India: Notes from the margins

An expensive suite in an iconic seven-star hotel in South Mumbai is abuzz with activity. Anticipation and perfume mix in a thick cloud in the room outside where big names from the real estate industry, corporate heads and a film financier with his wife, pallu drawn over her head, wait eagerly for darshan. Inside the room is Jyoti Ma, the intersex person they have queued to seek blessings from. Ze is dressed in turquoise blue pajamas and a white kurta.

Shoulder-length curls frame zir face, coloured with dark lipstick, kohl-lined eyes and make-up. The visitors ask zir questions to which there are brief hushed answers, but mostly, just smiles. The main devotee coordinating the darshan is worth crores. "Earlier, a few of us would go to Benares for darshan, but now she makes an annual trip to Mumbai," he says. "Everybody contributes to fly her down and host her for 2-3 days. We have to restrict the number of visitors though. At the darshan, each of us makes an offering according to our capacity."

Apart from being born with both genitalia, in Jyoti's own words what makes the person special is being born under a special constellation. "My guruma who raised me knew this and began asking my opinion to people's questions when I was barely 10. Sometimes I wouldn't even understand the question and would instinctively respond. This helped many, and my fame grew. When not away on pilgrimage, people still flock in large numbers to my Benares home for darshan," she says. Money, silk saris and jewellery offerings are placed in front of the Goddess Bahuchara Mata at an altar set up in the corner of the room. "I worship her and Lord Shiva in his ardhanarishwar form."


Over 35km away, equal rights activist Harish Iyer scoffs at attempts to either deify or heap scorn on individuals born intersex. "Just like being a straight man or woman or gay or lesbian by itself is not a bane or a boon, so is being intersex," he says. "Practices like these put these individuals in a box and reinforce their difference from the 'normal.' In the long run, that does little by way of both integration or taking away the otherisation."

Many sections of society confuse between the transgendered, hijras and intersex individuals, according to Iyer. "Nothing can be further from the truth." He admits though that the intersex community faces its own set of problems. "Activists working with marginalised communities whether LGBTQ or otherwise need to remember this and address these with sensitivity."

Gopi Shankar Madurai, equal rights and indigenous rights activist, who in 2016 became one of the youngest, and the first openly intersex and gender-queer candidates to contest assembly polls in Tamil Nadu, feels the problem arises when as a society we grapple with something new. 

"We quickly try to homogenise that which we don't want to understand or which we fail to understand. That is one of the biggest problems of Indian society," he says. Read more via DNA