How do rural hijras view themselves outside of global public health discourse, which reduces them to a high-risk population affected by the AIDS epidemic? What are the pleasures and ambitions, hardships and vulnerabilities that are part of their everyday lives? How does their cultural identity and historical context get erased when they are boxed into the global category of “trans” or “transgender” people?
Vaibhav Saria tries to answer these questions in their book Hijras, Lovers, Brothers: Surviving Sex and Poverty in Rural India (2023). This is an academic volume, so the prose can be dense and occasionally inaccessible for readers who are not familiar with the concepts, theories and frameworks cited. However, those with patience will certainly find the book rewarding.
Saria, a scholar of Indian origin, is an Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Their book is based on 24 months of fieldwork in Bhadrak and Kalahandi – “two of the poorest districts of India” – in the state of Odisha. This was spread out over 11 years, between 2008 and 2019, and included 16 continuous months of living with a group of hijras. Saria writes from an insider-outsider position that is conscious of its limitations and tries its best to break away from the patronizing, extractive gaze common to ethnography.
Saria began to feel an affinity with hijras since the mid-1990s when they were six or seven years old. They recall a conversation between their aunt and their mother that they overheard as child. Saria’s aunt, who saw hijras begging on the streets, asked, “Where do ‘they’ come from?” Saria’s mother replied, “They are born this way and when they come to bless the newborn baby, they check the genitals; if the baby is born like them they take the baby away.” Saria was relieved to hear this. With their own experience of being cruelly teased by people around them, they had grown to believe that something was not “right” with them. When Saria overheard their mother, they felt reassured that, if their family threw them out, they could seek shelter with hijras who would take care of someone “born like them”.
The promise of care emerges as the central theme in this book. In the course of their fieldwork, Saria participated in collecting alms on trains and street corners, and got intimately drawn into the everyday concerns of the hijras. This closeness made them relate to hijras as “not just a group of stigmatized or marginalized others” but as people with desires, fears, and a wild sense of humour that helps them survive.
Low-income clients come to these hijras not only for sex but also for the sharing of “sukh dukh” – joys and sorrows – amidst the harshness that poverty brings into their lives. Jaina, one of the hijras, tells Saria, “I try to make them laugh and make their ji halka”. Here, intimacy is spoken of as a way to lighten the burden in someone’s heart. When these hijras perform sex work, they offer more than their body. They perform emotional labour. They pleasure, soothe, comfort, and fortify.
Many of the hijras featured in this book contribute financially to their natal families through money earned from sex work, begging and small jobs. They take care of lovers by showering them with gifts, hoping to earn affection in return. They take care of fellow hijras dying of disease and poverty, or of neglect from natal families.
Most importantly, the hijras that Saria meets take care of their own desires through seduction. They stroke men’s egos with generous compliments about their supposed sexual prowess. Saria’s unsanitized account might unsettle readers who expect to be coddled by euphemisms. The author refrains from using medical language to describe sexual acts as doing so would take away from the agency of hijras in the book. The hijras presented here derive tremendous joy from discussing sexual encounters, especially ones with men from different generations of the same family.
It is worth mentioning that these hijras do not come across as a homogenous group bereft of individuality. Their personalities, stories and conflicts come alive despite the formal writing style. For example, Mehraj takes odd jobs like waitressing and washing dishes at an eatery near her hut to supplement income earned from begging near a mosque. Jaina shares close ties with her brothers’ wives. Without telling their husbands, the wives save small amounts of money and give them to Jaina to deposit in a post office savings account. Mangu saves ₹10,000 for her funeral and another ₹10,000 for her mother’s because she firmly believes that nobody else in the family would spend money to take care of their last rites. It would be seen as wasteful.
Saria urges readers to reflect on differences between the material conditions of hijras who live in rural and urban India. Those who live in rural Odisha, for instance, do not have the same opportunities as hijras in cities who are being recruited by non-profit organizations as HIV prevention experts. The hijras in Saria’s book also lack access to the language and social capital that come from being part of urban, English-speaking networks where hijras can identify themselves as “trans women”.
Readers who doubt whether a scholar at a North American university can write about hijra lives in rural Odisha with empathy and humility might want to give this book a chance. Saria makes a significant contribution by bringing insights from a region that is under-represented in discussions of LGBTQIA+ lives in India.
Saria is aware of the power dynamics that arise when a person from a privileged position like themselves studies a marginalized community. They embody this position with a sense of responsibility. The book has instances of hijras laughing at Saria or calling them out for their ignorance. The choice to retain these moments in their narrative is a sincere attempt on Saria’s part to challenge social hierarchies.
Publisher: Oxford University Press