Tiptoeing around binaries

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on January 10, 2018

Identity politics: Although Mona had claimed a female identity for herself, she sometimes owned maleness in her relationships   -  Urvashi Butalia

Mona Ahmed, often labelled Delhi’s most famous hijra, was never sure if she wanted the queer identity for herself

For over 20 years, my Sunday afternoons in Delhi have been taken up with visits to my hijra friend Mona Ahmed. From this Sunday on, Mona will no longer be there for me to visit. Last week, she died in her home in Mehendiyan in central Delhi, with Jahanara, her carer, and Nasser, her nephew, by her side.

Her two friends in what she called the ‘normal’ world, Dayanita Singh, the photographer, and I, the writer and publisher, were not with her. I was on a flight, hence unreachable. But Singh, with the advantage of modern technologies, spoke to her on WhatsApp as Mona breathed her last, and recorded, long distance, the funeral and burial — which she later shared with me and other friends.

Mona was a little short of 82 when she died, and has often been labelled by journalists as Delhi’s most famous hijra (transgender). Out of the public eye for a long time, she once again became the subject of curious enquiry when Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness based part of the story around a life that could only have been hers.

For all her fame though, Mona lived most of her life on the fringes of society. Her long-term companions were not the middle and upper classes, the ‘normal’ people whose normality she aspired to. Rather they were the down-and-outers, the ones who themselves inhabited the margins: the battery boys who manned those large commercial batteries, the girl who was pushed off a train by men trying to assault her and lost a leg when she fell out, the naan-khatai maker who sought shelter in her home, the gravedigger who worked to earn an income for his son, the bent-over woman who went out in search of food — and occasionally husbands — every day.

They lived with her and gave her the companionship she so desperately needed. And they took from her whatever they could. A fact she was aware of and talked about as she lost mobile phones and tape recorders and money and more. But she recognised this as the cost of company.

For Singh and I, Mona became a friend. It was an unlikely friendship, one that crossed barriers of class in strange ways. Ours were the only homes she visited — among our class of people — and for us, she became someone we talked to about things important to us.

Activism around queer identities has expanded a great deal in the last decades. The visibility of queer people has also grown as more and more people speak out and write, and fight for their rights as citizens. Mona was aware of these developments, but was never able to fully participate in them.

She was never entirely sure whether she wanted a queer identity for herself or whether what she really wanted was to be, as she defined it, ‘normal’. Her young queer friends often came to her for advice, and she gave it freely, but something held her back from joining their campaigns and even lending her voice to them.

And yet, it was the sense of being a ‘misfit’ in a society that wanted her to be a man, when she really wanted to be a woman, that had pushed her into a hijra existence. It was a place where she initially felt at home, and then increasingly an outsider.

Sexual identities and their politics have also been a central part of the women’s movement in India for many years now. And yet, the relationship between transgender identities and feminism has never been an easy one.

Are people such as Mona, born male, but who have transitioned to becoming female, to be considered part of the women’s movement, or will their original male identities never quite leave them? Is gender identity premised on the body — so that a sex reassignment surgery or an excess of certain hormones can be taken to define who you are? Or is it something in the mind?

These were the sort of questions you could discuss with Mona, if she trusted you, that is. And there were never any pat answers. Although she had claimed a female identity for herself, she sometimes owned maleness in her relationships with different people.

Similarly, she sometimes turned language to her advantage, refusing to use the male or female gender for herself, preferring instead the plural ‘we’, which she twisted in strange ways to suit her needs of the moment. To her adopted daughter, she played abbu, and sometimes mother, and to her friends she could be Ahmed Bhai or bajji, as it suited her, and them.

Perhaps she knew something about identity and its ambivalences that those of us who are trapped in so-called ‘normal’ identities don’t.

Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan

Published on September 15, 2017

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