The Third Sex

This week the Election Commission announced that eunuchs can finally vote and contest elections. They will no longer have problems about their sexual identity – they can write themselves in as “Other” and don’t have to be necessarily ‘Male or ‘Female’.

Considering the Supreme Court verdict on gays, this was bound to happen sooner or later. And, while all my life I have been in awful fear of kinnars, I must admit that long before Ashutosh Rana so movingly played a eunuch in Shabnam Mausi, I had begun to change my mind about the third sex.

Locked up with five eunuchs for over 12 hours is what did the trick. It was the mid-Eighties when I left home to work in Bombay. And homesick as I used to get quite often, as an impoverished rookie the cheapest mode of travel for me then was the three-tier on Indian Railways.

My parents weren’t quite happy about my travelling unaccompanied so often. So, to pacify them, I used to book myself into the ‘Ladies Compartment’. Which simply meant that the first six berths in each second class bogey used to be boxed in and all the women could shut themselves in, locking out the intrusive male eyes.

It was meant to be the safest mode of travel for women but nevertheless it could be risky at times – soon the Indian Railways realised it, too, and got rid of the boxed enclosure while still reserving those berths for women. Later, I took to travelling `general’ finding that somehow safer — and being boxed in with five eunuchs on the Bombay-Howrah Express for nearly 14 hours one overnight journey had not a little to do with it.

I still haven’t gotten over my shock when I boarded the train at Bombay’s Victoria Terminus, as it was known then, and was horrified to discover that all the other `women’ traveling with me were eunuchs.

“There has to be some mistake,” I protested to the TC. “They are men. They have to be thrown out of this compartment. How can I travel alone locked in with the five of them!!!”

The TC shrugged his helplessness. “They are all listed as ‘Shrimatis’,” he told me. And they have all paid for their tickets. I can hardly do anything about it.”

“Aye, Baby!” said one of the eunuchs. Ladki hone ka kya bhav khaati hai! Dikhaon kya ki main bhi ladki hoon!

I almost died of shock. But then one of them who seemed to be the head of the group stepped in with an admonition to his/her compatriot. “We are not here to frighten the other women. Behave yourself. We will sort this out amicably.”

As I perched on the edge of my seat gingerly, he/she tried to soothe my frayed nerves. “In fact, you are safer here with us than out there in the open or with any other woman who’s male relatives might keep visiting the compartment on any pretext. Are you getting off at Calcutta, too? We will hand you over safely to your people.”

I was thankful I was making only half that journey – I only had a long night to get through. The morning would bring Nagpur. But how long would that night be, I wondered.

Under the circumstances, it proved not very long. For, as the train moved off on its tracks, I discovered the eunuchs could not read or write at all and they became dependent upon me to read out the names of the stations to them. They had bought some colourful film magazines but could only look at the pictures and recognise the stars, having no clue what the stories said about them. Almost against my will, I found myself reading out aloud to them.

Night descended quickly enough. I had the upper berth but then they gave up a lower one for me. “You might need to visit the toilet,” one of them said. “And climbing up and down might be difficult for you.”

Another admonished, “And don’t you go to the toilet alone. Wake one of us up.”

“Oh, I can manage,” I said.

“No, you can’t. Because the toilet doors in this bogey have no kundi. You don’t want any man coming in while you are at it.”

He/she was right. That train was horribly dirty and unkempt. So when I needed to go to the toilet, two of them descended on the unreserved passengers lolling in the aisles and shooed them into another area of the bogey while they held the door for me. Hamari ladki koh jaana hai!, they said almost possessively.

Next morning, they wouldn’t let me get off at any station to replenish my drinking water. “What will you do if the train moves before you have climbed back in? The piyau (water fountain) has long queues, you will never be able to cut through them and get back on time.”

Then, seizing my water bottle, one of them rushed into the crowd at the fountain, elbowed most of the thirsty rail travellers out of the way and was back with my bottle and his/her canteen in no time at all. At every railway station, they would hail the chaiwala for me and urge some samosas and batata wadas on to me. It was interesting to see where they kept their money – deep in their bosoms and the manner in which they fished out and stuffed those money pouches back into their blouses was worthy of all the adaas of all the Bollywood actresses put together.

I was absolutely numb by the end of that journey but I could see their worry grow, too. They were not sure the next woman coming in would be as “nice” as I had ultimately proved. Saala, phir se woh hi jhamela hoga jaisa is ke saath hua tha, one of them muttered.

They got me a coolie and helped me out of the train but I couldn’t help lingering on the platform to watch the reaction of the girl who had got that berth. I was gratified to see she was as shocked and hysterical as I had been. But there was no time to tell her that over 13 hours I had discovered eunuchs were human beings, too. And, though with bitterly sad stories of their own, these five in some ways had proved better than most of the other fellow travellers I had met over the years.

“Why did you not get their stories down? Where were your instincts?” my editor asked me when I narrated the tale after I returned to Bombay.

“Buried under my fright,” I replied. “Next time, may be.”

I looked out for them for years on Bombay’s locals but never came across any of them again. But those five eunuchs helped me to stop demonising their tribe in my mind and now I can talk to their kind reasonably as they tap my car window at traffic signals, palms stretched out for alms (though I wonder why they are seen less and less around the city these days).

And if they are still around, I think those five might be glad that they can finally be the third sex, officially. They won’t have to write themselves as `Shrimatis’ any more. Not on an election form and never again on a railway form, either!

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