Monday, October 20, 2014

The eunuch Kalima in Dominique Lapierre's epic 'The City of Joy'

Kalima is one of the hijras, male-bodied people who have been castrated and who live as women in self-designated communities, in Dominique Lapierre's book The City of Joy. Lapierre based the book on real experiences.

Originally published May 5, 2014 to Helium Network.

Dominique Lapierre's book The City of Joy, published in 1985, was based on his experiences in India several years previously. The epithet "City of Joy" refers to a neighborhood of the city of Calcutta characterized by extreme poverty, where people died every day from hunger, disease (notably leprosy) or unsafe living conditions such as open storm drains.

Among the main characters are the Polish Catholic priest Stephan Kovalski and, later, the Jewish doctor Max Loeb, both of whom are in India to do humanitarian work. Hasari Pal is an Indian man who features in the book from beginning to end. A group of eunuchs (hijras) appears in the last quarter of the long story; among them is Kalima.

Kalima


Kalima, at age 20, has "gaudy bracelets and necklaces, brightly colored saris, dark eyes circled with eyeliner, eyebrows penciled in, and her pretty mouth reddened with betel juice." Her beauty "delighted" the priest Kovalski. "The only problem," Lapierre writes, in Kathryn Spink's translation from French into English, "was that Kalima was not a woman, but a eunuch." (Exactly why this poses a "problem" is unclear, since Kovalski, as a celibate man, is probably not supposed to take too much delight in anyone's beauty, regardless of their physical sex.)

After identifying Kalima as a eunuch, Lapierre switches to masculine pronouns when he refers to her, and he puts all references to her gender as a "woman" in quotation marks. Lapierre says directly: "He had been castrated."

Readers learn a little bit of Kalima's history. He was an effeminate child with male genitalia that "were only slightly developed." When he was 14, his wealthy Muslim parents married him to a girl who ran back to her parents the next morning. Soon after, he was approached by a eunuch named Sultana. Sultana adopted him in a ceremony in which he pretended to breastfeed from her. Other ceremonies were held to dress him as a woman, to give him the new name Kalima and to castrate him.

Castration was essential, since the hijras
"must be neither men nor women. Mothers, who called them to take upon their shoulders the sins committed by their newborn babies in previous lives, had the right to verify this fact. And be damned those guilty of deception!"
Kalima was given the alcoholic drink todi made of palm tree juice, together with the narcotic bhang, until he fell asleep. A bowlful of butter (ghee) caused a fire to burn more brightly, which was a good omen. His genitals were severed with one stroke of a razor blade; the narcotic was not strong enough to keep him asleep through this. Sultana applied
"a kind of plaster made of ashes, herbs, and oil mixed together. The recipe dated back to the days of the Mogul conquest, a time when the eunuch caste had undergone a veritable Golden Age. That was the era when, all over India, poor parents sold their children to traders who emasculated them. One nobleman at the court of one of the Mogul emperors possessed twelve hundred eunuchs. In those days some Hijras raised themselves to elevated positions, not merely as guardians of the harem, court dancers, or musicians, but sen as confidant of kings, provincial governors, and army generals."
When Sultana died of a heart attack, Kalima was taken under the wing of another eunuch named Boulboul (meaning "Nightingale").

Kalima and Kovalski became friends. During a major flood, Kalima lit candles in front of Kovalski's photograph of the Shroud of Turin with the intent that the candles should ask the "deity of Big Brother Stephan" (that is, Kovalski) to stop the rain. Kovalski was often perceived by the inhabitants in the City of Joy as a holy man who could be interceded with, as, although he lived in poverty alongside everyone else, he was able to make food and medicine appear in emergency situations.

The birth


When a child was born nearby, Kalima was one of five eunuchs who appeared to sing, dance and bless the baby. Kalima said:
Long live the newborn child!
We bless you,
That you may live for a long time,
That you may always have good health,
That you may earn lots of money.
Kalima performs a dance that appears as if she is giving birth, and then she cradles the baby.

The dancers say: "Our newborn baby is as strong as Shiva, and we beg the all-powerful god to transfer the sins of all his past lives to us." Lapierre says that this expresses "the eunuchs' credo, the justification of their role in society"; they have "the role of scapegoat."

The group leader, Boulboul, performed a special blessing for the baby.
"With the tip of his index finger he dabbed up the red powder from one of the drums and marked the baby's forehead with it. This symbolic gesture transferred onto his person, onto his companions and onto all the Hijra caste the past sins of the newborn child. For eunuchs, the red powder, which is the emblem of marriage among Hindu wives, represents their ritual union with their drums."
Boulboul also collected money for the performance, as such blessings earned the eunuchs their livelihood.

The death


One of the five eunuchs in the dance troupe, Bela, was reported to have placed a cobra in Kovalski's room with the intent of causing his death. Bela's motivation was unclear. When confronted by a self-appointed detective, Bela fought back and was quickly impaled upon her own knife.

Lapierre explains that "tradition would not allow eunuchs to bury or burn their dead other than at night, out of sight of 'normal' people." This, however, apparently did not apply to the people who were intimately involved in the funeral, since Kovalski — Bela's intended victim — and several other men were asked to bear the body to the funeral pyre. As Lapierre says was typical, Bela's hair was cut and she was dressed in men's clothes for her funeral, and the attending eunuchs prayed that she would not be reincarnated as a eunuch.

A rare character


Kalima's character is not developed in The City of Joy beyond what is reflected in this article. Nonetheless, she is notable because Indian hijra characters are rarely found in works by Western authors. (For another example of such a character who plays a larger role within a novel, see Cool Cut by Sharad P. Paul.) Kalima reveals how the priest Kovalski continues to encounter "the other" in India, even after he has lived there a while.

The image above is of a hijra participant at the Chhath puja ceremony, 2013, in Kolkata, India. Image by: Biswarup Ganguly. © GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or later. Wikimedia Commons.

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