Down the road from GB Pant hospital in Old Delhi is a rundown burial ground for Muslims, called Mehendiyan, where the Capital’s most famous third gender, Mona Ahmed, lives among the dead.

As you enter the premises, a half-built mausoleum-like structure rises out of the wilderness. Further up, a few dhobis are drying clothes on a line. “You’re here to meet Ahmed bhai?" one of them asks me, before leading me through a battered door and into Mona’s quarters.

At 76, Mona looks like a grand ruin, though in spite of her failing health, she retains a regal aura. Switching between genders—a man to some, a woman to others—she is truly “the third gender". “We are neither men nor women. No one can understand us," she says as she greets me with a cold drink and a box of biscuits.

Mona looking at her book ‘Myself Mona Ahmed’, 2013

She is happy about the Supreme Court ruling on the third gender but not unduly excited. Those from her community who are educated can get employed, she knows, and have a better life, perhaps become more integrated with the “mainstream". “But what can the law hope to give someone like him?" she asks, pointing at her chela (disciple), a pretty young man who goes by the name of Roshni.

Every afternoon Roshni drops in at Mona’s to look after his guru. He runs errands for her, checks on her health, then starts drinking himself into a steady state of high. As evening descends, he dresses in drag, goes out, and waits for men in cars to pick him up. At the end of the night and after several tricks, Roshni goes home with the money he makes from sex work.

“Who is going to give him a job in an office?" asks Mona. Roshni, who attended school till class VIII, looks suitably forlorn. “I was bullied at school for being ‘girly’—all the time," he tells me. “Society has to also change, along with the law," he adds.

“The other problem is, if you are making thousands, sometimes lakhs, simply from badhai (money collected by eunuchs from families for blessing newborns), you won’t want to do any other work, will you?" Mona says. “For years, our community has lived off earnings made by dancing at weddings," she adds. “Now they beg at traffic-lights and on trains. It will be hard to give up this line of work and do a nine-to-five duty."

Mona’s own story—which has been told by her closest friends, photographer Dayanita Singh and writer-publisher Urvashi Butalia, and most famously by Mona herself in Myself Mona Ahmed, the book she made with Singh in 2001—is a record of her many thwarted attempts at making new beginnings.

Dayanita Singh and Mona Singh make a ‘selfie’, 1998

Mona talks about her first love, a boy called Abdul Khalif who broke her heart and went on to marry a girl and raise a family. She speaks of the harassment and abuse she faced from teachers and boys at school. She mentions her father’s fury at her effeminate ways, his attempt to strangle her one night when she was asleep. And finally, her flight from home with a group of eunuchs to get castrated in a town outside Mumbai.

Mona found her patrons in Sona and Chaman, two famous eunuchs in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, and travelled with them widely. She claims to have met several filmstars, including Rekha and Nargis, who were especially kind to her. And yet, deep down, an emptiness continued to gnaw at her heart. “In life you can get everything, except a child and love, unless you are blessed," she writes to Keller.

“Mona may have always been an outlier but a part of her also longs to fit into middle-class society," says Butalia, who wrote beautifully about her friendship with Mona in Granta magazine three years ago. Till date, she keeps visiting Mona on Sundays when she is in Delhi.

In her middle years, Mona’s longing for parenthood assumed a sudden intensity. She went to Haj to pray for a child. Her wish was miraculously granted—if only fleetingly. A woman she knew died during childbirth, leaving her infant daughter to Mona—who took her in, named her Ayesha, and turned her into the centre of her existence.

Mona with her guru Chaman, 2011

“I was asked to be the photographer on these occasions," recalls Singh, who first met Mona in 1989 on a routine assignment to photograph hijras in India for a British newspaper. When Mona learned the images were for a London daily, she asked Singh to not use them, afraid of offending her extended family who lived there.

“I saw her take the roll from me and throw it in the garbage," Singh recalls, “It was as if she had chucked my entire career along with it." But because of Singh’s selfless gesture, Mona’s trust in her grew, and the two became fast friends.

Mona’s life with Ayesha did not last long. In a few years, jealous of the growing bond between them, Mona’s guru, Chaman, “abducted" Ayesha, and took her away to Pakistan. Devastated, Mona succumbed to depression, took to drinking, and finally, complained to the police—which was considered to be the ultimate act of betrayal by her community. She was beaten up, thrown out of the community without a penny to her name, and forced to take refuge in the graveyard—where, Mona claims, several of her ancestors are buried.

Mona does not let on any bitterness when she speaks of Ayesha, who still lives with Chaman, now almost hundred years old (according to Mona), and her husband, with whom Ayesha had a “love marriage", Mona informs me. “Even if the law might allow hijras to get married and have a family, who will marry us?" she says. “But two men or two women can marry each other, have children, and be a family. The law should change for them too."

Mona dancing at Ayesha’s second birthday party, 1991

“When I gave her the money from the royalties of the book, she wanted to start an air-conditioned taxi service," says Singh. “I suspected from the start that the idea was not meant to go far, so I warned her." But Mona was adamant.

“She said, ‘If you give a gift, you can’t put conditions,’" Singh remembers. “She also said, ‘I’ve always had this desire from my childhood that there would be a car waiting for me outside my house.’" That dream came true—if only for a while. The car, fitted with a music system, did not even do one round as a taxi. It stood outside Mona’s house and gathered rust, before being eventually sold off for scrap.

“Then she wanted to start a pickle factory and wrote to Walter (Keller), asking him to help her export her products to Switzerland," Singh adds. “And yes, she also bought a horse once. ‘Kya jaane, sair karne ka mood ho kabhi,’ (Who knows, if I get into the mood to enjoy a ride)—that was her excuse."

A while ago, Mona had 50 beds built for children. “But people broke them and sold off the wood," she tells me sadly. “I had also made a swimming pool for girls and a hall where poor people could get married and host a reception." None of the two structures were used for the purposes they were built for.

“I could not convince her that women would not come in for a swim in a graveyard and that people would not consider it to be the best venue to get married in," says Singh. “When Mona puts her mind to something, she makes sure she does it."

Mona, 2013

“After all these years, I realize the extent to which Mona has influenced my life," says Singh. Recently, when Singh was decorated with the prestigious Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, she too insisted on receiving it at the National Museum in New Delhi before the installation of her work.

Years ago, when Singh had asked Mona if she would like to tell the story of her “unique self" in a book, Mona had been thrilled. “The world calls me a eunuch, but you call me unique," she had said. Thereafter, she had got a board painted with the words “All India Unique Welfare Association" and hung it over her door.

The epithet could not have suited anyone better.

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