ago, India had become a republic. Mona had chosen the anniversary to celebrate the birthday of her adopted daughter Ayesha; it pleased her that Ayesha had come into her arms precisely on the 26th of January. She would be free, like India.

The route to the graveyard, the walls of its compound, the pillars at its gate, were plastered with posters inviting all and sundry to the party; it was certainly the most unusual invitation I’d ever seen. Beside a somewhat makeshift, unfinished structure stood a wall about five feet high, and behind it men and women cooked food in large vats. Pakodas were being fried, their delicious aroma wafting out along the clear morning air, vying with the mouth-watering smell of meat curry and hot, oven-baked rotis. At one end of the compound, next to a cluster of graves, two people were busy chopping bananas, guavas and oranges into a spicy fruit chaat. Mona, large and imposing, hennaed and cropped hair spiking every which way, teeth stained with paan, her dark skin catching the winter sun, walked among her guests, offering food to one, a cold drink to another. But something was amiss. She didn’t seem dressed for a party; her clothes were rumpled and somewhat grimy, her hair dishevelled. She looked distracted and unhappy – and there was no sign of her child.

It turned out that Ayesha hadn’t come to her own birthday party because a few days earlier – or possibly it was some weeks – she’d been abducted. Or so Mona said. ‘Abducted’ is perhaps an odd word to describe what had happened to Ayesha, but she had indeed been taken away, by her adoptive ‘grandmother’, Chaman, and ‘mother’, Nargis, who – along with Mona – had formed themselves into a family for the child. Mona was devastated. She’d known of Ayesha’s ‘abduction’ before she’d planned the party – after all, they had all lived together. But she’d gone ahead anyway, in the hope that making the party a public event would shame Ayesha’s grandmother and mother into returning the girl to Mona’s care. This didn’t happen, but all the guests arrived nonetheless, and Mona was torn between her duties as a hostess and her concern over Ayesha’s non-appearance. At some point Mona lay down in front of a small storeroom, defeated, but still insisting that Ayesha would come. ‘I know she will,’ she said. ‘They’re sure to bring her, it’s her birthday.’ But it was clear that her heart wasn’t in it.


My friends and I stayed on at the party for a while, although I don’t think I realized then exactly how broken Mona was by her daughter’s absence. I was fascinated by what I saw around me. Mehendiyan, the large, bustling compound in the heart of Delhi, held two graveyards for Muslims and was also the headquarters of a religious sect called Jamia Rahimia. Local lore had it that the founders of the sect had moved to Delhi from Persia in the nineteenth century, setting up in Mehendiyan, living, dying and being buried there. Then, in the absence of a successor to their leader, the sect disbanded, and some years later, squatters began to move in, some of whom ‘recreated’ the sect to give themselves legitimate access to the land. The compound housed two mosques and a school for the religious instruction of young boys, the buildings set apart from the graveyard. Somewhere deep inside its portals was the small editorial office of an Urdu newspaper that had been, until recently, written by hand and then printed at a small offset press nearby.

Mona had built her home – or had begun to build it, for it was quite unfinished – to encompass a very small living area above several graves in which she said her ancestors were buried, on land that apparently belonged to her family. The structure consisted of a large wall covered with shiny white bathroom tiles featuring pictures of the Taj Mahal, forming a semicircle around what appeared to be a water tank sunk into the ground. At one end stood two other unfinished and free-standing walls, built of trellised brickwork, and between them a door that led to a small storeroom. This was where Mona said she slept.

Most of the guests at the party were male, though there were women as well. These were Mona’s friends and neighbours, some of whom lived in the old city of Delhi nearby. Mona talked to everyone. Speaking to the men she became, or assumed, the male persona of Ahmed-bhai, and many of the men present addressed her as such. Speaking with the women she was Mona, or baji, or behen – all female terms. This quick switch from one identity to the other, and the ease with which she achieved this, was remarkable. Now she was Ahmed and now baji or Mona, and no one seemed to find this odd.

At some point, mindful of my reason for visiting her, Mona found a half-hour to take me aside and talk to me about Partition. I filled several pages with her stories and some of these later appeared in my book. My friends and I left after spending several hours with Mona that day. The party had continued without Ayesha and after a while no one mentioned the child. There was food to be eaten and conversations to be had and people to be entertained, so all this went on until dusk set in and the crowds began to dwindle. I spent some time that night writing my notes on the experience and then put it out of my head. A few weeks later, Mona called. Was I a writer? she wanted to know. Why didn’t I write her life? There was so little people knew about the way hijras lived, and she would give me all this information. Come and see me, she said, and we’ll talk.

 

II


And so we began. My initial visits were tentative, hesitant, unsure. Then she suggested we fix a regular slot and Sunday afternoon became our time. I would drive across to see her in her graveyard compound – where I soon became known as the woman with the red car – and shortly after I arrived, she would shoo away all her hangers-on. She would talk and I’d write detailed notes. It wasn’t long, though, before the note-taking stopped and our conversation became more personal. We began to talk, not as researcher and researched, but as two women would. She was curious about me – why was I not married? What did it mean to be a feminist? And I was curious about her – what was it that so attracted her about femaleness? Had she really wanted to be a woman so badly that she was willing to give up everything – home, family, friends – for it? Over time I became her friend, confidante, banker (for those times when she found herself broke and needed money), adviser and, I discovered one day, a sort of ‘ticket’ to respectability. I’d once told her that I had been invited to dinner (along with about two hundred others, but this she conveniently forgot) by Sonia Gandhi, and I found that she had announced to her neighbours that I ‘regularly’ dined with the most powerful woman in India! Her questions, and her actions, never ceased to surprise me. One hot summer afternoon I arrived to find her sitting large and naked on a charpai, a string cot, with a bucket of water at her feet. She was preparing to bathe. ‘Don’t be embarrassed,’ she said to me, seeing the look on my face. ‘We’re all women here – I’ve nothing that you don’t have,’ she said, pointing to different parts of her anatomy and grinning at my discomfiture. Gradually, this too would disappear. As would my fear – and I’m ashamed to say it, but I was fearful – of being in a largely poor and Muslim (and as I then imagined, hostile) place. Over time, the mullahs, the young boys in skullcaps, the battery operators, the knife sharpeners and rickshaw pullers and the gravedigger who occupied the compound all became my friends, familiar, sometimes funny, often lonely men, a number of them joining Mona in the quest for femaleness.

 

III


Mona Ahmed was born a boy, the third child after two girls, in 1937. In the narrow, congested streets of Ballimaran in Old Delhi, where her father ran a small business selling skullcaps, the birth was greeted with joy. The family could no longer be dismissed – they now had a boy to continue the line. But things didn’t quite turn out as expected.

‘From the moment I became conscious of myself as a person,’ she says, ‘I felt I was a misfit. I was convinced I had been born in the wrong body. I really wanted to be a girl.’ It wasn’t only the physical fact of her maleness that made her uncomfortable, but also the cultural baggage that accompanied it. She liked dolls and ‘feminine’ things, preferred girls as friends. This made her the butt of many jokes at school, as well as a source of anxiety for her parents. She was a lonely child, an outcast among boys who saw her as effeminate yet unable to join the girls because the society in which she lived was conservative: there was no space for girls and boys to play together. Often, she would leave home for school but instead spend the day sitting in the park, alone. It was not until much later in life that she would find what she believed was a place for herself.

‘When I was around ten, in 1947, my family moved to Pakistan,’ she says. ‘Later we came back here. I was unable to get admission to a school, and my parents were quite concerned about my girlishness – so the maulana was brought in to teach me. He would read the Quran to me.

‘One day, the maulana molested me. I remember the terrible pain. I was bleeding and hurting. I told my mother, who told my grandmother, and later they told my father. Then my grandmother and father, they beat up the maulana. At first he admitted he had done this and later he swore he had not. So my father punished me by sending me back to him. I hated it – I was frightened of him. My mother fought with my father about this, but he refused to change, he was adamant. He insisted the fault was mine.’

Mona was sent back to school, but nothing changed. She only ever had female friends, and she would play female roles in plays at school. The boys and the older men in her neighbourhood teased her, making her the object of their lewd jokes; people would say to her: ‘Apa hai, bhai nahin hai’ (‘She’s a sister, not a brother’).


Mona was eighteen when she first met the hijras who would change her life. In the time-honoured tradition, a group of them had come to a nearby home to bless a newborn child and sing and dance in exchange for money. Mona felt an immediate shock of recognition. ‘These are my people,’ she thought. ‘Men who want to become women.’ She followed them to a local tea stall and struck up a conversation. They recognized a kindred spirit. Several meetings later, after a particularly traumatic encounter with her father, Mona went to them in desperation and they offered her an escape. ‘Come with us,’ they said. ‘We’ll help you.’ Mona didn’t hesitate. Tempted by the hijras’ promise of a nearly female identity, Mona left home and travelled to Bombay, where she lived with the troupe and prepared for her castration, a procedure known in the hijra community as ‘nirvana’. ‘I didn’t actually need much preparation,’ she told me. ‘I’d already decided. I hated all those male genitalia.’ She used the little money she had, the hijras helped out with the rest. ‘They look after their own,’ she said. Mona’s penis and testicles were removed in a back-room surgery in Belapur, a small village near Bombay. At the time, in the late fifties, sexual reassignment surgery was illegal in India, and unregulated. In Mona’s case the local anaesthetic did not work very well and the pain was agonizing.

‘Afterwards I felt an enormous sense of liberation,’ she says. ‘But at the time all I could think of was the pain.’ Much later, Mona would tell me that although she’d always wanted to be female, she had not been prepared for the finality of castration. ‘Suddenly, I realized that I had crossed the point of no return. There was now no going back.’


But Mona did go back – although unwillingly; the real point of no return was to come later. Her parents managed to trace her through a friend, who was then dispatched to bring her back from Belapur. ‘I stayed at his home in Delhi until my wounds healed, and then I returned to my parents’ home. But things did not improve – my father hated the idea of my effeminacy and continued to ill-treat me, so I did not tell him about the operation. But he would call me hij for hijra, and he would often say it would be better if I were dead. One night he even tried to strangle me. Then my brother-in-law came and took me away, and I stayed with him and his family for a while. But everywhere, things were difficult. I decided to go back to the hijras. My father protested, but the other people in my family said, “Let him go.” Maybe they knew about the castration. Anyway, I left.’

 

IV


In the early days, Mona was happy with the hijras. She was treated well and taught to sing and dance, skills that would become her route to earning money. ‘It was a wonderful life,’ Mona told me. ‘We’d dress up in nice clothes, go out to sing, dance or offer blessings.’ But the community’s rules were strict. Their earnings had to be handed over to the guru, the head of the society, and he’d share them among the troupe. She felt increasingly that she had landed among her own kind, that her sexuality and gender were finally not in question. ‘I thought I’d found a home.’

But new homes are not so easily found, nor old ones left behind. Despite the violence and insults she had endured from her family, Mona’s connection to them remained strong. She refused to give them up, worrying about her sisters and later even offering to pay for their children’s education. For this, she was punished: in the hijra community, you do not live by the rules of ‘ordinary’ society. Once you’ve been inducted, family connections are to be severed, and loyalty to the guru must be absolute. Disobedience, resistance, even questioning, are often punished with violence, or – worse – ostracism. Mona had indeed questioned the guru, Chaman – a legendary figure in the streets of Old Delhi. She flouted his instructions about not keeping in touch with her family. She would phone, send money at festivals, fund her nephews’ and niece’s schooling. (She drew the line, however, at visiting them too often. Only when her father lay dying was she given permission to visit.)

There was another reason Chaman was reluctant to let Mona maintain contact with her family: every time she returned home, Mona switched identities, put on male attire – dull or dark-coloured shalwar kurtas, loose trousers with a long shirt that effectively hid her silicone breasts. (One of the first hijras to undergo a full sex-change operation – which is today routine for many – Mona had acquired her breasts and a vagina, as well as undergoing other surgeries, a few years after the castration.) For Chaman and Mona’s fellow hijras, such ambivalence about identity was simply not allowed: you either were or were not part of the community. As Mona describes it: ‘It’s like being in a nunnery – the community is your family, and you dare not go out of it.’


Mona also desperately wanted something else, and here, for some reason, Chaman indulged her – up to a point. She wanted to be a mother. ‘Why’, she wondered once when I asked her about her longing, ‘do people think motherhood can only be biological?’ Mona yearned to experience motherhood – it was the only way for a woman to be complete, she said – so she begged Chaman to allow her to adopt a child. By now part of a communal household in old Delhi with Chaman as patriarch, Mona felt they had a home to offer the child she so wanted. As it happened, the hijras’ neighbour died in childbirth, and her widower was reluctant to keep the child – a girl. Mona, Chaman and Nargis, another of Chaman’s followers, took the child in, forming a family with Chaman becoming Dadi (‘Grandmother’ – although Chaman was always only referred to as ‘he’); Mona was Abbu (‘Father’, although by this time she had become physically female), and Nargis became Ammi (‘Mother’).

The real role of mother was played by Mona, however. She visited paediatricians and midwives to learn how to hold, burp, wash, care for and bring up a child. Until the age of six – the birthday celebrated at the graveyard – Ayesha was raised by Mona. But Chaman grew jealous of the growing affection between Mona and the girl, and critical. His authority was being undermined, his instructions flouted. Mona listened to doctors, to ‘normal’ people, not to him, and the child and mother seemed to share a bond that effectively left him out. He decided to separate them. With his customary authority, Chaman took Ayesha away from Mona. Fierce in her attachment, Mona fought hard to retain the child, but she did not succeed.

With Ayesha now in his control, Chaman shut down the communal home, moved his flock to a new location and barred Mona from joining them. Desperate and despairing, Mona began to drink, squandering everything she had on cheap liquor. ‘I would often wake up in some sleazy street,’ she says, ‘and find myself next to other drunks – beggars, thieves, rickshaw pullers.’ When liquor did not work she turned to religion, at first praying five times a day and then going on the hajj. When she came back, as the male-identified hajji Ahmed, people greeted her with flowers and sweets – but Chaman did not appear, nor did Ayesha. Only when she committed the cardinal sin of going to the police to complain about Chaman having thrown her out, thus grossly violating the rules of the hijra community, was she ostracized. She couldn’t take part in any communal activity, and with the singing and dancing now not an option for her, her earnings were drastically reduced. As with everything else she fought this verdict too, trying to regain her place in hijra society, but she found no support. Chaman had ensured that the entire ‘council of elders’ of the hijra community was on his side. And no one dared to go against the guru.

It took several years for Mona to accept the fact that Ayesha would not be returning to her, that there was no way for her to reclaim her child. Gradually her store of love and the desire for motherhood gave way to a sort of indifference. When I first began visiting Mona, Ayesha would figure often in our talks, and she would try to call the girl at Chaman’s home using my phone so that Ayesha would not recognize the number and reject the call. Ayesha had strict instructions from Chaman that she was not to give in to Mona’s pressure to see her. Mona later stopped trying to phone. Once she bought a second-hand computer, hoping to lure the child to her home, but to no avail. Then she just gave up.

 

V


As Mona and I became friends, we became more involved in each other’s lives. She began to return my visits. One day, fed up with her own company, she arrived, resplendent in black and gold, at my office and demanded tea and biscuits. ‘So this is what normal life is like,’ she said, sitting across from me at my table, and I was immediately embarrassed by the ‘normalcy’ of my existence. A few years into our friendship, my father died and Mona turned up at my family home to offer her condolences. Dressed in the white of mourning, she sat and held my mother’s hand, telling her that she too knew what it meant to be alone, without a man. Alone and without a man? The part about being alone I could understand, for much of the time she was actually alone, a stranger now to the hijra community. But without a man? I thought that was a strange statement from someone who had spent her life trying to be a woman. And yet, in some odd way, as I got to know Mona better, I realized that the hated male identity had not been abandoned after all, it lay there, somewhere deep down, to be called upon when some ‘clout’ or power was needed, or when a group of male visitors turned up bearing large bottles of rum and smuggled whisky. Schooled in the hard feminist politics of the street, I didn’t quite know what to make of this. Ought I to see her as a man or a woman – and did I have to see her as one or the other, when she herself so often switched? ‘But why do you find this so confusing?’ she once asked me. ‘I’m a woman, I’ve always wanted to be one, it’s that simple.’

But she wasn’t only that. Some days, at her home, I’d meet groups of young men – slicked-back hair, shiny, pointy shoes, skin-tight trousers and an almost elusive sense of femaleness. She introduced me to them – Jugnu, Chand, Ankit, Dharmendra – but it wasn’t until I’d met them a few times that I began to understand what I was seeing: young men transitioning (if one can use that word) from maleness to femaleness. They’d come to Mona for advice and support. ‘There’s really no one else who can help us to understand,’ they told me. ‘That’s why we come to baji.’ Some of them had begun to take hormones and you could see their faces becoming smooth, their body hair starting to drop off. One of them even looked as if he was beginning to grow breasts. His friends teased him gently and, I thought, a shade enviously, about this. Another day, Mona stood waiting for me as I arrived at Mehendiyan. ‘Let’s go,’ she said, lifting herself into my car and leaning forward to turn the air conditioner on full blast. ‘Where?’ I asked. She told me not to ask questions and directed me across the old iron bridge on the River Yamuna, to a part of Delhi called Seelampur. ‘We’re going to DART,’ she said. DART turned out to be an NGO funded by the Delhi government whose main business was Aids prevention, and it sent out groups of young boys to places where men sought sexual partners, to distribute free condoms. But every Sunday afternoon, DART transformed into something else – a space where men and transsexuals and hijras came together to cross-dress, and sing and dance. I met a man in a sari who offered me a cup of tea and introduced himself as an engineer, working for a large corporation, married with two children. ‘I come here most Sundays,’ he said. ‘My wife knows, and she thinks it’s OK for me to express the female part of myself; it also helps us to be friends.’ Another frequent visitor was an old man, slightly bent over and frail, a tattered keffiyeh wound round his head, who sold home-made biscuits in the streets of the old city. ‘He’s also a hij,’ Mona told me. ‘If you lift up his clothes you’ll see.’

What was it with all these men wanting to be women, I wondered. Here I was, a woman who thinks of herself as empathetic and quite open, surrounded by men who were doing their best to switch over to ‘my’ side, and I felt out of place, as if I did not belong. I was reminded of a conversation I’d once had with an Australian friend of mine, a lesbian and a feminist, as she and I stood and watched some hijras dance at a women’s conference. ‘I hate all this,’ she’d said to me. ‘We’ve fought so long and hard to carve out a little space for ourselves in society, to be able to make our voices heard, and here are these men pretending to be women, and they’ve come and taken it over.’ Until she said it in so many words, I hadn’t actually thought of it like that. Instead, I’d been wondering about what the experience of maleness and femaleness meant for the Monas of this world and how someone like me could understand it. Typically, Mona had the answer. ‘Arrey,’ she said, ‘why do you worry so much about this? What is there to think? I’m human, you’re human, I’m a woman but sometimes I can be a man – I don’t like being one, but sometimes it’s useful. And anyway, we have something more in common and that is that both you and I, we’re bachelors.’

 

VI


Bachelors we both may have been, but that’s where, I think, the similarity ended. Or perhaps not, for there’s no doubt that we bonded together strongly as women – Mona’s natural empathy and sense of belonging in the world of women led her to be caring and affectionate towards me. She would often show concern that I did not colour my hair for example, or that I worked too hard. But something deeper – I’m not sure what to call it, class perhaps? – kept us apart. I could never, for example, invite her with me to a restaurant for a cup of coffee. Not, I think, because I was ashamed of her, but more because I worried about how she would be treated – she was often unbathed, unkempt, loud, sometimes violent – the rules of social behaviour as ‘normal’ people know them were alien to her. She never came to my house when I had friends to visit and I did not ask her. Gradually, I came to realize that by offering me her life to write about, Mona had hoped that I would be instrumental in bringing about a change, that somehow people would see her as a ‘normal’ person and would give her her due. And I? Perhaps it was the fear of not being able to meet her expectations that kept me from writing the book about her. Or perhaps not. But at any rate, I never did write it.

Today, Mona is in her seventies. Her home in Mehendiyan has expanded as she has taken over more and more land there. But it gives her little comfort. Her retinue of hangers-on has seriously dwindled, and she spends much of her time lying on her bed, barely moving, except when it is necessary. She seldom bathes, and is often depressed. In a strange reversal of the old situation, Ayesha, now nearly twenty and married, comes now and again to visit her. Chaman no longer tries to stop her. He’s ninety, and probably tired. But for Mona, the indifference is now too deep, the hurt too profound. Ayesha’s visits bring her no joy. ‘It’s too late,’ she tells me. ‘Far too late.’ I still visit Mona most Sundays; our conversations are desultory, she no longer talks about what it means to her to be a woman. ‘I’ve cut all connections now,’ she says, ‘with my real family and with my hijra family. There’s really nothing left to live for. I used to think the dead were only around me, but now I think they’re inside me as well.’

 

Image courtesy of Mona Ahmed

Urvashi Butalia | Interview
Postcards | New Voices