Intently looking around, her eyes focus in on the the corner bench. A joda (couple) is sitting there. Sunita Pandit, 56, walks up to them. I follow her. It is evening and we are at the park above Palika Bazaar parking in Connaught Place. The summer sun has just gone down and the park is beginning to attract people eager to take in the evening’s cool air. There are families, groups of friends, and couples. Since there are only a few benches, most sit on the grass.
Reaching the bench, Pandit claps to get the attention and stretches out her right palm towards the embarrassed couple. “May God keep your companionship intact,” she says. “May you both always be happy.” The boy withdraws his arm from the girl’s shoulder, takes out Rs 20 from his shirt pocket and gives it to Pandit.
She then walks to a group of three — two boys and a girl. They are sitting on the grass. “Please give something. God will keep you blessed.” The girl reminds Pandit that she had given her money only two days ago. “Oh, I think I must’ve forgotten.” Smiling and shaking her head, Pandit walks away.
I catch up with Pandit as she takes a short break from the dhanda (profession) to rest against an iron railing. There are holes in her pale green kurta. She is staring blankly at the Regal Theater, a colonial-era cinema complex that can be seen to the right of the park. The golden light of the twilight hour has brought her day-old stubble into sharp focus. The hairs on her arms are more conspicuous than her large ear danglers. Her lipstick is red and the eyelids are brushed purple. There’s a large red bindi on her forehead.
“I realised I was a hijra when I was five.” Hijras, or eunuchs, are one of India’s most mysterious people; they earn money by flaunting their ambiguous sexuality but remain secretive about their personal lives. They live in groups, under the guardianship of a guru. Every group has its own ‘neighbourhood’. At every birth or wedding in the area, the hijras go to the household, sing, dance, and demand money. They are rarely sent back empty-handed, since it is not considered a good omen to receive the ill-wishes of a hijra.
However, Pandit operates alone. She has no guru and belongs to no group. She lives in a one-room house in Paharganj, a residential area that is walking distance from Connaught Place. “The rent is Rs 1,800.” Pandit wakes up daily at 5 am, goes out to a tea-stall to have chai, returns home, showers, and says the morning prayers. By 7 am, she is in Connaught Place.
For someone who earns by blessing romantic couples, Pandit herself doesn’t believe in love. “I never feel lonely. I never felt the need for a lover. Then you will have to work extra to feed him too, no?”
Pandit’s family home is in a village near Allahabad, in eastern Uttar Pradesh. “I have parents, brothers, sisters-in-law and nephews at home. They all give me izzat (respect) though I was born a eunuch.”
Then why do you beg? Why don’t you go back to your family?“As long as I can earn, I’ll stay on in this city.”
Next week, Pandit will be taking the train to Allahabad. She will be gone for a week. “My nephew is getting married.”
After a few minutes of silence, Pandit gets up from the iron railing and starts looking for more couples. She spots one at the far end of the park. Before going she turns to me and says, “May God give you his barkat (blessing).”