After eight years living in India I have experienced my fair share of strange encounters. Whether it’s a monkey stealing food from my hand, a wandering cow knocking me over on the pavement, or a sadhu* accosting me on the streets to tell my fortune, by far the most exotic for me is the garish eunuchs* who parade around town extorting money from people.
Eunuchs are castrated males who are otherwise known as hijras* (people of the ‘third sex’). So, if you ever find yourself in India, look out for these unique beings sauntering the streets with effeminate mannerisms and masculine features. Dressed in saris with heavy make-up, jewellery, and long hair, they corner pedestrians on the streets, approach motorcyclists at traffic lights, and solicit shopkeepers for money. They dance in a sexually suggestive fashion. They clap. They sing seductively in their out-of-tune husky voices. They shriek obscenities. They taunt. They make lewd gestures. They demand money and when they are paid a satisfying amount they leave.
If you believe in the supernatural like many Indians, eunuchs are believed to possess occult powers and they play on people’s fears of their curse. People pay to appease, to get rid of them. You wouldn’t want to run the risk of one lifting its skirt and flashing its castrated male genitals, would you?
I dare say many of India’s so-called eunuchs are transvestites, as groups of young men are occasionally arrested for cross-dressing and posing as hijras to extort money from people. But for those legitimate eunuchs who have undergone castration, the life-threatening operation is a gruesome business. Usually sedated with alcohol or drugs, not anaesthetic, a string is tied around the would-be eunuch’s testicles and penis and the string is pulled tighter day after day until it results in total emasculation of all genitalia. The wound is cauterized with hot oil and probed so that the end result looks like a vagina. The castration brings hormonal changes so that the boy grows more feminine with small breasts. After the male organ has been cut an even lewder practice is sometimes performed whereby he is made to sit on a rod and pushed slowly down to burst his anus.
Knowing all of this, if you ever find yourself in the path of a eunuch what would you do? I usually stare for as long as I dare and then shuffle along quickly to avoid their wrath, or the chance of being flashed.
*sadhu – a Hindu wandering holy man
*eunuch – a castrated man
*hijra – a person who adopts a gender role that is neither male nor female