A few weeks ago my students covered a fire in Delhi. 16 people died inside a large tent when an electrical short ignited the fabric and it quickly burned. High brick walls bordered the lot around the tent, enclosing it, as if in a box. There was only one exit.
The large number of deaths, the overcrowding, the tenting – these are not unusual details in Delhi. Here, poorly constructed buildings collapse regularly. Roads cave in. Manholes lay uncovered. Electrical wires dangle, exposed. Hazards abound. People die.
The fire was an avoidable tragedy. The tent wasn’t fire-retardant. It wasn’t built to code. The wiring was faulty. The list of safety violations is long. Sadly, codes written to protect people from tragedies like this one are rarely enforced.
The charred remains of the lot and the scattered clothing shared the horror of what it must have been like under the tent, in the flames. Some say as many as four-thousand people were inside.
The tent was crowded because this was an annual meeting of eunuchs, or “hijra” in Hindi, a term used in India to describe a transgender person. By definition, eunuchs are castrated. Not all hijra in India meet this definition, but many do. Some have breast implants. Most are transgender and dress as women. All consider themselves feminine or more precisely, a third sex, another nature.
Salman Rushdie wrote about India’s hijra in a book published by the Gates Foundation called Aids Sutra. I asked my students to read the essay after we covered the fire.
India’s transgenders live on the margins of society – shunned by their families, homeless, and desperate. The lucky ones become members of hijra communities – highly organized groups of transgenders who live and work and survive together. These communities become de facto families.
Work includes begging, bestowing blessings, and selling sex.
Many Indians fear hijra because they believe that they have holy powers. This myth stems from the blending of the feminine and the masculine in some of the Hindu gods.
Hijra exploit this impression to survive – by offering blessings at weddings, births, and other beginnings at a premium price. They often arrive uninvited. Three hijra visited my school soon after we opened.
That particular day I had no patience for prayer and payoffs. The hijra refused to leave. I firmly shooed the ladies out the front door.
After, one of my particularly devout students wouldn’t look at me for days. She’s a believer, I think. And my driver warns that it is best to keep a eunuch happy because she not only blesses, she curses, too.
Sex is the easiest and most profitable way for hijra to make money, but it exposes them to HIV infection and aids. The community has one of the highest rates of infection compared to other high-risk populations. Public health campaigns, like those supported by the Gates Foundation and the World Bank, target the community and there’s measured success in stemming the spread of infection among the Hijra.
Before writing the fire story, my class had a candid discussion about what it means to be a eunuch and the challenges of reporting this particular piece. In the purest sense, it is a fire story. It is a tragedy. And the hijra?
They are victims.
But I wonder whether this story would have been covered so heavily by the press had the victims not been transgender.
My student, Rishabh Kumar shot these photos:
The communal Thanksgiving dessert table at our camp on the Ganges. This is our third year November on the river:
Isn’t it beautiful? I skipped rafting to hike instead:
We take a train to the camp, north into the foothills of the Himalayas. Scenes from the train station in Haridwar:
Running the Delhi half marathon again… beautiful air, eh? My chest was tight for hours after the race.
I’m in love! We’re babysitting “Buddy” for a few weeks. He has a fetish for Lala’s underwear….
Singing Christmas carols over the weekend: