The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India

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Pantheon Books, 1996 - Eunuchs - 293 pages
12 Reviews
In 1984, Zia Jaffrey traveled to Delhi, and there glimpsed a group of cross-dressing men who had walked, uninvited and unannounced, into a wedding. They sang out of tune, hurled insults at the guests, and were finally paid to leave. She learned that these often-castrated, elusive figures were known as the hijras - "neither male nor female" - or the eunuchs, of India. They existed in thousands in every major city, were tolerated yet reviled, thought to bring good luck to newlyweds and newborns, yet also called extortionists and kidnappers. Jaffrey set off on a journey to understand the forces of caste, poverty, sexual ambiguity, and the tradition itself that had allowed the hijras to persist into the modern age. In an investigation that points to her own sense of "otherness" in relation to Indian culture - she was born in New York of Indian extraction - Jaffrey delved into the mysteries of the hijras' closed world, uncovering details about their past, their daily lives, and their complex social structures. In this spellbinding book - at once travelogue, history, interview, and fiction - Jaffrey invents a hybrid voice to match her subject, as she meets journalists, police commissioners, detectives, and doctors and tries to trace the hijras' tradition through layers and layers of obfuscation and denial, as well as through Hindu, Muslim, and British history. She is drawn into a labyrinthine network of connections, coverups, and contradictions as mysterious as India itself.

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Unlike most works on the hijras, Jaffrey has asked important historical questions, laid out in the very beginning. As a source of historical information, when put in context of the available material, The Invisibles is superb. The author carefully reveals where her information is coming from, recounting the interviews she conducted with actual dialog and inserting primary sources between chapters. This work helped explain the many contradictions I found in other works by asking about those discrepancies and seeking answers from more than one source. Historically, the choice of Hyderabad was also good because the royalty and patrons of the hijras there, the Nizams, lasted until Indian independence in 1947 as opposed to the British in 1858. At the same time, I cannot stress enough, it was enjoyable to read, like a memoir. By the end one likely cares more about the individuals portrayed more than the content itself. Despite its enlightening historical efforts and its enjoyable reading, it does not serve well for a current description of hijras across India because of its focus on one group in one city, a city noted for being an exception. However, since anthropological reports are far more common (With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India, Neither Man nor Woman, The Society Hesitates: A Sociological Report, etc.) I do not view it as a serious weakness. The first chapter of With Respect to Sex (2005) by Gayatri Reddy provides a nice follow up, highlighting a different, less fortunate group of hijras also in Hyderabad.  

Review: The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India

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Interesting book about the Hijra caste in India. While traveling there a few years ago I met some of these people so was hoping to learn about them. The book, however, revealed more about the author ... Read full review

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