Writing Otherness: Uses of History and Mythology in Constructing Literary Representations of India's Hijras

  • Sarah Newport

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis explores the construction and use of the hijra figure in fictional literature. It argues that hijras are utilised as both symbols of deviance and central points around which wider anti-sociality circulates. In order to contextualise these characters and offer a deeper understanding of the constructed nature of their representations, this thesis works with four frames of reference. It draws respectively on Hindu mythology (chapter one), the Mughal empire and its use of eunuchs, which the authors of fiction use to extend their representations of hijras (chapter two), British colonialism in India and its ideological frameworks which held gender deviance to be a marker of under-civilisation (chapter three) and the postcolonial period, in which hijras continue to fight for their rights whilst attempting to survive in an increasingly marginal social position (chapter four). Examining the literary material through the lens of these four frameworks shows, historically, the movement of the hijras in the public imaginary away from being symbols of the sacred to symbols of sexuality and charts the concurrent shift in their level of social acceptance. In terms of their literary representations, it is seen that authors draw upon material informed by each of the four frameworks, but never in simple terms. Rather, they work imaginatively but often restrictively to produce an injurious or detrimental image of the hijras, and they apply multiple historical frameworks to the same narratives and individual characters, with the result of marking them as timeless figures of eternal otherness. The image of hijras as sacred beings in Hindu mythology is recast as them being terrifying figures who are liable to curse binary-gendered citizens if their extortionate demands are not met (chapter one). The political prominence of Mughal eunuchs and their position as guardians of sexual boundaries and purity become treasonous political manipulation through the enactment of secret plots, often involving sexual violence, to impact on political events (chapters two and three). The criminalisation of hijras as a means of pushing them out of public visibility becomes naturalised anti-sociality and a shadowy existence at the social margins (chapter three). Finally, in a public environment which has both seen a major increase in campaigns for hijra rights and acceptance, but which has met with fierce opposition, the hijras are overburdened with associations which render them as hyperbolic and ultimately unsustainable figures (chapter four). Ultimately, these constructions facilitate sensationalised storylines set in the criminal underworld. Whilst the thrilling nature of these stories has the potential to capture a readership, this comes at the expense of the hijra characters, who are rendered as inherent criminals, sexual aggressors and wilfully anti-social. Campaigns to protect hijras as a third-gender category, guarantee their legal rights and end their criminalisation for the first time since 1860 have been publicly prominent since 2001; these campaigns are now coming before parliament and formal decisions are expected imminently. Examining understandings of hijras outside of their communities is thus politically timely and necessary for disrupting the cycle of overburdening them as society's gendered scapegoats, contributing to a project of more nuanced understandings necessary for their social integration.
Date of Award31 Dec 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAnindita Ghosh (Supervisor) & Anastasia Valassopoulos (Supervisor)


  • 377
  • literature
  • contemporary literature
  • third gender
  • gender
  • India
  • third sex
  • postcolonial
  • eunuch
  • trans
  • transgender
  • hijra
  • British empire

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