Abhina fell into my arms as I opened the door to her incessant knocks.
“Where are you, Harveer? The clerk called to say the PIL judgement will be out soon. Quick!”
We head towards the waiting auto-rickshaw.
Will my efforts bear fruits? Will the pot bear gold?
Six months earlier.
The man squeezed his head out through the gap in the glass partition. His body odour was cloying, and his breath stank of cigarettes. “Can I ask you a question?”
I mentally counted to ten and nodded.
“Do you have male or female parts down there?” His jiggling double chins pointed in several directions at once.
He shrank back as I leaned in closer and whispered. “A bit of both. Do you want to see it?”
He struggled to squeeze his head out through the hole, his face turning all shades of fear. “No.”
I acknowledged his response with a nod and handed over the cash to him. He counted the notes and returned the receipt.
Annihilating kidney stones via laser is an expensive proposition.
The rotund head bobbed. “Why don’t you get insurance? It’s cheaper than paying cash.”
“And who will give me insurance?”
He pointed at a sheet pinned to a board listing all the insurance companies. I walked over and memorised a few names. How come this never struck me?
Outside, I strived and succeeded in hailing an auto-rickshaw whose driver made a face as I sat.
A few members of the Hijra community were milling when I disembarked from the vehicle. I spotted my friend, Abhina in their midst. The sunray reflected the golden highlights in her hair as she ran towards me.
“Why didn’t you call me, Veeru? I’d have come to pick you up,” she said, engulfing me in a hug.
I sighed. “Abhina, your guru wouldn’t like you associating with me. I didn’t want you to get into trouble.”
Abhina’s kohl-lined eyes rushed to greet the earth as her red mouth made a moue. “How did you manage to pay the hospital?”
“I borrowed money from Ma.”
“Okay. Let me escort you to your room.”
We walked in silence across the over-populated, desolation-rich lanes of Malad. The blistering sun didn’t succeed in thinning the crowd as people jostled and pushed each other, some selling their wares and others buying them. A group of young boys stood near the divider, smoking beedis. They whistled as we passed by.
“What’s today’s rate, Abhi-haan?” One yelled as he moved his pelvis in a crude gesture.
“Don’t bother responding,” Abhina laid a hand on my forearm.
I swallowed the words that bubbled in my mouth and ignored the catcalls as we trod on.
“I wish you’d not sell your body, Abhina. I can put in a good word at the NGO, so you don’t have to do this anymore. You can stay with me.” My fingers found her icy ones.
“Harveer, Guruji won’t like it, and after what happened when I ran away the last time, this way is better, and since I’m the bottom-most rung, I’ve got to earn my way up through this route.” She flicked me on my head. “We don’t have a rich mother like you, na?” she teased.
“I’m thinking of getting insurance. I cannot keep asking Ma for money.”
“Who gives insurance to Hijras, Harveer?”
“The guy at the hospital showed me a list. I plan to visit them after work tomorrow.”
Abhina said goodbye as I stood on the footpath staring at the single-storey building where my mother’s influence, mostly her money, had gotten me a room. I heard the familiar grumbling and muttering from my neighbour as I entered.
“Why does the landlord not throw this chakka out? It’s a bad omen to have them live near us.”
I tuned them out and shut the door on her face.
The next evening, after I wrapped up work at Humdard Trust, where I worked as the receptionist, I visited one of the insurance offices, Bax Mupa. When I arrived at the building, the napping, pot-bellied watchman rose so quickly that he fell off the chair. As I extended my hand to him, he swatted it aside. Anger coloured his face red, and his piggy eyes, meaner.
“Go away. No one here will give you money. We are a respectable office,” he growled.
“I’m not here to beg but to meet Mr. Mahesh. We spoke over the phone as I want insurance.”
The petulance clouding his face dissolved in mirth. “Insurance? No one is going to give you insurance. Why do you need it? You were born a Hijra for a reason–it’s the punishment for your past life’s sins. Go away!”
I squared my broad shoulders as I crossed my dupatta across my chest and tied it in a knot. A flicker of fear made the watchman tremble.
“Try and stop me.” I raised the hem of my salwar and ran up the stairs before the old geezer could move a muscle.
Inside, I was the cynosure of everyone’s eyes. I tapped at one man’s shoulder and asked for Mahesh. He escorted me to a glass cabin, where I waited. I felt like a fish in a glass bowl. People had stopped their work and stared at me with slack jaws. Like fish do, with wide-open mouths.
“Madam, I didn’t know you are a Hijra,” was Mahesh’s opening salvo.
“So? Is insurance gender-driven?” was mine.
I watched him flounder. “Er… yes. No. Let me call my manager.”
I fish-bowled for a while more, and this time, swimming in my seas of rage. After 25 minutes, a well-dressed man arrived.
“Good evening, Ms. Harveer.”
I nodded my greeting as he continued.
“I just spoke to the higher-ups in my organisation, and I’m sorry we cannot provide insurance to you.” He had the decency to look embarrassed.
I debated internally and decided to exit gracefully. It’s not his fault. Nor was it mine, was it?
At the exit, I flicked a birdie at the panting security that, I’m sure, went over his head, but it made me feel vindicated. One down, many more to go.
Many more went down fast. No one was willing to insure someone like me. A third gender. Many laughed at me while shooing me out, and several didn’t even permit me to cross the threshold. Being a Hijra, we’re used to the hurtling abuses, but some of the swear words made even me blush!
Always something new to learn, eh?
When I narrated the story to Abhina, she laughed. “Veeru!” She chucked me under my chin. “You’re still innocent. I think because you never really stayed with us, na? Your Ma sheltered you, and that’s why you still expect people to be kind to us. People are nice only to people they can see, bacha. We are the unseen and unwanted–being nice to us means acknowledging us, which goes against society’s norms. Stop this foolishness.”
“No, Abhi. Am I not a citizen of India? I’ve got the same rights as others.”
“Harveer, Harveer… how do I explain this to you? The day they crowned you a Hijra, they stripped the rights of a citizen of you. By your mother’s grace, you’ve got a good job, so concentrate on that and stop your activist-giri. You’re setting yourself up for failure.”
That night, the cramps of injustice plagued me, and memories tormented me. When I was born, there was a brouhaha. My father shunned me while Ma did her best to protect me. My presence disgusted everyone, especially my father, who saw it as a personal failure. He eventually forced Ma to give me up. I still remember his words.
“It must go to its community. Society will never accept it as one of us.”
My entire existence, my entire being, was summed up in one word.
Not male. Not female. It. A Hijra–the ones blessed by Lord Ram, but cursed in every other way.
My mother negotiated with my father, and I was given an education, not formal, of course. I count myself luckier in many ways than my counterparts since I was spared the Guru-chela associations, spared the begging, and the beatings. Money performs wonders, and my parents were loaded. My father pretended I didn’t spring from his loins, but Ma supported me in every way possible. Within the scopes of her gilded cage, she did all she could. And I didn’t begrudge her for giving me up. Or envy my siblings.
Destiny bests all of us.
The next day, I left early from work and landed in front of the United States of India Insurance office.
Hah, barely united states. More like central government versus the other states. Anyway, what’s in a name? I was born with one but live as another.
At their office, Gangadhar greeted me, his smile slipping for a minute when the realisation struck.
“Good evening, Harveerji.”
“Hello, Gangadhar. Let’s cut straight to the chase. Is your company willing to offer insurance to me?”
Gangadhar appeared to gulp his Adam’s apple and chew on it like a cud. “Under Indian law, we cannot discriminate on gender, madam.”
“I’m aware of the law.” I cocked my head. “Let’s not waste our time, eh?”
He gestured at the vacant seat and took a chair for himself. On the table lay a file and a few pens. I gazed at them cursorily, but waited for Gangadhar to finish chewing.
“We follow the law, madam. Management is willing to give you insurance.”
A feather could’ve knocked me over! Really?
Finally, after proverbially kissing so many frogs, Gangadhar turned out to be the prince. Reality, however banal, is stranger than fiction!
“To initiate the process, Harveerji, we need the following documents from you.” He read off a list, pushing his black spectacles over his oily, blackhead-y nose. “Aadhaar card, bank account, and photographs against a white background.”
“Aadhaar? I don’t have it.”
“Harveerji, without it, we cannot proceed.”
A sneaky smile crawled across his unctuous face. He closed the file with an air of finality. “No Aadhaar means no insurance. Our management rules. I’m so sorry.”
I nodded to myself. A strategy I’m used to–create an illusion of agreement but raise hiccups, preventing the desired outcome.
“I’ll get the Aadhaar. Even the receipt should work, I think.”
He stood, pushing the files aside. “Yes. When you have it, call me.”
With a smirk, he glided out of the room, leaving me to ruminate.
I spent the train journey back to Malad formulating a plan. I’d knock on the door of the local corporator–Aditya Sakhare. He was a vile, sweet-talking, backstabbing politician who knew how to get his work done, but then, so did I. Over the incessant and loud grumbling of my neighbour, I eased into my kholi, happy with my plan of action.
During the morning commute to Andheri, someone dropped a few notes on my lap as I dozed on the hard-fought window seat in the Virar local. When I woke up, the money was still lying on my dupatta, a testament to the untouchability of my type. With it, I purchased samosas and tea for the beggars at the signal.
On reaching his exhale-and-crash office, the MLA was surprisingly inside. Pennants in party colours swayed under the fan, and on the wall, a grinning (grimacing in my eyes) Sakhare bared his teeth to the unsuspecting public, surrounded by his pictures with film stars and the mandatory Dharavi visit.
Volunteers milled around as election season was upon us. His mousy secretary’s eyes narrowed on spotting me, but maintained the plastic smile as he greeted me.
“Our office welcomes all genders. Every human life is important, madam,” his startlingly baritone voice sang over his folded hands.
More like every human is a voter bank for him, was my snarky thought.
“I wanted to speak to Sakhareji about getting an Aadhaar card.”
“Of course. We exist for your service. Follow me.”
Mousy-Deep-Throat led me to the inner sanctum, a coffin-like office, where an even larger picture of Sakhare hung on the wall above the original, who sat on a wooden desk that dominated the room. He began to rise when he noticed me and sank back with a plonk.
“Sir, this Hijra wants your help to secure an Aadhaar card.”
“Of course. We exist for your service. How can I help you?” The creepy grin turned towards me.
“Sakhareji, I spoke to the Aadhaar Seva Kendra, and they said I need a letter from you stating I’m a third gender. After submitting it, I can get my Aadhaar card, sir.”
“How can I be sure that you ARE a third gender?” He guffawed. “I should check, no? But looking at you, I don’t think it’s required. If you clap for me, I’ll know for sure.”
My inner cheek shred and bled as it bore the brunt of my impotent rage while its muscles ached to hold onto the smile I adorned. There was silence in the room where both men stared at me until I realised Sakhare was serious. He actually wanted me to clap! The indignity and the… surrealism of the episode grated on my nerves, but it was a small price to pay for an expected action. I struck a pose, and my flat palms met perpendicularly in a parody of our trademark clap. As an additional feature, I even spat out, “Hai! Hai!”
Sakhare clapped his hands in glee (an irony, if any) and laughed merrily as his Nehru topi toppled and crash-landed against his rotund belly, straining against the spotless white kurta. “Very good!”
In an instant, all traces of mirth disappeared from his face. “If you want my signature on the form, get me your Hijra Gharana votes. I’ll sign every form of yours with my pen.” He winked.
Against the soundtrack of ‘Pardesi… Pardesi’ and the fast-moving scenery, feelings of rage, humiliation, and despair washed over me in cycles.
How can I convince the Malad Gharana to vote for Sakhare when I don’t belong to it? Is Abhina right in assuming I’m chasing the gold at the end of the rainbow?
I sought Abhina from the other’s midst and narrated the entire story. Today, even the cutting chai couldn’t dilute the bitter taste.
Abhina clutched my hand. “I got it! If we sell it to Sakhare in a way that will affect his political pitch–he is the avenger, the Iron Man, for the Hijra community, and helping them to get Aadhaar cards will ensure he gets his voter bank. The papers will love it and in return, we get Aadhaar cards. Aadhaar might be useful to us, na?”
“You are brilliant, Abhina! It’s a fantastic idea.”
A beatific smile stole across Abhina’s cherry-red lips as her head bowed in acknowledgement. “I’ll talk to Guruji today.”
A month later, Mousy-Deep-Throat was aghast to see hordes of garishly dressed Hijras outside their office. When a smiling Sakhare made his appearance, he was greeted with resounding applause. His eyes sought mine, and he nodded.
At the United States of India office, I watched Gangadhar gulp piping-hot vada-pau wrapped in a newspaper whose headlines screamed, ‘In a landmark event, local corporator hands over the first third-gender Aadhaar cards to the Hijra community.’
“Arrey, Harveerji, you got the Aadhaar. Very good, madam.” He wiped his hands. “Just sign on the cross marks on the form.”
The pen quivered in my icy hands as my sweat marred the spotless glass table. Gangadhar kept talking, but I chose to ignore him. Savouring the moment until a few words pierced the bubble.
“Where are the bank account details?”
“I don’t have an account.”
He held the form over his head. “Harveerji, didn’t I tell you? No bank account means no insurance.”
One step forward, two steps behind, is the theme of my life. I mulled over, walking across the railway bridge as dusk hit the horizon, devouring the last vestiges of light.
Abhina noticed my stooped shoulders and withdrawn face, and she, in silence, gripped my fingers. In her gravelly voice, muffled, she hummed. Jodi tor dak shune keuna ase. Tobe ekla cholo re.
I caught a few stray words and grasped the gist. I felt… hopeful.
Early Saturday morning, I was seated opposite the employee of the MICICI bank, who was perusing the form I had filled.
“What are you giving as address proof?”
A laugh broke free, turning her from a surly professional to a beautiful woman. “We don’t accept Aadhaar cards. Only PAN cards.”
“But the government says you must accept it as identity proof.”
A shrug turned her back to the evil witch. “Just PAN cards.” She handed the form back to me.
I felt my dream of chasing rainbows was consuming my life and stripping it of any colour. I had stopped all other activities in lieu of chasing insurance, and it was stressing me out to no end.
By the time I get it, I’ll have an immediate use for it.
In my room, the solitary stainless steel cupboard held many secrets. A forgotten glimpse of my life, remnants of it, and the debris of my current existence. At the back, in a cloth potli, lay vital documents. My birth certificate and my PAN card. In my naivety, I had thought I could eschew my old life and rebuild it using the bricks of my current one. I unravelled the knot at the top and retrieved my PAN. The blue, shiny card reflected me in its folds, staring back. My thumb moved over the card, caressing it. Rubbing over the text, ‘gender: Male’, an unconscious gesture to erase it, perhaps.
If I used my PAN Card to open an account, I’d have to link it with the new Aadhaar card under the looming deadline of linking the two. A snippet of Kipling’s poem sprung into my head, a legacy of a poetry-obsessed home tutor–never the twain shall meet. Maybe it’s time for the twain to meet.
Aadhaar, say hello to PAN.
Gangadhar stapled the forms together as he waved goodbye, careful not to touch me. “I’ll call you in a week, Harveerji.”
I beamed at him. Happiness makes us appreciate even the annoying. “Thank you for your help.”
The entire week I soared over the ground, feeling victorious as I gifted everyone who passed me by with wide smiles and grins. My happiness was infectious, and Abhina lit up each time we met.
One afternoon, the phone trilled, its penumbra casting a shadow. “It’s Gangadhar. Maybe the insurance is through!” I squeaked to Abhina and answered. “Hello?”
“Harveerji, did your link you Aadhaar and PAN?”
“Arrey, I forgot to do that.”
“Madamji, how can you be so careless? It’s mandatory to do that. The insurance cannot proceed without it.”
“I’ll do it now.”
“Once you’re done, call me.”
I hang up, my ebullience dimming a little. “I forgot to link Aadhaar and PAN.”
“Let’s go now and do it. Guruji has a new laptop, and we can use it for 100 rupees an hour.”
After Googling the procedure, which appeared mighty simple, we logged onto the UIDAI site. I typed the numbers carefully along with the other details. The OTP arrived and was duly entered. Abhina smiled at me, and I grinned back. Our smiles faded as the message on the screen flashed.
Gender mismatch. The Aadhaar card mentions third-gender and PAN is for male. Please correct this before proceeding.
“Why does your PAN card list you as a male?”
“PAN is binary. How can I connect the two?”
I fished out the phone and called Gangadhar. “The PAN card says gender is a mismatch. What to do?”
“Madamji, PAN card takes only males or females. Now we cannot do anything.”
“There must be something we can do. How about writing to the Income Tax Department?”
“Yeah, and you can even file a PIL. I’m sure the government is waiting to resolve cases like yours,” was his sarcastic retort.
“Why cannot I file a PIL?”
“You can, but it will take forever. And the deadline is upon us. So sorry, Harveerji. Insurance coverage doesn’t seem to be in your fate.”
I ended the call by saying nothing. How can I link my third-gender Aadhaar to a PAN card that accepts only males or females? How can we merge something that doesn’t have a matching counterpart? The colours of the rainbow have begun to blanch in front of my eyes.
My meandering thoughts were nipped in the bud by a slap on my head. Abhina raised a questioning brow, perfectly arched.
“Have you ever seen the inside of a High Court, Abhina?”
I smiled through my anger, my inner cheek protesting in advance. “We’re going to file a Public Interest Litigation to force the Income Tax department to add a third gender to the PAN card.”
- Chalo: Hindi for ‘Let us go.’
- Hijra: Transgender, eunuchs, or the third gender in India.
- Hijra Community: A community comprising of Hijras. They follow a Guru-Chela system and each member has different ranks in the unit.
- Guru-Chela: Master-slave.
- Beedis: Local cigarettes.
- Haan: Yes.
- Guruji: Leader.
- Na: Hindi for local. Added at the end of a sentence to convert it to a question.
- Chakka: Hijra. Same as #2.
- Kholi: Room or house. Bombay slang.
- Dupatta: A loose garment to over the head and bosom, worn by women over salwar-kameez.
- Aadhaar Seva Kendra: Enrolment centres for Aadhaar cards.
- Topi: Cap.
- Gharana: house. In the Hijra community, different places and castes have different gharanas.
- Pardesi: Foreigner. Current context, based on a Hindi film song, often son by beggars in local trains to earn money.
- Vada-pau: A fried dish, popular amongst Bombay-ites. A treasure.
- Jodi tor dak shune keuna ase. Tobe ekla cholo re: First two lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem.
- Potli: Bag.
- Baccha: Kid.
- UIDAI: Unique Identification Authority of India.
PAN cards in India were notoriously binary and only after the Supreme court stepped in, was this matter resolved.
First posted on Penmancy.com.
Incidentally, insurance is still denied to the third-gender of India. The short story is meant to showcase the struggles faced – and ones they continue to face – by the Hijra community in India. This story in no way is meant to harm any particular community, political party, or person’s sentiment.