- On Queerly Hidden Lives: Precarity and (In)visibility between Formal and Informal Economies in India
When he was called to his boss’s cubicle one morning in spring 2017, Subhra had no idea what was in store for him.1 Subhra was in his second year as a junior employee in a multinational chemical engineering firm that specializes in producing and supplying chemicals for processing leather. A native of West Bengal in eastern India, he had moved for his job to a bustling north Indian city—a hub of the Indian leather industry, hot and dusty with the grit and smoke from the hundreds of tanneries that dot its outskirts. Subhra’s job sometimes took him to the tanneries to which his company sold chemicals for leather processing, and he also worked in the leather finishing labs of his corporation. He lived with some of his colleagues in a “corporate guesthouse”—essentially a glorified apartment rented by the company as subsidized accommodation for its employees. Removed from his hometown, family, and friends, Subhra’s life revolved around the bare essentials of his job—his colleagues, the lab, and the tanneries, tempered by lonely weekend outings to movie theaters in nearby shopping malls. As he often told me, he felt that he had no real friends in his city of work.
Even so, he hadn’t anticipated the crisis that was about to erupt at his work-place that morning. His boss, accompanied by another senior colleague, confronted him gravely. One of his roommates apparently had surreptitiously acquired a picture from his phone and showed it to his seniors. The photo, taken by Subhra himself a few months before this incident, showed him cuddling with a friend whom he had invited to stay at the guesthouse over a weekend. [End Page 61] Although intimate, the picture was not explicitly sexual. He had even obtained permission from his seniors to invite his friend over. However, according to his boss, although Subhra had sought permission for a male friend, the photo revealed that Subhra’s friend was actually transgender—or, to use his boss’s exact words, a hijra (someone belonging to a stigmatized South Asian community of feminine-identified people usually assigned male at birth, with distinct customs and professions). The boss further alleged that the landlord of the guesthouse had received a complaint from one of their neighbors, who had been shocked and scandalized to see a hijra in the vicinity. In this circumstance, instead of berating Subhra’s roommate for circulating a confidential photo, his seniors forcefully attacked him, accusing him that he had brought a hijra into the house for “illicit” purposes, and that he had an “indecent” and “dirty” relationship with the said hijra.
That friend, the “hijra,” was me. I had met Subhra about six months before this incident when I was in West Bengal doing ethnographic fieldwork with trans-kothi-hijra communities (kothi is another community of feminine-identified persons related to hijras).2 Subhra was visiting his hometown on a short break from work, and found me online through mutual trans and kothi friends. Over the ensuing months, what started as a casual fling—a distraction from my usual fieldwork—began to turn into an intimate friendship, and he invited me to visit him. I was hesitant. He lived in a state that was being increasingly taken over by Hindu right-wing political forces. Subhra had mentioned that most of his colleagues were upper caste, religious, and conservative. Some frowned on his Bengali meat-and fish-eating habits, which they found difficult to reconcile with his upper caste background, as North Indian upper castes are more commonly vegetarian than their Bengali counterparts. The extent of ingrained caste, class, and gender hierarchies within the leather industry had taken Subhra by surprise. Tannery workers in Subhra’s city are typically Dalit (“lower” or oppressed caste) or Muslim, whereas supervisors and tannery owners are mostly upper caste Hindus or rich Muslims. The laborers barely make minimum wage; they constantly deal with hazardous carcinogenic chemicals but are not provided with safety gear and typically have respiratory problems, skin ailments, and shortened life expectancies.3 Further, since...