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Piyush Saxena's 'Life of a Eunuch' on the marginalization of eunuchs in India

Life of a Eunuch sheds light on a large social issue in India: the poverty faced by a large eunuch population. The author claims this population begins life with an intersex condition, as a result of which they leave home to join groups of others like them, and because of their homelessness and lack of family ties, they cannot obtain identity documents, which in turn interferes with their ability to travel, get jobs, and open bank accounts.

The author is Piyush Saxena, a wellness counselor with a Ph.D. in naturopathy who, according to his biography, "believes that the root cause of all medical problems is pollution and parasites." After taking an interest in the plight of eunuchs in India, he founded an organization called Salvation of Oppressed Eunuchs (SOOE) which seeks to integrate eunuchs into Indian society. Saxena's mother and father also contributed to the book. The book is available online as a free download.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on March 4, 2012.

The many words for "eunuch" in various Indian languages all run the risk of being understood pejoratively, so Saxena reluctantly uses the word "eunuch" as the next best option, although he calls it a "total misnomer" that contributes to the marginalization of these people. He defines a eunuch as someone who is born with an intersex condition (or, as he puts it, "a dysfunctional male or female reproductive system") and also has some gender identity issues. Those issues are never presented consistently: sometimes he says eunuchs are more male-bodied yet more feminine-identified, other times that their gender identity doesn't conform to conventional standards for men and women, and still other times he acknowledges that their identities may fall along a spectrum of masculine, feminine and "neutral." In one spot he claims that they have no sexual libido and have sex only for money, but in another spot his data indicates that less than half declare themselves asexual.

After joining a eunuch community, they will have their atypical genitalia removed in a ceremony called "nirvana". He comments that "the only true eunuchs in India are those who are genderless and suffer from the lack of any distinct sex organs" (in which case it is unclear exactly what would be removed, unless he meant that they do have sex organs that are merely mismatched with existing scientific categories). He dismisses, and thereby fails to explore, the possibility that any significant number of eunuchs in India were born with normal male bodies and are essentially what the West would call transsexual or transgender women.

According to Saxena, such people generally come to a fuller understanding of their situation when they reach adolescence, at which point they will leave home, travel to a city where eunuchs are generally successful as beggars or prostitutes, join a band of eunuchs organized under a eunuch leader (guru or nayak), and undergo the nirvana ceremony. "Leading a life without undergoing nirvana is incomplete for a eunuch and there is intense craving for this procedure in all eunuchs," he writes. He attributes to eunuchs a magical "inherent capability to recognise the status of nirvana of other eunuchs," even though they will still ask each other if they have had the ceremony performed.

Saxena perceives this as more of a ritual act than a real castration because, he says, the person's genitalia never behaved in a typical male fashion in the first place; therefore, the person was already a eunuch from birth. The act is indeed ritualized. Because castration is illegal in India and because most eunuchs can neither document themselves as transsexual women nor afford a surgeon, the cutting is generally performed underground.

The chapters in this 540-page book are a bit disorganized and the information is quite repetitive, sometimes contradicting itself along the way. The chapters take medical, social, and mytho-religious approaches. Large sections are not about the Indian eunuch gender at all, but instead about transsexuals in the Western sense of that term (using language that dates back to the 1990s when the subject first entered the popular and academic consciousness), or about various biological categories into which intersex bodies can be fit. It is unclear what connection the author intends to draw between eunuchs and transsexuals. In the first chapter he says that eunuchs have a "transsexual nature" but this is never demonstrated. Some of his basic medical definitions are problematic, such as his definition of a female as someone "capable of being penetrated" and a male as "able to penetrate". An abundance of anatomical diagrams and photographs of surgeries in progress may be useful for some readers but are unnecessary for the reader who seeks social analysis. The latter type may be more interested in the chapter consisting of brief first-person statements from eunuchs.

An example of one of Saxena's strange generalizations is that eunuchs eat an average of 4,000 calories a day and that they levy a fine on any member who refuses to eat at a party. He says they are healthier than most people because they walk from house to house begging for alms and their expected lifespan is 14 years above average, yet he also cites data claiming that 18 percent have diabetes. It would seem rather difficult to get a good sense of the average caloric intake of a million or so undocumented, uneducated people who share large group residences and only use cash, and anyway this number is not cited to any source, as is the case with many of his facts and generalizations.

To complicate matters, Saxena's own spiritual beliefs intrude in his presentation of medical information. He believes that a human fetus receives its soul at four months of gestation. "In the case of eunuchs," he says, "the soul chooses to become devoid of gender and bear the extreme physical and mental hardship associated with this deprivation." He devotes chapters to his theories of astrology and past-life regression. Among his spiritual beliefs about eunuchs includes his uncritical report that they are rumored "to recognize the purity of gold" by intuition.

The author's intention is benign. He wants the government to find ways to allow eunuchs - though they may be homeless and fatherless - to have identity documents so that they can be better integrated into society. He wants more attention given to a population at risk for HIV. He wants to dispel groundless fears that they kidnap children and insulting rumors that they expose their naked bodies to hapless passersby.

His mission is somewhat hampered by his own patronizing language. In the preface he refers to eunuchs as "disabled"; in the cover story he says they are "hiding deep desires and confusion within" and are plagued by "a lost sense of context and direction" while they make a "humble effort at carving out some semblance of dignity and purpose in their lives"; and throughout the book he insists that they suffer from having "no clear gender." This last idea keeps surfacing despite a large body of evidence that the eunuch gender is indeed recognized as a separate gender in Indian society; indeed, the author acknowledges that they "dress and behave differently, in addition to living apart in bands and groups." They perform a peculiar popping clap with cupped palms that announces that "they are not normal gendered people." They speak a secret variant of Hindi they call gupti or ulti bhasha. He identifies seven gharanas (clans) of eunuchs in present-day Mumbai and provides pictures of their clan symbols in the tenth chapter. These positive details suggest that, at least collectively, they have a gender identity and social role and are able to create meaning and context for their lives.

The national bureaucracy does not always recognize anything beyond male and female on official forms, which is another matter. Saxena observes that there is gender discrimination in India even though it is illegal, including, for example, female infanticide in certain areas.

He acknowledges a major contradiction in attitudes toward eunuchs: "It is really strange that on one hand we call them by derogatory names and on the other, we invite them to confer blessings on newlyweds, newborns, new establishments and enterprises!" Their odd social status, according to which they are treated with a sort of respect born from fear, allows them to feed themselves by openly taking food at the marketplace without paying and to travel by train without showing tickets. He says that southern India is more generally more tolerant of eunuchs than the north.

Most eunuchs are Muslim, he says, which he attributes to their perception of a vague connection with the Muslim requirement that men be circumcised. However, they do tend to align themselves with their guru's religion, and regardless of their personal faith, the eunuch culture celebrates Hindu, Christian, and Muslim holidays together as one sisterhood.

His organization SOOE estimates that there are about 1.9 million eunuchs in India who generally lack a basic level of education and live in poverty. (The government will release the official population estimate at the end of March 2012, which he expects will only register a quarter of that number.) "O" for "other" has been a gender option on the voter rolls as of 2009 and on the census as of 2011. Update: In February 2013, the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh reported that over 2,000 voters had registered as 'O' within the previous two years, out of a population of about 75 million. Passports may also be issued as "O" but only 1 percent of eunuchs have a passport. On ration cards and driver's licenses (although few eunuchs drive), the eunuch may declare herself as either male or female.

Saxena suggests renaming the international Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20 as "Eunuch Solidarity Day" on which non-eunuchs would bring candy and gifts to eunuchs and tie string bracelets of solidarity on them. This may be an appropriate observance in India, but he does not elaborate on his implication that the transgender meaning should be erased, especially in other countries where "transgender" is a more popular concept for understanding people who are outside the male-female binary.

The author has clearly spent a lot of time meeting with eunuchs, trying to help them gain social empowerment, and he does present some useful information in this book. His practical intentions are clear and they are welcome. Unfortunately, the academic and factual underpinnings of his beliefs are not clear at all.

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