It was a summery Sunday in a gated community in Noida. The fountains poured into a gorgeous pool. Children began to trickle out onto the playground. All around was greenery and curved concrete and manicured, manufactured perfection.
Inside a cavernous community hall, though, a group of residents gravely discussed the latest intruders: hijras.
It was the last thing most of them expected when they plunked down tens of lakhs, even crores, for the new flats springing up off the Noida Expressway. Herein lay a chance to raise children in a place where they could freely run, swing, slide, as an adult watched from a balcony several floors above. For aging residents, it was an escape from the hectic, crowded pace of city life, from the battles for power and water, space and silence.
And then the hijras—presumably a mix of people born with unclear sex and others who chose the existence— started clamouring at the gate.
When the guards refused entry, they yelled and stripped. After a few such performances, the complex’s management devised a compromise: two hijras would be allowed in, escorted by a guard, and taken around to the lobbies of the colony’s towers to buzz residents and ask them for money.
Inside the gates.
That was the main sticking point of a meeting I attended on Sunday morning at a pristine colony deep within Delhi’s growing suburb of Noida, where some of my husband’s family members live.
It mirrors the places a lot more Indians are calling home these days on the outskirts of cities such as Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Bangalore. The signs outside promise sun, greens, gardens and towers; the life inside generally delivers and offers the chance to cocoon.
Many developers model the architecture and style of living (pools to playgrounds) after the US, which experienced a dramatic population shift in the last half-century towards suburbs. In India, the names themselves represent aspiration and affluence, safety and security: The Princeton, Malibu Town, Diamond District, The Castle.
I, too, spent most of my youth in a New Jersey development dubbed “LeParc II,” in a house designed as a “Bordeaux”, although, the one couple from Paris down the street was the extent of our Frenchness.
Just as thinkers and journalists talk about the “two Indias,” there are also countless Americas, although the less privileged one rarely made an appearance in my youth. Yet, in this nation of one billion, where separations among people tend to be more social than physical, I doubt the same can be said by any Indian children today.
And that’s the quandary, the ether, facing residents of gated communities here. The physical separation offered by a guarded gate, as Noida residents have realized, doesn’t mean much— especially in a country where the police still cannot be trusted, where guards expect their share, too. Public space, in many ways, is being redefined, as are the rules of engagement with the outside world—and even the neighbours on the inside.
Can residents smoke along footpaths? Should salaries for maids be standardized? How to force residents to clean up after their dogs? And should hijras, who have no other sources of income, be allowed in?
“These are all unexpected issues,” said Abhai Nigam, a resident who works as an engineer at a multinational firm in Noida. His involvement in the society began when he helped stage a function for Dussehra in October. “The systems still have to be settled in a new society.”
He serves on a volunteer team of residents ironing out the issues of the complex, from ensuring water delivery to more pool chairs, organizing tambola and Holi parties to controlling the hijras at the gate.
On Sunday, the roomful of mostly men sometimes shouted to be heard above each other. They were torn, they admitted, between a desire to be left alone and a recognition that hijras often had no other means. When an elderly man grew especially agitated, a younger man literally bowed to another ancient tradition and touched the speaker’s feet to calm him down.
While some of the younger families gathered said they wanted nothing to do with eunuchs and had no belief in their blessings, others invoked hijras’ role in scriptures and stories. What if someone getting married or having a baby wanted to give money? But what about security?
“I am not saying people should be receiving blessings, but that what is traditional should be considered. I may not be believing in that, but that is what tradition is,” said Vas Dev Verma, 65, also a member of the organizing committee. “Maybe I am too old to change myself. Maybe I should start realizing that what the younger people feel is the right way.”
In the end, the two sides met halfway. Their compromise: the hijras could come but payment is not mandatory. Residents can still be buzzed—but from outside the gate.
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