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Lessons in transformation

The annual festival of Aravan at Koovakam gives the hijras a way of asserting themselves. The others who throng the occasion — wrapped in many secrets — must learn from this openness, writes TISHANI DOSHI.



Hijras, as a community, are still struggling to regain their place in the world.

RECENTLY, I returned from Koovakam, a village 30 km from Villipuram, which plays host to the largest annual gathering of hijras in India. I spent a night on the roof of the Koothandavar temple and watched as an otherwise dormant village transformed itself in a brilliant display of colour, vitality and spirit. Koovakam has come to mean many things to many people. For hijras, it is the most important event of the calendar year, a time when they are reunited with friends, a place where they are given a platform from which they can be seen, heard and applauded, where they get to embody all the things they want to be: woman, bride, Goddess. In Villipuram, which is where they stay during the five-day lead up to the actual festival, they overtake the town, strolling up and down the main streets in bright clothes, with flowers in their hair and bangles on their wrists, frequenting the various roadside restaurants and bars; confusing, teasing, beguiling onlookers about what is true and what is false, what is man, what is woman, and what is the place in between that defies definition. It is precisely their sexual and gender ambiguity, their ability to move within an apparently boundary-less world, that have made them a fascinating community for me to study, and the reason for accompanying a group of them from their home in Perungalathur with a fellow-friend and camera man to document their journey to Koovakam.

But four days in Villipuram are enough to realise that Koovakam isn't merely about hijras; although they are the star attraction, how can they not be? Koovakam is about the basic right to express oneself — a startling revelation that has developed from a culture struggling with issues of identity and repression. The trend of moving towards an increasingly dichotomous way of viewing the world, of classifying, pigeon-holing, pinning down all manner of things; be it problem, opinion or concern, in a bi-polar fashion, has created a stultifying atmosphere which gets to be aired out only once in a long while in places like Koovakam. The result is a strange display of exhilarating liberation paired with unsettling sordidness.

What is most visible is the intensity of physical experience against the backdrop of spirituality with the ever-present ghost of sexuality hovering about. People come to Koovakam without any apology. They come because it is a time for them to be what they want to be. This includes not only hijras but a vast array of men; homosexual, bi-sexual, straight, cross-dressers, married, single, divorced, college boy, auto-driver, tea-shop owner, businessman — they are all here, walking up and down the streets along with the hijras, mingling and intermingling in various combinations of the aforementioned, physical, spiritual and sexual. For people not taking part in these interactions, the spectacle forces contemplation.



At Koovakam, the hijras get to embody all the things they want to be: woman, bride ...

What is obvious is that there is a need to address issues of sexuality and gender conflict within the framework of our society, especially with the growing menace of AIDS crashing through the horizon. Koovakam is a microcosm of a country caught in contradiction, because it shows what is right and wrong about our society simultaneously. The fact that hijras are not only treated with respect, but welcomed by the ordinary town-people and village folk during their short stay here every year is heartening proof of how the basic Indian philosophy that envisions a universe boundlessly various, including all possibilities of being, proscribing the notion of plurality of selves and allowing opposites to confront each other without resolution, is still alive and kicking. By the same token, hijras as a community are still struggling to regain their place in the world, denied the most basic rights — the right to own a passport, ration card, property, equal opportunities in the areas of education and employment, simply because they refuse to be categorised as either male or female and wish to claim a third gender for themselves. Hijras have always occupied the fringe of the Indian subconscious, they are accepted without question, even if it is with a mixture of fear, ridicule and contempt, because of their inherited centuries old court history combined with the eternal spring-well of mythology, which constantly affirms and validates their existence, quite unlike their western counterpart, the transsexual, who must resolve sexual anomalies one way or the other without the luxury of floating in man-woman limbo. But acceptance does not mean openness; it could simply mean that you don't care one way or the other because a thing has no bearing on your life. It is the same veil through which we view the problems of poverty, war and disease. Unless problems come steamrolling into our own immediate lives, we don't feel the need to address them.

So what does it say about the young, homosexual men who come to Koovakam every year to dress in women's clothes, their parents unaware of their son's double life lead and busy plotting weddings with girls who are equally uninformed? What does it say about the hundreds of straight young men who flock to Villipuram because sex is cheap and easily available? This is not an attack on men, but rather an attack on the ruthless nature of sexuality in our society.

It is a dangerous thing when sexuality is linked with confusion and dishonesty. The dilemma is not so much what one says to these young men who are questing — whether for their identity, their sexuality, the ambivalent feelings of their gender — but what does one do about the existence of repression in a society which perpetuates a rigid demeanour of prudery, while kicking all disparity and deviation under the rug, refusing to accept it as a part of our existence? Koovakam should be seen for what it is; a possibility in transformation and liberation, of crossing over boundaries and erasing lines. The festival at Koovakam celebrates the life of Aravan, who in the Mahabharata must be sacrificed for the Pandavas to emerge victorious. Aravan is willing, but wants to be married before he is to die. No woman will come forward to marry him because she knows that what lies waiting for her is the doom of widowhood. So Lord Krishna, taking the form of a beautiful woman, comes down to satisfy the desire of coital bliss. For the thousands of hijras who throng Koovakam dressed as brides for Aravan, theirs is a martyr's role; they experience these important stages of womanhood symbolically and sometimes physically. They are brides, wives and widows in a span of two days, and for many of them, this annual pilgrimage to Koovakam is their way of asserting themselves.

The life of a hijra is a dubious chimera of sexual ambiguity, but it is also a life that has embraced this ambiguity and called a spade a spade, so to speak. Hijras should be saluted for taking this stand, for disallowing for pretence, for wearing their hearts on their sleeves and parading around the streets with them. They stand in stark contrast to the unhealthy display of magnified need expressed by the other actors of Koovakam, who have also left their normal lives for a few days, but have come draped in veils and other secret layers in which to get lost. It is to them that Koovakam must teach its transformational lessons to, and to society, which is continually turning its face at the slightest rustle of confrontation.

E-mail the writer at t-doshi@hotmail.com

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