At 23, Pummy Sharma deserted his young wife, parents and siblings and ran away from his New Delhi home to a life of ill-repute.
Sharma was tired of leading a double life — working in his brother’s garment factory by day and performing female roles in traditional mythological plays at night.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” he told ABCNEWS.com in a telephone interview from New Delhi. “I wanted to be a part of the hijra family. I had an attraction to men. I wanted to celebrate my sexuality.”
But the life he ran to, was far from celebratory. Re-christened “Pooja,” Sharma joined a “house” of hijras, a group India’s English language press calls eunuchs but which includes males born with deformed genitalia, hermaphrodites, eunuchs and homosexual cross-dressers.
A highly secretive sub-culture, hijras have existed on the fringes of Indian society since ancient times, but there are varying estimates of the number of hijras in India. Unofficial figures range from 500,000 to 2 million.
Considering themselves neither men nor women, members of this so-called “third sex” generally adopt feminine names and dress and are traditionally referred to as “she.”
Faced with lives of isolation, poverty and public ridicule, hijras often resort to prostitution for economic survival.
But this week, history was made when the people of Gorakhpur, a town in northern India, elected a hijra to the post of mayor of the town.
Asha Devi, an independent candidate, won the election by a decisive majority — she polled 1,09,849 out of a total 2,31,240 votes — a blow to the major parties.
Devi’s election victory is not the first in the hijra community. Earlier this year, another independent candidate Shabnam Mausi — or “aunt” Shabnam — was elected to the legislative assembly in a neighboring state.
Many observers believe the new trend of electing civic-minded hijras into public office is the beginning of a new chapter of enfranchisement in the history of India’s eunuchs.
Exalted Past, Seedy Present
It wasn’t always this way. Hijra traditions, including highly secretive initiation rites, are ancient, but hardly exalted.
Early Hindu texts, including the Kama Sutra, contain references to the third sex and bear descriptions of impotent men who danced and cast spells.
In the past, hijras earned their keep in the royal courts, guarding harems and entertaining patrons. But with the dying of the old traditions, hijras have increasingly had to resort to petty extortion and the sex trade to make ends meet.
A common means of money-making these days is gate-crashing wedding and birth ceremonies and threatening not to leave until they are paid off.
With their garish jewelry, heavy makeup, gaudy sarees and a raucous penchant for raunchy songs, hijras are invariably, but reluctantly, paid off.
A common myth that a hijra’s curse can render you impotent only adds to society’s fear and revulsion.
Allegations of adolescent boys being forcibly sexually mutilated by hijras — a charge hijras and social workers working with them vehemently deny — adds nothing to their social standing.
While they enjoy a ceremonial status in Indian society, often the most basic amenities such as access to health care, education, jobs and housing are denied them.
A Brighter Future?
But the recent elections of hijras to public office offers hope for many.
Devi’s success did not come without a fight. Even the basics of bureaucracy posed challenges.
One of the first stumbling blocks was election ballot which offers two gender options. Devi, born as a male named Amarnath Yadav, listed herself as a she.
Devi’s election victory came from a campaign promise that was simple and effective: she promised to eradicate corruption from civic offices and provide good roads, drainage and clean drinking water.
In the rough-and-tumble of India’s increasingly corrupt political life, it was a promise that proved popular with the citizens of Gorakhpur.
Observers said her victory was an indication of the electorate’s growing disenchantment with political parties.
Local media reports noted with a hint of humor that given the impotence of most politicians, electors decided they may as well vote eunuchs into power.
But it’s an opinion that incenses Anjali Gopalan, executive director of the Naz Foundation India Trust, a New Delhi-based non-profit organization working on HIV and sexual health.
“That’s just the sort of thing society would say,” she told ABCNEWS.com. “The fact is, this is a phenomenal happening. It’s a case of pulling people up and once that happens, they only get stronger. What’s more, hijras elected into office serve as a role model for the community.”
In an odd twist, hijras, for long ostracized as freaks, are now being courted by mainstream local and national parties
But most hijras are unwilling to give up their outsider status — for political ends. “A lot of hijras run on the platform that they are neither men nor women and that as outsiders, they will not get wrapped up in the sort of internal politics that leads to corruption,” said Kira Hall, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University.
However, some experts say the voting of hijras into power was a sort of protest vote and are skeptical on how effective they will be in politics.
Hall, who followed Shabnam Mausi for a brief period after she was elected, does not share this skepticism.
“People do respond to her differently, a lot of times with amusement, but she is surprisingly well respected in her constituency and in the legislative assembly,” said Hall.
“It’s a significant step towards their enfranchisement. When any marginal group enters the legislative system, governmental power will necessarily lead to more recognition for the community.”
Sharma endorses this view. “If you compare our lot now with what we had 10, five years ago, we have so much more support now. We now have access to educational facilities, health facilities, it’s much better now, much better,” he said.
Reuters contributed to this report.