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Published in Motherland Magazine, November 2010.

Text: Sarika Bansal

A contestant at India SuperQueen 2010. Photo credit: Sarika Bansal

Backstage was all your average pageant stuff. Talcum powder, stray sequins and nervous laughter filled the musty dressing room air. Contestants calmed one another while adjusting their hair and bra straps. “Don’t worry, na,” one contestant cooed. “You’re a beautiful woman, the audience will love you.”

The venue may have been a lavish Mumbai five star hotel, and the contestants as ravishing as any Bollywood starlet, but the watchful gaze of Lord Ardhanarishwar – in the form of a kaleidoscopic effigy looming over the stage – reminded everyone how unique this event really was.

Just as the statue of Ardhanarishwar represented the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies, one could say that the pageant did the same. While all the contest- ants identified as female, most were biologically male. These dolled-up hopefuls were hijras, members of India’s third gender, competing in the country’s first transgender beauty pageant held earlier this year.

“Indian Super Queen,” organized by hijra personality Laxmi Narayan Tripathi and sponsored by business conglomerate V-Care, was no modest affair. Auditions were held in ten Indian locations, from Mumbai to Manipur and judging the final round were Bollywood actresses Zeenat Aman and Celina Jaitley. Contestants participated in personality development seminars and were given nutritional advice.

When the first contestant hit the ramp, she dazzled the audience. Her hair and makeup were flawless, the red sari accentuated feminine curves and her strut was confident. The same held true for the other 15 finalists. In their moment onstage, one could forget the negative stereotypes often associated with India’s hijra community. They were resplendent, poised, unfettered – in short, they were stars in their own right.

“This is a dream come true,” exclaimed one hijra during the question-answer round. “This is a platform we have never seen before in our community. It gives us a chance to show [mainstream] society that we too can look beautiful.”

Laxmi, who goes by her first name, agreed that this was a primary aim of the competition.

“I have been working as an activist for the community for many years now. At the end of the day, what is activism but creating new spaces for people to shine? This pageant has helped the girls become much more confident, which is more than I could have ever asked for.”

Three of the judges at India SuperQueen: Laxmi, Zeenat Aman, and Celina Jaitley. Photo credit: Sarika Bansal

Perhaps the largest difference between the “Indian Super Queen” and a standard beauty pageant was the emphasis on community. Throughout the competition, contestants were asked how they would use the title to help uplift fellow hijras. When the top five finalists were chosen, the remaining contestants were asked to remain on stage. “Everyone stay put!” instructed Laxmi, as a new layer of confetti coated the ramp. “We are all in this together, and even though the judges have to choose a winner, you have all made it so far.”

This level of kinship runs deep. Having been marginalized for centuries, the hijra community has responded by creating a parallel society. They live in matriarchal households headed by nayaks who, among other things, appoint gurus. When new hijras enter the community, they are assigned to a guru through whom they learn all there is to know about hijra life.

“My guru taught me how to cook, how to dress, and how to act,” says Santoshi Gauri, 39, of her time as a chela or disciple. “Without her, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”

Over time, chelas become like sisters, gurus like mothers, and nayaks their grandmothers.

“Many hijras were either kicked out or ran away from home at a young age, so you can imagine how difficult life would be without a strong support network,” explains hijra activist Gauri Kanchana. “Of course, we have disagreements from time to time, and some people rebel against the hierarchy entirely. But the important thing is that for better or for worse, we’re bound to each other like family.”

Sitting on the floor of Kanchana’s modest abode, located in Malvani, a neighbourhood in northern Mumbai and home to some 800 hijras, the support network is evident. Her home doubles as a community centre for the organization Sakhi Char Chowghi Trust. Throughout the day, people flow in and out of Kanchana’s drawing room, sipping chai and fervently sharing the latest Bollywood gossip. They swap tips on how to most effectively remove pesky facial hair and how to best show off a newly acquired bosom.

Given how marginalized the community is, the atmosphere in the drawing room is often heavy. Women who have just completed vaginoplasty procedures (vaginal constructive surgery) sometimes come in, looking for a place to ease their physical pain. Others enter with saltier tears, be they from a breakup with an abusive boyfriend, a tough encounter with parents or a general case of the blues.

On happier occasions, the shared joy appears boundless. When 25-year-old Shreya Janki explains that she has acquired a masters degree in social work, the entire room beams with pride.

The winners of India SuperQueen. Photo credit: The Asian Age

Besides Janki, there are many hijras who are aspiring for job opportunities in mainstream society. Though sex work remains a primary source of employment for the community – workers earn between 1 000 to 2 000 per night depending on beauty and reputation – some are slowly breaking the mould. Bobby, the bubbly winner of the pageant, has recently secured a job as a hair stylist in Mumbai.

“That in itself is a huge achievement for our community – a transgender girl from Manipur working as a hair stylist for the general public. We are very proud of Bobby,” says Laxmi.

Others are beginning to work in call centres as they say it is harder to discriminate against a transgender individual on the phone. In certain states, hijras are even able to procure government jobs, such as becoming loan recovery agents for banks. Some are also beginning to take on college degrees. While they face difficulties in the process – most are ostracized, harassed, and forced to register as male – Kanchana’s girls say they are generally grateful for the opportunity.

And of course, there are the shining lights of Bollywood. “One day, I would like to be an item girl, even sexier than Rakhi Sawant,” giggled one contestant when asked about her future goals. Some audience members may have dismissed this as a pipe dream, but Laxmi firmly believes this is a near-term possibility. “At the end of the day, beauty is beauty, and many of our girls are beautiful. It will just be a matter of time before we have a proper hijra Bollywood star.”

Underlying Laxmi’s optimism are quiet glimmers of change. Over the last decade, community-based organizations across the country have become active in promoting transgender rights. Among other things, they have been trumpeting the need for voter IDs, education equality, and employment opportunities. They have gained a few small victories so far: in 2004, hijras in Tamil Nadu were given voting rights, and by 2008, several states had begun to set up hijra-specific welfare boards.

Considering all of these developments – high- budget beauty pageants, educational opportunities and welfare boards – what does the next decade hold for India’s third gender?

“Ten years is far too short of a time horizon,” says Kanchana. “We have only started to come together and fight for our rights. If we want to talk about serious change, let’s look at what will happen in 100 years, or maybe even 150. By then, transgender youth should be able to study in college just like everyone else. Parents will no longer shun their children, but will instead accept them for who they are.”

Though aware of the on-going, uphill battle that awaits the hijra community, Kanchana remains positive.

“We are caged birds who just want to be set free. Once society sets us free, we will soar high into the neela aasmaan, into the clear blue sky.”

“Beauty Queens” in PDF. Double click to view.

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When I googled "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," this is the first image that came up (it's from http://www.idiomsbykids.com)

When I arrived at Mumbai’s international airport in July 2006, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Wait, scratch the “bright-eyed” bit.  Before leaving home, I somehow decided that half of my books were “too precious” for check-in luggage, leaving me to run through the airport with the weight of a baby camel on my back (don’t you love short layovers that force you to sprint down endless corridors?). On the first leg (New York-London), I was seated next to a loud and pungent Russian woman, and on the second (London-Mumbai), in the middle of a rambunctious Punjabi family.  I don’t remember exactly what happened, but there was definitely some bad singing and spiked orange juice involved.  In any case, I arrived at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport anything but bright-eyed.

But oh, was I bushy-tailed.

I had big plans for India.  I was so earnest about living and working in the Motherland, I get embarrassed just thinking about it.  Over my proposed two-year stint in management consulting, I was planning to “develop the toolkit” required to “address the most pressing social issues of our generation.”  I would learn everything about economic development from the private sector, after which I would infiltrate the social justice world with orgasmic insights.  Basically, I came to India to solve poverty.  And maybe injustice too, if I decided to work weekends sometimes.  And in the process, I was going to love and cherish India like no one ever had.  I was going to become one with with my surroundings — and not in the leathery hippie kind of way.

Well, we all know what they say about the best-laid plans.  Anyway.  Back to the airport.

It was 3am Indian time, and I had finally gone through immigration and found my bags.  It was time to search for the Auntie and Uncle who were to be my hosts for the next three days.

Ordinarily, I would have stayed in my company’s guesthouse, but for some reason, it was fully booked for the first three days I arrived.  In retrospect, I should have just rebooked my ticket.  But no, at the time, I was adamant about coming on the day I had decided in my head.  I boldly told HR that I would “figure something out” for those initial three days.  I don’t really know what I was thinking, since I had no family or friends in Mumbai.  Hell, I had never even been there!  My family tried to talk sense into me, but I wouldn’t hear any of it.  “But-but-but,” I whined, “don’t make me start my new life three days later than planned!”

Several frantic phone calls later, my parents found someone to take me in.  I’m still not sure what the connection to this family was — I think they were my aunt’s father-in-law’s college roommate’s best friend’s dogwalker’s niece, or something — but I was grateful that these perfect strangers had an extra sofa where I could sleep.

As soon as I met them, I got the sense that they weren’t quite normal, but I was so tired that I let the feeling pass.  At any rate, I was concentrating more on how overwhelming my new surroundings were.  The pre-monsoon air was sticky and thick, and I had forgotten what a shock India can be on your olfactory nerves.  Taxi drivers were energetically vying for our attention with an out-of-tune chorus of, “Madam, madam, madam.”  I felt like everyone was staring at me (which, in retrospect, they probably were, since Indians love to stare).  I just needed a moment for it all to sink in.

(more…)

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