Book Reviews

Beyond the Caricature

Every once in a while, you stumble upon a fundamental question - one that moves beyond its particular contexts and speaks, in incredibly diverse ways, to each of us. Rarely do these moments come within writings on gender and sexuality in India, where understandings and notions of normality and morality are so entrenched that there seems to be little room for difference that is not immediately, at best, pigeon-holed and categorized, and, at worst, condemned.

How do we understand difference? What makes individuals, communities and identities different from each other? How do these differences get created, and what are their consequences? In her new book 'With Respect to Sex', anthropologist Gayatri Reddy answers some of these questions while tracing the lives and negotiations of hijra (the third gender) identities in Hyderabad.

Hijras are invisible and hyper-visible in India. While caricatures of them are part of our everyday language and imagination, few people actually know an individualhijra, or see them as anything other than a visible deviance from 'normal' people. Indeed, in this case, a little knowledge has proved to be an extremely dangerous thing, as myths and eighth-hand stories have become all that is ever said and written about these communities.

Reddy teaches us valuable lessons in approaching, understanding and writing about communities that are seen to be 'different'. One, it is clear that she respects the hijra communities and wants to write about their own vision of themselves, and not just find a definition for them that will make them easily understood to mainstream society.

This seems to be a simple point, but part of the minority existence in India is the reality of having little to no space to speak for ourselves though there is ample opportunity to be the subjects of mainstream curiosity. You do not have to think far for ready evidence - in the recent debates on reservations in colleges, how many Dalit and OBC (other backward castes) perspectives have you seen, read or heard? The bulk of Reddy's book is hijras talking about themselves - on their own terms, without apology, but also without defensiveness or aggression because, for once, they do not feel like they need to defend their lives and their choices.

Two, she challenges the ease with which we claim that people are 'different'. To see hijras simply through the lens of gender and sexual difference is to miss large parts of their lives. The resulting tautological cycle is what describes hijra-society relations today: hijras are seen only as creatures that embody 'abnormal' sexuality and gender, and hence the rest of their lives and selves are invisibilised under this visible difference. Reddy challenges this cycle. She rests her entire work on the idea that identities are not reducible to neat little compartments and hierarchies, and that, especially in a context like India, you cannot look at sexuality and gender without looking at location, class, language, caste and religion.

Once again, a seemingly simple point but one that is constantly lost within the push and pull of minority-majority relations. Those in the majority have the privilege of being individuals with different thoughts, tastes, ideologies and actions. The action of one Hindu does not stand for all Hindus, but the actions of one Muslim easily slip into the way 'those Muslims' are. Individuals in minority communities have to take their minority identity as their primary and only identity. You may be a scientist, a housewife, a saint, a murderer, a cook or a rag picker, but if your last name is Khan, then you will be seen simply as a Muslim when tensions break.

Reddy gives us a way out of this. She speaks of hijras not just as people who sit at one end of the gender and sexuality spectrum, but as Hyderabadis, as practicing Muslims of Hindu and Muslim births who perform religious rites of both faiths, as sex workers as well as ascetics, as gurus and chelas, as members of extendedhijra families and kinship systems, as sole breadwinners for their families, as dancers, as artists, as friends, and, simply, as people.

She speaks of their understanding of izzat (what Reddy translates aptly as 'respect' as opposed to 'honor') - a nuanced and layered notion of how hijras order their own universe. She speaks of the many ways in which izzat is lost or gained, and shows us how far hijra lives extend beyond simply sex, sexuality, gender and bodies. She traces their history and the claims they make to mythology, religion and contemporary culture. She understands the differences of opinion within hijras, differentiating them, for once, into people with their own minds and thoughts and ethical or moral codes, as opposed to one single, homogenous community.

Reddy has done something remarkable with this work - she has shown us a way to understand how communities create themselves and how they come to understand themselves. Such knowledge and insight is sorely missing in our country today, where we speak in broad strokes of Muslims, Dalits, Women and the Northeast (to name just a few), as singular, uncomplicated and homogenous entities. Reddy places us in the space of intersections, forcing us to let people speak for themselves, and reminding us that identities are not mutually exclusive, that Gujarat riots are linked to police violence against hijras which are, in turn, linked to our collective ignorance about the army's excesses in Manipur.

All of these rely on the notion of created and sustained 'otherness' - in each case, we reduce the complexity of individual lives into one single point of visible difference. How can discrimination and violence be far behind once this happens? What else can result when communities become not people but simply stereotypes? When you think not of Munira, a hijra who lives under the water tank in Secunderabad, but simply of a faceless hijra that you have never spoken to but that someone told you would kidnap your son and castrate him? The minute we flatten human nature into such categories, we are already allowing ourselves to dehumanize each other.

What Reddy reminds us so astutely is that if we see identities in a more intersectional and holistic way, we cannot fall into this trap. It is a lesson that we must learn, and learn well, if the 'unity in diversity' anthems we were spoon-fed in our school books are to actually have any meaning in our lives.

(With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India; Gayatri Reddy; University of Chicago Press, 2005, 312 pp.)


More by :  Gautam Bhan

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