Saturday, July 25, 2015

The character Radha in Anand Mahadevan's 'The Strike' (2011)

The novel The Strike by Anand Mahadevan, published in 2011, is set in India in the 1980s. It focuses on the accidental troubles of an innocent boy, Hari.

Radha, an hijra, first appears in Chapter 10. Hari meets her on a train after he wanders away from his family. She is initially described this way:

“Her arms were slender and fine, though her skin was very dark. Her thick hair was pitch black and tied into a neat bun at the back, with coral jasmines braided around it. There was a trace of red kumkum powder where the furrow of the parting met her forehead and under the kumkum, a short grayish white stripe of holy ash on her forehead. A small golden earring dangled from an earlobe. An electric blue sari was draped loosely on her thin frame, over a blue cotton blouse. She squatted atop a small red suitcase, next to the toilets, in the corridor that led to the umbilical linking the coaches. A woven bamboo basket stood next to her.”

She has been chewing betel nuts. In Hindi, she asks Hari if he wants oral sex, and she makes "the typical gesture of the hijra" with her hands clapping, pointing toward Hari. Because of her "disguise," Hari initially "failed to notice the man in the pretty woman," but then he "realized that she was a eunuch." He “found her rather pretty” but then thought: “This bizarre wretch was permitted her idiocies because she was an hijra – impotent, castrated – her head filled with superstitious nonsense as she was simultaneously revered and reviled.”

Radha is a strong personality.

‘What are you doing here?’ Hari said.
She frowned, ‘What? Is this your father’s train? What do you care what I do here?’

In another situation, she tells the legend of Kannaki who tore off her breast to save a city, and she acts it out by pulling out and throwing the cloth she uses to stuff her bra.

Radha comes to the car where the men are playing cards, and she “teased the men until they coughed up money.” She claps and says “chakka, chakka, chakka.” She warns them: “Remember, I can curse you with impotence as easily as I can bless you with sons.” When someone gets angry, she says: “It’s just dhandha [i.e. business], don’t get all spoiled.”

As is common for eunuch characters in other novels, Radha tells the story of her castration. She says, “No one is born a Chakka; you have to be selected to become one.” She says the selection process is secret. Hari requests more information and pays her five rupees to tell her story. Radha explains that, as a boy, at about age 13, she ran away to Bombay and took any work she could find, eventually becoming a Bollywood makeup artist. She liked wearing women's clothing but found that she didn’t like sex with men. An older hijra found her crying and took her into a household of about a half-dozen hijras, where Radha did their makeup. Eventually, in 1984, the older hijra traveled with Radha to a small village outside Bhopal. In an abandoned Devi temple, they offered alcohol to the goddess, and then Radha drank it and her genitals were tied tight. She nearly passed out, and, “just before the first ray of the dawn sun hit the sky,” the older hijra castrated her with a “long knife and slick”. Radha claims it was painless. They returned to Bhopal that day, which was full of poison gas. It was the day of the Bhopal gas tragedy.

This was probably a helpful story for Hari to hear. Hari is beset with guilt for committing small transgressions that are immediately followed by larger, unrelated accidents. He feels that he is somehow responsible for the larger accidents because of his own personal sin. In hearing Radha's story, he may be able to understand that Radha's castration did not cause the Bhopal gas tragedy.

Radha remains a mentor or guardian figure for Hari throughout the novel.

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