Photograpy, India, Portraits, Anglo Indians, Family and me

Month: March, 2013

Cheryl in the blue chiffon dress

NOTE 1–  After taking advise I have chosen to use the more acceptable Hindi word Kinnar as reference to India’s 3rd sex, rather than the general word ‘Hijra’ which holds disrespectful colonial connotations and I admit I’ve used for years.

NOTE 2-  I must also make a note to myself some time very soon. I must not start any more blog postings with ‘whilst sitting and gently rocking on a train’ but as it is true, here goes.

Whilst sitting and gently rocking from side to side on an express train bound for VT station deep inside Mumbai’s frenetic sense arousing suburbs I heard the ominous ‘triple hand clap’ of the Kinnars’ as they made their way along the carriage towards where I was seated.

Hijra Benares 2002

Kinnar, Benares 2002

They were still some distance away and with my ear finely tuned I could tell by the amount of hands I could hear clapping there were a group of Kinnar approaching. This provocative on-mass approach was a clear signal to me. There was the probability of gang intimidation the definite use of some very provocative language and behaviour and the possibility of a smidgen of sexual molestation, aimed predominantly at vulnerable young men. I have been witness to a number of testicular squeezes on board a train on a number of occasions and I was hoping that once they realised they had a foreigner on board, and that being an unknown quantity for them, I would most probably be spared both the sexual assault and daylight robbery, I’ve only had my balls grabbed once. I could cowardly sit back and watch as my fellow male passengers deflected most of the flack away from me. Women are always spared the intimidation and humiliation!

The train was somewhere between the local stations of Kalyan and Thane well inside Mumbai’s commuter belt, the perfect hunting ground for Kinnar to find their prey and collect revenue whilst people are on their daily commute into work. As for me I realised that this could go one of two ways, they would either giggle at first then completely ignore me or I would be picked out for special treatment. This day I got the ‘special’ treatment.

Since sunrise I had been sharing the compartment with four young men and two young ladies, I myself had been on the train for over 24 hours whilst my six fellow passengers were newer arrivals, having boarded the train on its slow approach to the city. The four young men had huddled together on the two single seats next to the isle and were sitting on top of one another in a comfortable early morning embrace as young men often do in India. The two young ladies were sitting opposite each other inside the carriage peering through the metal bars of the trains open windows, their faces partly covered by their sari in a polite discreet manner this helped keep their faces free from dust but also enabled them to hold a private conversation together.

The jingle of bells from gold ankle bracelets grew louder as the bare footed Kinnar announced their approach. Heavy stomping of feet accompanied by rhythmic finger clicking and their oh-so-soft hollow hand clapping along with the occasional loud bang of a tabla let everyone know they was coming. An inexperienced foreigner  who was travelling on an Indian train for the first time could be forgiven for believing the train had been boarded by a troupe of female dancers dressed in traditional rural village costume from deep inside the deserts of Rajasthan. Not as was the case, by a group of hairy legged transgender ‘males’ who had nothing more traditional on their minds apart from relieving people from there hard-earned Rupees.

Within Indian culture the Kinnar (who are also known disrespectfully  Hijra)  have a magical persona and can perform religious rituals at weddings and at the births of newly born boys, they can also bestow blessings for good health and can earn a handsome living when working for the upper classes. Most Kinnar see themselves as neither men nor women but as a separate 3rd sex and life for the many different ‘types’ of Kinnar can be as complex and as troublesome as it is fascinating. Many Kinnar are also sex workers.

Almost all my encounters with Kinnar have been happy ones and for most of the time they have been a brief enlightening experience for me. My encounters with India’s 3rd sex have usually been filled with many jokes and also lots of questions. I have asked them questions and in turn they have interrogated  me. Only once, an isolated incident close to Hosur in the southern state of Karnataka have I ever had a proper ‘run-in’ with a Kinnar, when I felt under pressure to hand over money, that on that day, I just did not have and the altercation ended up with a brick being thrown at the rickshaw I was travelling in. That was the only time a meeting with a Hijra could have turned really quiet nasty, my auto rickshaw man quietly and wisely advising me not to retaliate. He said Hijra sometimes have bad days.

Almost out of nowhere and as I sat remembering  my slight rickshaw-altercation some years before, that very moment, a ‘diva’ of Bollywood poroprtions burst through from behind her entourage and freed herself from her hand clapping and dancing friends. She was wearing an electric blue and quite revealing chiffon dress that flowed almost to her ankles. The neck line was plunging allowing just a tantalising glimpse of her red laced Bra and she had a huge fake Safire necklace which lay against the a growth of stubble on her chest. Stubble that I estimated was shaved off roughly a week ago.

There was no doubting her intentions she took one long and lingering look in my direction she sauntered over to where I was sitting and sat down next to me she put one hand firmly on my right knee and in a voice that could pass for an Indian version of Ertha Kitt she stated very deliberately with eye to eye contact “I-am-in-love–with-you-darling”. She purred after she said this to me.

She asked me. “What is your name darling”? I replied with deliberate eye to eye contact that my name was Jason. She replied back in the voice of a purring Indian cat once again “My-name-is-Cheryl-and-I-love-you”. It was at this moment for a few brief seconds I actually flirted with assuming the identity of a generic and bumbling Hugh Grant type of character, stumbling through a dictionary full of apologetic words with an English boarding school stammer. I thought against this option though and decided to front this situation out without using an alternative persona for cover.

Also at this point in the journey I honestly sensed that there had been a sharp intake of breath from everyone else in the carriage swiftly followed by a huge collective sigh of relief. I definitely felt that the atmosphere had been lifted and everyone else in the carriage were actually thinking, Ha! Let the foreigner take all of the flack this morning.

Cheryl asked me politely “What is your name and what do you do”? I told her that my name was Jason and that I was a photographer. Before I could catch my breath she exclaimed loudly ensuring everyone in the carriage could hear “Jason-I-Love-you”. The young Indian men adored the attention that was being lavished upon me and not upon them and I admit now that I was slightly flattered by Cheryl’s advances but only slightly you understand. I told Cheryl that as we had just met I did not believe that she really loved me and that may be it was possible it was only a little lust she was feeling. The young men on the single seats were laughing out loud now and the ladies in the open window seats were also paying more attention to the commotion we were making in our carriage.

There are never ‘normal’ journeys into Mumbai on the train. Life in India is never simple but today’s encounter with Cheryl was less normal than other. Cheryl and I had quickly turned into a comedy double act aboard that train, we had really clicked and I told Cheryl that she should have her own show on prime time television. Cheryl was born to be a star and I do believe that in any other country she could have fronted her own cable TV chat show, she was an enigma. I remember thinking at that time that Indian prime time television may not be ready for Cheryl just yet.

I am not easily shocked. I have been in some situations that some people might find uncomfortable and others even questionable but the refreshing thing about being in India is that however long I spend within India’s cultural grasp she always pushes the boundaries of what might be considered socially acceptable to the absolute limits. In India I imagine clearly defined rules but in India I find these rules can be bent and even more fluid and surprising than many supposedly liberal western communities.

Cheryl was pulling no punches. She said to me “I know that you love me and I know that you want me” and I told her categorically that I had absolutely no sexual interest in her at all but I did think she was very funny. Cheryl was like a mongoose in a death grip with a serpent  though, she would not let go. Cheryl made her intentions quite clear again and with the universal and provocative hand gesture she openly offered me some light hand relief. Cheryl said we could go to the toilet. I told Cheryl that although she was dressed as a woman I was aware that under her blue chiffon dress she was almost definitely still a man and that I really had no intention of finding out. I was not about to be tossed off in a toilet by a bloke in a blue chiffon dress on a train in India even thought I quite liked him-HER. I said to her quiet defiantly  , I’m just not doing it!

The two young ladies who were sitting in the window seats were laughing at us whilst her troupe of fellow Kinnars’ listened passively from the next compartment. So I turned towards the young Indian men expecting their support, Cheryl wasn’t taking ‘NO’ for an answer. I turned to the eldest and smarter dressed of the young Indian men. “You wouldn’t go off to the toilets and pay to have, with a nod of my head,  ‘that’ done to you would you?” and without any hesitation he replied “yes, why not?” I asked the next man “would you?” He also replied yes. All four of the young men confessed that if it had been offered to them they would all go off to the toilet to be tossed off by a Kinnar on a train. The two young ladies in the window seats were holding their sari over their mouths and were giggling loudly.

I asked the first man again. I said I can’t believe it; you would have no problem going off with Kinnar to a train toilet? With a cool shrug of the head and in his lovely confident Mumbai accent his said “Ya! why not? Same feeling!”

The only thing that really shocks me to this day about that mornings encounter was the honesty of those four young men and that how sex with a male prostitute was so readily accepted in front of virtual strangers. Imagine that on the Birmingham to London cross-country line.

Before Cheryl left I did manage to write down her phone number I was desperate to meet up and take her portrait but I swear and I know you will not believe me  I lost her mobile phone number and I never met her again and that is the sad truth to this little tale ended. Honest…..

Jason Scott Tilley



Whilst travelling for so many years across India I always felt a very real sense of peace, I felt that India was the correct place for me to be and that though some periods of my life may have been way out of control and were the consequence of hard work, heavy drinking, drug use and mixing with some seriously dodgy people, everything in my life up to that point seemed to have conspired in my favour and had brought me to an unexpectedly stunning period of living.

Even though I might only be briefly passing through the organised chaos of a vibrant mega-city, where on an hourly basis and whilst not in the confines of cheep spartan rooms, over time I had learned to dodge the wing mirrors of auto-rickshaws erratically  driven by skinny mad men and I had acquired the skill of avoiding the dangerous horns of oncoming bovine traffic and I jostled, shoulder to shoulder like a local, with the hurried hoards who had to compete for every spare inch of space, in this mayhem and in India I always felt a true sense of home.

Varkala, Kerala South India 2006

Me, Varkala, Kerala South India 2006

I was also equally at home whilst relaxing and living for weeks at a time breathing fresh mountain air in quiet Himalayan community’s, completely understanding why my Great Grandfather chose to build a cottage retreat in the hills of the Deccan plateau where he could escape the summer heat of Bangalore.

Whilst I was being rocked from side to side sitting next to an open window aboard a steady moving train, the hot dusty breeze drying taught skin on my always sun tanned face I honestly believed that I belonged to that specific moment in place and time, inextricably connected to a country and to family members who were born and who had lived their entire lives in India many decades before but had long since passed away.

Stories had been expertly woven together over the course of so many years using our family’s cherished oral history and our much loved family photograph albums and were recounted to me with a great passion by my Grandpa that I felt I was able to take refuge with family spirits of the past and prepare myself for an increasingly uncertain future.