A couple of years ago, I was walking with someone on the street when we saw a couple eunuchs create a scene near a shop. The shopkeeper didn’t want to pay them and the conversation went from heated to physical assault. The eunuchs were beaten up and thrown out of the shop, into the streets by a few goons. My friend looked at them, sighed and said – ‘Why live a life like this? Humiliating themselves, being ridiculed every day like this on the streets!’ I didn’t have an answer at that point in time. Many years later, I found the answer many years later in a beautiful quote by David Foster Wallace about suicide,
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
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It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
We look at their lives with disdain. From where we’re looking, it looks wretched and humiliating. If they have chosen this terror – to live their lives begging every day and selling their bodies to earn a living, just imagine what a horror the other choice must be. The only other path available is being unwanted by your family, being cursed every day for being who you are and rejected by the people who gave birth to you. Maybe being rejected by total strangers, abused by random shopkeepers and being used for sex in exchange for money is a better life that what lies at the other end. Maybe it’s better than being rejected and humiliated by your own family. We’re just not in a position to see it or understand this choice.
See, it feels weird to me and you. Marrying a stone idol in a temple and celebrate being his bride for a day. But that’s one of the pressing issues that Koovagam made me think about, a lot – the human need to belong. Marriage is somewhat a social construct, isn’t it? I mean, when true love and affection between two people meets the’ need to belong’, then that’s great. It leads your happily ever after stories. But what if there’s no love or affection, and the ‘need to belong’ becomes a social pressure. A mere item on the societal checklist? To my mind, Koovagam exemplifies this social pressure and just how far it can go. People completely unwanted by their families and with little or no hope of finding stable partnerships, seek this sense of belonging even if it’s just for a day. Even if it means marrying a stone idol. But for that one day, they are someone’s wife and as painful as it maybe, they are his widows for life.
Anyway, Ms. Koovagam – the annual beauty pageant, was scheduled to happen on the day we arrived at Vilupuram. We had managed to get in touch with a very well reputed gentleman who was widely respected in the small town of Vilupuram through some extended family contacts. He had acquired VIP passes for us to witness the beauty pageant live. He drove us to the venue and very politely excused himself by saying that he had a reputation to maintain and could not afford to be seen in this neighborhood. This gentleman was a nice person but somehow he just couldn’t wrap his head around our reasons for being here. Two well-educated, seemingly straight girls – here to witness a eunuch festival? To satisfy his curiosity, we let him know that we are here for a research project and we wish to interview a couple of transgender people. He sort of bought his explanation but then being an elderly gentleman, he also took it upon himself to ensure that we got the right people to interview. So because him, we did actually get to speak to a couple of eunuchs and it was a great experience. One of them was actually from Pune and was a delight to speak to.
We sat in a small hall, filled with about 200 odd chairs and waited for the pageant to begin. The pageant kicked off with a talent show (mostly dancing) and then we had the contestants walk the ramp dressed in blingy finery. Actually every single eunuch in that room was shining in their best possible outfit. Most of them had engineered their own outfits but some of the more well off ones, were wearing designer sarees and lehengas. After about 7 PM, the hall was packed to capacity and some very drunken men were swaying wildly to the dance numbers. We thought that this was a good time for us to make an exit and we did. I felt completely safe in that little hall, probably a lot more safer than I feel on Pune roads these days.
There were a couple of reporters covering the festival in the year we visited. One of them was Michael Edison Hayden from NY Times. He wrote a bunch of interesting articles covering the festival;
1. Koovagam, India’s Largest Transgender Festival, Opens
2. Tears and Broken Glass as India’s Largest Transgender Festival Closes