There is a convention of eunuchs going on here this week.
Every night they dance in the streets, and every day they change from one bright sari into another. "This is like a wedding for us," says Mukhmal Bai, a carefully made-up 35-year-old eunuch with a deep voice and silver ankle bracelets. She is here with 1,000 others, all of them in town to meet old friends, compare their jewelry and eat enormous meals that go on for hours. Everyone seems to be having a good time.
"This get-together was long overdue," says Kadar Hazi, a 70-year-old convention-goer dressed in a pink sari. The convention is said to be the first of its kind since 1916.
The neighborhood residents are watching from their rooftops, at a safe distance.
Spending time with the eunuchs in Bhopal is a sad, unsettling experience. They could be considered just another group of weird people in India, but unlike the naked holy men who live in the mountains, they take no pride in their fate. They feel that to be born a eunuch is to be cursed by god. They say they have no sexual desires, and no ability to procreate. As a group they are aggressive and sometimes grotesque, with garish makeup and exaggerated, fey mannerisms. Although some are quite elegant, most look like middle-aged men who have dressed up in cheap women's clothes for a night on the town. But individually they calm down, and tell poignant stories of the lives they say they were destined to lead.
"We are living a dog's life," says Ram Kali, a pretty 22-year-old. "I would prefer death to this. We exist on the crumbs thrown to us by others."
The eunuchs, who refer to each other as "she" and say they are born without properly formed genitals, are celebrating the selection of their new leader, or Nayak, Guru Bismillah, and also trying to publicize the plight of those in their colony in Bhopal who died in the Union Carbide gas leak here in December 1984. The eunuchs claim the government is prejudiced against them and has offered no compensation for their dead.
These are bad times for eunuchs in general. Once they were the well-fed, over-indulged guardians of the princely harems, respected for fulfilling an important function in Indian society. But since the demise of the nawabs and the princes after Indian independence in 1947, eunuchs have been shunned as outcastes, forced to beg and make a living dancing as unwelcome guests at weddings and births.
People dislike them because they are eunuchs, but also, it has to be said, because they are often obnoxious. They have elaborate networks at hospitals and in neighborhoods, and always seem to know when a baby is born. They show up soon afterward, dancing lewdly and demanding to inspect the child to see if it has no genitals, in which case they are said to take the newborn with them as a recruit.
If a family doesn't pay them for their dancing, the eunuchs threaten to put a curse on the household or expose themselves. The eunuchs readily admit to this kind of behavior, but say it is society's cruel treatment that has made them this way.
"If people would treat us properly, we would show them some respect," says Fajju, a 35-year-old descendant of a rich farming family who, like the others, spoke in Hindi through an interpreter. "Now we just exist. When we go from house to house, we're just dancing to take care of our stomachs."
There are said to be 50,000 eunuchs in India, although there is some debate and confusion about this. The term "eunuch," which is how these people are commonly referred to in India, is defined in the dictionary as a castrated male. Some historical accounts say the eunuchs who served the harems were castrated for the job, but modern-day eunuchs say they are born with the undeveloped genitals of one sex, or some characteristics of both sexes -- such as one testicle and one ovary. In Hindi, the eunuchs are called "hijras," meaning a person of neither sex.
Doctors say these kinds of birth defects occur all over the world, and are often corrected by hormones and surgery in developed nations and in the big cities of India. But in the rural areas of this country, where 75 percent of the people live, a baby born with such a birth defect is considered a bad omen by the parents, who are happy to hand the child over to their local clan of eunuchs.
Doctors also say that some of the eunuchs are merely transvestites, and that in rare cases they still are castrated. In 1983, Indian newspapers and magazines told the story of a 15-year-old boy who was kidnaped by a band of eunuchs in the western state of Gujarat, then castrated in a dangerous operation and forced into their trade. Five people were charged with attempted murder.
None of this is considered polite conversation at the convention this week. Just mentioning the word "castration" can cause a eunuch to walk off in a huff. Most prefer to discuss the amount of time they spend praying to their special god, Bahucharma, who is worshiped by both Hindu and Moslem eunuchs. "We pray that God should not send us back like this in our next life," says Ram Kali. "We ask that we come back as a boy, a girl or even an animal. But not this."
She was born Raj Kumar to parents who gave her away to the Bhopal eunuchs when she was 5. She has remained here for 17 years. She played with the other eunuch children until she was 14, when an older eunuch took her under her wing and began initiating her into the rites of the group.
"I was taught to dance," she says. "Then every day, 12 months of the year, we would go to different houses for births, marriages and festivals." The work day started at 8 a.m. and was over at 1:30 p.m., when the eunuchs had lunch. In the afternoons they loved going to movies, later copying the dance steps they saw in the Hindi musicals.
Ram Kali says she feels affection for the eunuch who befriended her, but no real love for anyone. "Somehow, I don't feel anything inside," she says. "We are born into this, and we will die as we are. I'm not good for anything."
The other eunuchs have a similar sense of fatalism, saying they have no desire to try to become more productive members of society, and believing that if they lead the proper existence of a eunuch in this life, god will be kind to them in the next. "It was very painful in the beginning," says Fajju, Ram Kali's friend, "but now I have adjusted."
The convention has been news in the Indian press and on the international wire services. Those accounts make it sound like an organized conclave is electing a new leader and promoting solidarity in hard times, but in fact there is a certain aimless quality to the goings-on, held mostly in a labyrinth of crumbling one-room houses, all opening onto a dark, muddy alleyway filled with goats in the old city of Bhopal. The eunuchs call it their "enclosure" and have cordoned off the alleyway from the curious onlookers in the teeming streets.
Walking into the enclosure is like walking into a harem. Perhaps 200 eunuchs lounge around on the floors of the houses, applying makeup, combing their hair, talking and giggling. Festive red lights are strung from the ceiling, and huge pots of meat are being wheeled in for the next meal.
Most of the eunuchs have long hair and deep voices. Some have small breasts. As a rule, they allow no men inside the enclosure. They approach women visitors suggestively, swinging their hips and sometimes grabbing the visitors' hands. Then they crowd around, making a loud and threatening clapping sound with their hands, the distinctive gesture of eunuchs in India. "If you want to talk to our leader," they say, "it's 100 rupees (about $8) a question." After three questions, they announce that the fee is now up to 300 rupees. There is a small commotion when the fee is not paid.
The rest of the interviews take place across the street, one or two eunuchs at a time, in the back room of a shop belonging to a failed betel-nut salesman. Here they quiet down. "We aren't miserable in the active form of being unhappy, but we feel no desire for sex," says Sita Bai, a tastefully dressed 50-year-old with a smooth, pretty face. (Many eunuchs take the last name "Bai," which means woman.) "For generations we have been living like this. We have never known any other job, any other life. Now it is too late."
Their new leader, Guru Bismillah, is about 70 years old, and was selected in October 1985 after the previous leader died of what the eunuchs say were complications related to the Union Carbide gas leak. She serves for life. The eunuchs traditionally hold a convention after every fourth leader is selected, which is why the last one was in 1916.
Bismillah is only in charge of the 40 eunuchs who live full-time in the enclosure in Bhopal. But as the eunuchs explain it, her selection was a source of celebration for eunuchs throughout northern and central India, who have met Bismillah at previous get-togethers in other towns. Now they are staying in Bhopal at her enclosure and also in a dozen other houses around town.
Although Bismillah was selected almost six months ago, the eunuchs say they had to delay the convention until now because young eunuch messengers had to be sent across India with yellow rice, which serves as an invitation to such a convention. This took time. They had to raise money, too.
"We wanted donations from the government, but we received nothing," says Nisar Bai, Bismillah's 55-year-old second-in-command who is running the day-to-day operations of the convention. She has been in charge of the cooking for 700 people, which has been stressful. "I'm nervous because of all the arrangements I've had to make," she says.
The eunuchs readily admit they are mercenary, and base much of their discipline on financial punishments. For instance, Nisar Bai has several young followers who she is educating in the ways of the clan. "If they desert me for someone else," she says, "they have to pay me 'prestige money' " -- the equivalent of $400.
Nisar Bai and Bismillah, the chief disciplinarians in Bhopal, run a strict house. No eunuch is allowed outside after dusk, when she might be prey to male homosexuals. Some years ago a eunuch became fond of a young boy in town, and was quickly thrown out of the house.
But during the convention this week, the eunuchs have been allowed out at night to dance in the streets. "We want to let the people know we exist," says Mukhmal Bai. The dancing usually begins at 11, and goes until 2 a.m.
"We are born into this," says Ram Kali sadly. "Even if you placed us in Hell, we would dance."