My grandmother's house was a stone's throw away from Munna Guru's house in old Delhi. As a child when I misbehaved, I was always threatened that I’d be sent away to her house. As a result, I grew up fearing Munna Guru. Her loud voice, aggressive body language, facial hair was all quite intimidating. It was during my teen years that my fears turned to curiosity when I discovered that she was a hijra, a eunuch. The ambiguity of her gender fascinated me and I wanted to know her. What was it like to be born without a defined sex, to be addressed as ‘she’ one moment and ‘he’ the next?
In certain sections of Indian society, giving birth to a child with a genital defect and bringing it up is considered a matter of shame. Often parents give away such children to eunuch clans to bring up. Unlike many eunuchs, Munna Guru’s mother did not give him away — she chose to defy society and bring him up. Till the age of 18, he lived with his mother in Lucknow and then moved to Delhi to find others of his ilk. He identified more with his feminine side and began to refer to himself as a woman.
For the next 30 odd years, Munna lived amongst hijras. She started off as a chela and with the passage of time, her beauty and charming disposition made her a favourite with her Guru. Slowly, she made many chelas and was quite celebrated within the community. Despite all the attention, she took to the bottle fairly early in her life and developed a serious drinking problem. Her life was tragically cut short in early 2003 under mysterious circumstances. It is rumoured that she had been slowly poisoned over the last few years in a bid to oust her and take over her position. After her death, her chela Ramkali became the guru. Spending time with Munna while she was alive, one could hardly escape Ramkali’s presence. She was bold, attractive and had a strong personality – traits required to become a guru. To photograph Munna Guru and her chelas was an experience. But to photograph her with her biological family was a privilege, one that gave me a great insight into the complex fabric of human relationships.