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Archive for November, 2008

The morning of November 5th (election eve in the US) found me up at 5:30am, glued to the BBC and CNN IN in rural Orissa, while my friends massed in groups of multiple hundreds throughout India to watch the returns. By 8:30am, when Ohio was called for Obama, the race was over and a rush of excitement left me cheering and crying in my room. The TV commentary highlighted for me the incredible significance of Obama’s election for India. The nightly news (and that morning’s news) has been flooded with minute analysis of every way in which an Obama presidency may impact India.

Interspersed with this commentary were glowing reviews of the “only in America” story of Obama’s election, given his biography. This we have all heard, but I can assure you these emotions are very real here in India. There is a genuine, new admiration for Americans, spurred by his election, and India is not a “US-hating” country, in general. This is particularly poignant, as India is readying for federal elections and there is a strong desire to reduce the influence of corrupt, criminal politicians (literally. A dismayingly large percentage of Indian politicians, both aspiring and empowered, are criminals, whether convicted or not). So, Indian stations were already asking who would be India’s Barack Obama. No answer to this query, yet, but I hope that India finds a similar, inspirational leader.

A few days after the election, I headed back to Hyderabad, buoyed by that sense of optimism that was painfully absent on November 5th, 2004. I had spent some time, while awaiting a rescheduling of my flight, befriending a few folks from the Deccan Chronicle cricket team. Our flight eventually gets called and I part ways with Hyderabad’s cricket gods.

I trundle towards Indian airport security. The only excitement in this line is how daring a game of chicken the CSF officer (India’s TSA, though these guys have guns) will play with me during the thorough frisking required to pass unto the pre-boarding, waiting area #2. Fortunately, his are unadventurous hands, so my plastic explosives and switch blade get through.

As I step up to his pat-down platform, CSF officer Raj Kumar asks, “what country?” Being habituated to regular recognition of my foreigner status by these friendly sleuths, I am ready with a clearly enunciated “USA.” I leave out my usual proof of “Real American” citizenship through the traditional patriotic blusters: “Don’t mess with Tejas,” “I’ll invade your backwater country,” and “Did you know that we invented your freedom?”

He completes a cursory molestation and, just as I am about to step off the platform, Officer Kumar leans forward displaying a slightly concealed mustached smile and says, “Best wishes to President Obama. I am proud.” I react with at least half of the excitement of a “My Super Sweet 16”-star receiving a gold-plated Porsche. In contrast, my enthusiasm is genuine, though lacking the energetic expletives of “OMG” and “I’m the richest girl ever.” Raj is a bit surprised that his two sentences elicit such a reaction. I respond, “Thank you, sir. I’m happy you are happy. He will be a great president for the US and better to the rest of the world.” This is probably a bit much, but Raj smiles, nods, and reciprocates my handshake. I head off to collect my bags. As my smile widens while reflecting on the exchange, I decide to return to Officer Kumar. Tapping him on the shoulder, to his evident surprise, I expand, “Thank you so much for your well wishes, sir,” perhaps ignoring that he sent his best wishes to Obama and not me.

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I’ve now experienced what I had only heard about from friends: extortion by transvestites. Armed with two first hand experiences (one in Delhi and one in Bombay), I can confirm that these were two of the less expected encounters I’ve had here. While I’ve already had to pay a number of bribes to the entrepreneurial police officer or government employee, I wasn’t expecting to encounter this extortion racket during a nice brunch in Bombay.

Let me first open with a caveat. The plight of sexual minorities in India is terrible. Discrimination is aggressive and overt. Transvestites (or Hirja / Aravani) are not respected in Indian society, by and large, and are generally viewed as harbingers of bad omens. Fortunately, some groups are working to reduce this stigma and provide health care resources.

So, while my story is light-hearted, I understand the underlying desperation that might make someone go to these lengths. A few Aravani have found ways to celebrate their identity and advocated for change. Now, my empathy for societal outcasts does not extend to the small number of people within these groups that extort others. One of my friends had an experience where two transvestites threatened to forcibly shut down the opening of her maternal health care hospital for poor urban women and cast hexes on the facility, unless they were not paid an outrageous sum of money (in the multiple lakh (a lakh being 100,000 ruppees or now, sadly, USD 2,000 at the current exchange rates)). That is outrageous, selfish, and terrible. Fortunately, my friend and her colleagues managed to defuse the situation, before it went nuclear.

Here’s my tale:

I was sitting having brunch with a few friends in Mumbai last month. Our tranquil, upper-class dining adventure was abruptly shattered. Two very masculine looking women had strode into the restaurant and were shouting at the unassuming European owner. The owner’s hostess immediately got up and started pushing these women back to the door. At this point, I broke out laughing. It finally had become obvious that these were two transvestites and this seemed hysterically out of place in prudish, “cover-up-your-goddamn-ankles” India. My friends shot me glances that suggested I should loose the sense of humor. I obliged. They quietly explained to me that new establishments in this area get shaken down by these transvestites. Apparently, Indians are very superstitious about transvestites and always give them money, if demanded, because otherwise they risk having a hex put on them. And you know what happened to the last person who had a transvestite put a hex on them – theft, deviance, and kidnapping.

Just as the Sicilians start breaking knee-caps and skulls, if people don’t respond to verbal shake downs, these transvestite extorters had their own “nucular” option. I wasn’t quite prepared for this twist in the plot.

As the hostess forcibly pushed one of the transvestites out the door (which is a no-no from the more superstitious Indian’s perspective), their life-partner-in-crime sprung out the “nucular” button and hit detonate…

BBBBOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM….OUT IT COMES. It’s flying around outside of the 2mm of fabric that had protected us from nuclear war. My friends explained that this was the extortionists back up option, if more direct argumentation fails. Though, the absurdity of seeing two people debate over paying this bribe reminded me of high school debate hypotheticals that seem unmoored from reality.

There is really no other way to make a crepe, covered in sugary sauce, look so unappetizing as when a transvestite’s business is in full view (I suspect this would apply to any one’s business flying around while I am trying to enjoy what should have been a fantastic crepe).

Sadly, the owner pushed this “business person” out of our line of vision, before I could see if he ended up paying off these entrepreneurs.

Looks like I’ve got a backup career of shaking down new establishments, if this microfinance thing gets crushed underneath the implosion of the world banking system. There’s few better ways to ensure a livelihood then preying upon people’s superstitions and unfounded fears.

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