Madhavi Menon is Professor of English at Ashoka University, and the author, most recently, of Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India (Speaking Tiger, 2018).
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Grammatical Nomads, or What Language has to Say about your Desire
In I976, when I was five years old, I had a double hernia operation. I remember vividly the many moments of intense discomfort, the multiple trips to the hospital, and the slow and painful recovery after the operation. On one of my early visits to the hospital, before the surgery was scheduled, the doctor took my mother aside to express his doubts over my diagnosis. He said it was quite unusual—almost unheard of—for such a young girl to be diagnosed with a double hernia. There was no question that I needed the operation, since I had pieces of my insides spilling out on a regular basis that needed to be pushed back in again. But his theory was that rather than having a double or even a single hernia, I had undescended testicles that needed to be removed.
I did not hear about this counter diagnosis until 35 years later. My mother had been unnerved by the conversation with the doctor in 1976. And she was even more traumatised when a well-meaning nurse told her to make sure that word of my ‘condition’ did not get around for fear that I would be kidnapped by hijras and made one of their own before the operation had even taken place.
There are only two areas in which gender plays a defining role in our lives. The first is in determining the identity of living beings, both human and animal. And the second is in defining the rules of grammar. Indeed, Sanskrit grammar texts like Panini’s “Ashthadhyayi” and Patanjali’s “Mahabhasya” in the Brahminical tradition, and Buddhist and Jain texts written in Pali, all assume that animate and inanimate people, objects and concepts, have gender. These grammar books make clear that the way in which we think of gender in language affects the way we think of gender in persons. The same term–napunsaka–is used in these texts to describe the state of being neuter in person as well as the state of being neuter in grammar.
From at least the 3rd century BCE onwards, the mark connecting biological and grammatical gender in Sanskrit and Pali traditions has been that of the linga, Shiva’s ‘phallus’. Those of us who have suffered through classes in Sanskrit will know that the linga is the category into which different words are placed: stri-linga for feminine words, pu-linga for masculine words, and napunsaka-linga for neuter words. If you put the wrong word in the wrong gendered category, then your sentence construction is, simply, wrong. The linga separates Man and Woman and Neuter in person just as ruthlessly as it separates the masculine, feminine, and neuter case in grammar. The dilemma with which my mother grappled in 1976 was both a grammatical and an existential one. She was faced with the possibility of my sliding from the feminine to the neuter case in both body and language. My seemingly female body, she was told, might not belong in the grammatical category of the feminine.
But even as gendered identity in grammar and life are considered essential to a ‘proper’ state of being, they are not so easy to ascertain. Even the handbooks of grammar find it hard to limit themselves to the three cases of masculine, feminine, and neuter. For instance, these three gendered categories were augmented in Jain texts from the 5th century CE with a fourth case that offers two versions of the neuter or napunsaka gender. One is the masculine napunsaka (or purusha-napunsaka) for those men who occupy the penetrative position during intercourse. And the other is the feminine napunsaka, to describe those men who are the receptive partners in sexual intercourse. This fourth gender expands the notion of the neuter by suffusing it with masculine and feminine. Suddenly, the three ‘separate’ genders become less distinguishable from one another. This expansion of the neuter echoes the taxonomy laid down in the “Kamasutra”, in which people of ‘the third nature’ are described as being either masculine or feminine. What is interesting about this proliferation of terms attached to the neuter gender is that the neuter is often understood as an absence of characteristics rather than a profusion of them: a lack, rather than an excess. But the historical debates about Sanskrit grammar and gender suggest a profusion of content, despite seemingly rigid forms.
What is also interesting about Sanskrit is that it traces its roots not just to the gendered family of languages known as the proto Indo-European that has given rise to German, Italian, Spanish, and French (in fact, all Indo-European languages including Sanskrit, Urdu, and Hindi, are gendered; almost one-quarter of the world’s languages use gender in their grammatical structure), but it is also related to the non-gendered family of languages known as the proto Indo-Iranian, such as Farsi (Persian) and Pashto. The primary verb for ‘being’—asth—is common both to Sanskrit and Farsi. Persian is a non-gendered language, while Urdu, Hindustani, and Hindi—all derived from confluences between Persian and Sanskrit—are gendered with a vengeance.
As we remember, though, grammatical gender in Sanskrit and its related languages is rigid while also being expansive. This expansiveness might suggest a ghost memory of Sanskrit’s non-gendered roots in Persian, and is possibly the reason why the seeming strictness of gender in Urdu and Sanskrit is more fluid in reality. For instance, despite being a gendered language, Urdu did not have a vocabulary term for the word ‘unnatural’ until the 20th century (according to Scott Kugle ‘be fitri’ became the ‘ungracefully literal translation of “unnatural”’). And even though almost all current Indian languages owing their descent to Sanskrit— Hindi, Marathi, Assamese, Punjabi—use gender, many of these languages assign gender to nouns in hilarious ways. For instance, in Hindustani—the umbrella language for both Hindi and Urdu—the word for manliness—mardangi—is gendered feminine.
This means that all Hindi- and Urdu-speaking manly Indian men are grammatically transgendered.
Even more, the most prominent nouns signifying desire in Hindi and Urdu—ishq, pyaar and prem—are gendered male. This means that a woman expressing desire is automatically a transvestite. Since the noun signifying a woman’s desire is masculine, a woman in love in Urdu and Hindi is a woman-man.
All Indian women who desire in Hindustani are grammatically transgendered.
Indeed, the lingering allegiance of Sanskrit and Sanskritic languages to non-gendered desire might be the reason why Jain texts and the “Kamasutra” allow for variety in gendered being. Gender is not as important to desire in the “Kamasutra” as it seems to be for us today. In that text, gender refers to and is a reflection of sexual position rather than sexual desire. As in the Jain texts, being penetrative or receptive determines the gender of your biological and grammatical case rather than the presence or absence of certain genital markers. Masculinity depends on whether you are sexually penetrative or penetrated. This is why the ancient texts, though written in gendered Sanskrit, had a strong sense of the masculine and feminine neuter.
These expansive definitions of gender have been present in the languages and peoples of the Indian subcontinent for over 3,000 years. The napunsakas are mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts like Patanjali’s 2nd-century BCE grammar that predate Hinduism and also in what are considered Hindu texts, like the “Ramayana”. Indeed, if all the tales of cross-dressing men and women and gender-shifting gods and goddesses are any indicators, then the ‘neuter-masculine’ and the ‘neuter-feminine’ have been abundantly and visibly present in India for centuries. And the neuter in person has inevitably been presented as steadfast, loyal, intelligent, and reliable. Legend has it that Rama dismissed his subjects who were ready to accompany him into 14 years of exile by exhorting all ‘the men, women, and children’ to go back home from the edge of the forest. The neuters, fitting into none of these categories, remained where they were for 14 years, awaiting the return of Rama. Touched by their devotion, Rama granted them the special powers of benediction for which they continue to be known today. Similarly, the tale of Shiva and Parvati coming together as one in the form of Ardhanarishvara—‘ardha’ is half, ‘nari’ is woman, and ‘ishvara’ is a male god – points to an ancient comfort with being identifiable outside the binary of male or female. This avatar of Shiva has a widespread iconographic presence in India, with everything from song and dance to films and poems and images being produced in its name. And Shiva is, not coincidentally, one of the patron gods of the hijra communities in India.
The Mughal courts regularly understood ‘hijra’ etymologically as a term describing the Prophet Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD. The Islamic calendar—the hijri—begins from this date in 622, and the subsequent years are denoted by the appendage of an H for hijra or AH for anno hegirae in Latin. This association with a flight from persecution has historically marked hijras as a noble people, seeking sanctuary and freedom from barbarism, and standing steadfast in the face of ruthless political pressure. Hijras are people who flee persecution— whether of royal whims, religious sects, or the draconian orders of gender.
Indeed, so high was the religious regard accorded to hijras/napunsakas across languages that it is quite possible–had my counter diagnosis taken place in 1476 rather than 1976–that my mother would not have been as terrified by the possible ‘demotion’ of my gender from the feminine to the neuter. But the lower social status would still have been a problem for her since hijras were, in lived reality, subject to many depredations, including at the hands of slave traders, and sometimes were boys who had been forced to undergo castration.
There is very little historically that has been written by hijras themselves (A. Revathi’s The Truth about Me and Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s Me Hijra, Me Laxmi, and Red Lipstick: The Men in my Life are recent exceptions to this rule), and so it is difficult to glean historical details about their lives in India apart from the religious myths that surround them. While they were appointed to high positions in court—in the Mughal courts, they were regularly keepers of the harem—they were also subjected to normative jokes. They were trusted as loyal soldiers, but also regarded as lesser beings because of their lack of lineage. They were invoked as auspicious people, but also shunned for being undefinable. Linguistically too, their path is strewn with irony. While the fiercely gendered Sanskrit and Urdu languages celebrate gender-bending napunsakas and hijras in their literatures, the English, with their non-gendered language, started the process of prosecuting the hijras in person.
Indeed, shocked by the gender ‘confusion’ displayed by the hijras, the British passed the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871, under which hijras were classified as belonging to a ‘criminal caste’, a category of caste invented by the British themselves. This category included individuals who were ‘reasonably suspected of kidnapping or castrating children, or of committing offenses under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, or of abetting the commission of any of the said offences’; or ‘who appear, dressed or ornamented like a woman, in a public street or place, or in any other place, with the intention of being seen from a public street or place’; or ‘dance or play music, or take part in any public exhibition, in a public street or place for hire in a private house’.
This Act was the source from which my mother’s fear was derived before my operation. This was why she was warned not to let news of my condition become common knowledge, lest I be kidnapped. During the Raj, hijras were forced to be registered with the colonial authorities, and were arrested if they were caught doing any of the things that they had historically done. Under the British, ‘hijra’ became ungrammatical, a deviation at odds with the laws of the land, an example of the too-muchness of desire that inhabited this jewel in the British Crown. But despite the phobia generated by the Criminal Tribes Act, the Indian subcontinent continues to harbour the idea that there are more than two genders in the world. Indeed, at least the recognition of hijras is one of the few policies on desire that ties the partitioned subcontinent together. Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India all recognise hijras officially as ‘the third gender’, with varying access to civil and political rights.
What is interesting, however, about the British attitude to the ‘confused’ gender of the hijras is its complete variance from the grammar of the language they themselves speak. As mentioned earlier, English is not a gendered language, and stands out among the world’s prominent languages for its lack of commitment to gender. Even though Old English was an extremely gendered language, modern English retains only the gendered vestiges of ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’. Other than that, it has no gendered nouns or verbs. I am not gendered in current English, and neither are you. The clarity of separation that gender is supposed to provide, for both people and grammar, does not exist in English. This is what makes it all the more surprising that the English colonisers could not tolerate in the realm of desire what they quite happily embraced with their tongues.
And so, unlike gendered Sanskrit and Urdu, ungendered English responded aggressively to the neuter in person. It would seem that the history of India has had an inverted relation between grammatical and biological gender. The reign of Sanskrit and Urdu saw the sprouting of various genders, while the rule of English saw the shutting down of gendered possibilities. Hijras flourished for about 3,000 years before the English arrived, but have been in steady decline ever since then.
This general genital-gendered confusion lies at the heart of present-day India’s love-hate relationship with hijras. Men in Hindi are feminised, and women’s desire in Urdu and Hindi is masculinised. Hijras are welcomed as harbingers of good luck at auspicious events because they embody both male and female principles, but they are also driven to begging and prostitution because they cannot make a living. Yet, love them or hate them, hijras are marked by a profusion that defies the potentially denuding conventions of grammar. The grammatical neuter went by various names in ancient and medieval India, and hijras today too have various names in the subcontinent. They are known as khwaja saras in parts of Pakistan, aravanis (or thirunangai) in Tamil Nadu, hizra in Bangla, napunsakaa in Telugu. Then there are the zenanas—men who dress as women without undergoing surgical reassignment; kothi—men who take on the feminine role in sex without reassignment surgery, and do not live in communities; and khusras—transgendered individuals who do not necessarily live together. These are but a few of the many names by which hijras, transgendered, transsexual, non-gender normative people have been known in the Indian subcontinent for centuries. The Sanskrit and Pali terms used prior to the Persian hijra of the 16th century, and which continue to exist alongside hijra, include tritiyaprakriti, kliba, and napunsaka.
Despite being brought increasingly under disciplinary surveillance, hijras have if anything increased the degree of contradiction they carry in their bodies and tongues.
Hijras across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal all speak a language called Hijra Farsi that seems to embody the rootlessness and restlessness of the word hijra itself. A blend of non-gendered Persian and gendered Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu, Hijra Farsi is syntactically close to Hindustani. Also known as Koti in some parts of the North, Koudibhashai among hijra communities in the South and Gupti (hidden) Vasha or Ulti (opposite) Bhasa in Bengal, Hijra Farsi has local variations in different regions, but the basic vocabulary remains North Indian and gendered. The irony that Hijra Farsi is a gendered language can perhaps better be understood when we remember that it was developed as a tool of self-protection at the time of the British criminalisation of hijras in India. As happens with so many marginalised people who take on the categories of oppression used by their oppressors, the hijras too took on the masculine/feminine distinction that the colonisers used against them. But they kept it secret. And they called it by the name of a language–Farsi–that allowed them to flee the persecution of grammatical gender. Hijra Farsi is accompanied also by distinctive bodily gestures that challenge the regime of gender.
Indeed, it is the specific way hijras highlight their relation to genitalia that brings the idea of bodily grammar to the fore. The hijra practice of lifting sarees and exposing the genital area to those who have been rude to them is an extremely effective mechanism for shaming people. In an inversion of the typical situation in which the exposure of the genital area causes shame to the person so exposed, the hijra’s exposure shames the person doing the looking. And why? Because if the hijra has retained her masculine genitalia, then the disjunction between the saree and the penis engenders shock. Suddenly we are in the presence of the ‘masculine-neuter’ of the “Kamasutra”. And if the hijra has gone through the ‘nirvana’ ceremony of excising the penis and testicles, then what is exposed is the hole where once the penis used to be: the neuter in what was once masculine—or even the feminine in what was once presumably masculine. This is the ‘feminine-neuter’ of the Jain texts. Hijra genitals defy gendered and grammatical determination, and therefore seem shocking to our colonised selves. But rather than being a simple rejection of masculinity for femininity or a rejection of both masculinity and femininity–as the prefix ‘na’ in napunsaka seems to suggest–hijra grammar provides us with a profusion of options.
Hijras combine both masculine and feminine principles while simultaneously being neither male nor female. This is why hijras are considered auspicious in the first place: because they play with grammatical and embodied gender not by negation, rather by voluptuousness.
And this voluptuousness shows through in everything having to do with hijra culture. From their clothes to their names, hijras are multiple. All hijras in India have at least two names, one male with which they are named at birth, and one female with which they are named during the hijra initiation rites. In Hyderabad, this duality gets doubled also with two religions. Here, hijras usually have one female Hindu name by which they are known in everyday life, and a male Muslim name by which they are officially entered into the hijra register. These are in addition to the male names they might have been given at birth. They practise Sharia rituals prescribed for both men and women, but they also style themselves as devotees of a Hindu goddess who goes by the name of Bahuchara Mata, or closely aligned regional variations thereof. Hijras take on, then, not only the two major genders of the world, but also the two major religions of the subcontinent, and live to tell the tale. Far from being the embodiment of grammatical negation, they speak a language of linguistic excess.
This excessiveness in India extends to both desire and grammar; the neuter is prolific rather than empty or negative. Not conflicted, confused, uncertain, violent and criminal, as hijras are commonly described these days, but rather, plenitudinous, cultured and, above all, reflective of a lived reality of mobile desires that marks our everyday lives. The neuter in India has given us persons who defy the categories of two fixed genders. And it has given us grammars that every day mark our language as transvestite—grammars that recreate the exquisite echoes of English and the prolific passions of Persian. If we are Hindi- or Urdu-speaking men and women, then we are neutered by the grammatical effeminisation of mardangi and the masculinisation of ishq or prem. In Hindustani, English, as well as in many Eastern and Dravidian languages, we are all grammatically hijras, and have been so for several centuries. Perhaps it is time again to acknowledge that like our grammars, our desires too are migratory nomads that do not fit only one category at a time.
My mother too, I am happy to report, has mostly accepted this fact. But there is a residual anxiety about my situation in the public sphere. When I did an event around the publication of my recent book on desire in India, my mother–thrilled as she was about the book and delighted at how the evening’s conversation had gone–was relieved most of all that no one in the audience had asked me about my gendered status in the world.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this essay has appeared in Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India (Speaking Tiger, 2018)
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