The signs came early that Abhina Aher was different.
Born a boy biologically and given the male name Abhijit, Aher grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of Mumbai, India. The son of a single mother who nurtured a love of dance, Aher would watch enthralled as she performed.
"I used to wear the clothes that my mother used to wear – her jewelry, her make-up," Aher, now 37, recalls. "That is something which used to extremely fascinate me."
Draped in a bright sari, gold earrings and painted nails, Aher is, by outward appearance, a female, preferring to be addressed as a woman.
She has undertaken a long and arduous journey, rejecting her biological sex and opting to become a hijra — a member of an ancient transgender community in India, popularly referred to as eunuchs.
This week, India's Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling for hijras and other transgender Indians, by recognizing a third gender under the law that is neither male nor female. The sweeping decision redefines their rights and the state's obligation to them as one of India's most marginalized groups.
Aher has felt that marginalization from a young age.
With his mother working as a clerk in the state government, Aher was raised by a maid who indulged the fantasies of an only child, including a fascination with a mother's jingling anklets.
"I was mesmerized by that. When I used to be at home, I used to have grand performances, calling all the neighbors and dancing in front of them and putting up a show exactly replicating what my mother is doing on the stage," Aher remembers. "One fine day, she just found out, and she got really mad about it. I was asked to sit in front of a god and make a pledge that I would never do that again."
'A Huge Feeling Of Incompleteness'
Things grew more complicated as Aher grew more effeminate and became the object of abuse — dragged into the school library, stripped and taunted by older male students. Aher's teacher was no source of comfort: She declared the tormentors were in the right.
"She said to me, 'Your friends are doing this to you because you are behaving in an extremely feminine way and that's what is an issue,' " Aher says.
To resolve the deepening complexities of the teenager's sexual identity, a psychiatrist prescribed sitting "in a dark room" and taking two Tylenol.
"Which we tried for some time – and my mother took me to a lot of saints and a lot of temples also to make sure that I came back to what I should be," Aher says.
Aher was told to behave more "manly," sever contact with girls who were a feminizing influence and wear male clothing. And Aher obliged so as not to bring shame on her mother.
"I had to do that for 10 to 15 years. I used to watch myself, how I walk, how I talk, how I behave, how I dressed, just to hide my sexuality, just to fit into the heterosexual world," Aher says. "I finished my education ... and started working as a software engineer. There was a huge feeling of incompleteness all the time — having something wrong with your body all the time, not being able to connect with your soul all the time."
Confused about what was happening, Aher attempted suicide three times — and survived each attempt.
"I could not die," Aher says. "And that was turning point in my life, because I thought that since I did not die, let me try to live now."
The strains with Aher's mother became so serious that while they lived under the same roof, the two did not speak for nine years.
All the while, Aher's desire to change gender was growing.
"My urge to become a woman was getting stronger inside me," she says.
Joining The Hijras
A sense of isolation drove Aher into the arms of a guru, or mentor, within a community of like-minded souls known as hijras, who dress up in saris and are enshrined in Indian literary epics. Regarded as auspicious, they are invited to bestow blessings at births and dance at weddings.
Today, hijras can also be aggressive, especially when not handed money as they wend their way through traffic begging. Though visible in public, their world is often shrouded in secrecy.
"They like the mystique," says Aher, adding that initiation into the hijra community is full of rituals.
First, a hijra's earnings go to the guru. Then there's the physical transformation: As the male gender is cast off for the female, initiates cannot cut their hair or shave their faces. Traditional "pluckers" from the hijra community pluck all the hair from initiates' faces. They then start going out in public as females.
Joining this group that traces its roots back to antiquity is not something to be taken lightly.
"It's no joke," Aher says solemnly.
It can be psychologically and physically traumatic; there's body-altering hormone treatment, often followed by operations to reassign sexual organs.
And the changes are costly. Aher says a breast augmentation operation alone can cost about $1,000 — a considerable amount in India. Castration surgeries cost a similar amount. Aher says she became a sex worker to help finance her transformation.
The physical toll is high as well.
"After the castration, you cannot work for a one and half month. It was not an easy task, it was a journey of pain," Aher says now, with a laugh. "I just wanted to become a beautiful butterfly."
Castration is a dangerous business, and Aher says many members of the hijra community don't survive the procedure.
"It happens in a dingy room, 10 by 10 probably. Immediately after castration, within two hours, the hijra is told to leave that place, because it's illegal," Aher says. "The operations are normally done by quacks, and lots of hijras died because of that."
The UNDP reports that in some Indian states, up to 40 percent of hijras are said to be infected with HIV as they resort to selling sex to survive. They have long been discriminated against in jobs, housing and education. Aher is one of the lucky ones; she is a full-time staff member of the the Indian HIV-AIDS Alliance. But she also recalls being turned away by 17 hotels while on a business trip in the Indian state of Kerala, one of the country's most progressive.
'A Door Of Hope'
This week's Supreme Court ruling making a third gender for India's transgender population is a milestone for this conservative country that still regards homosexuality as a criminal offense.
The colonial-era law makes gay sex a crime in India, is also used to threaten or extort money from hijras — under the same prohibition on any sexual activity that is not "procreative" in nature.
Next week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the British-era penal code.
Aher says the fight is not over.
"What we have done is we have put a foot inside a door, which is a door of hope, and we will open it — very, very soon," she says.
But as well-established as the hijras may be, they are still regarded by many Indians with discomfort and derision. Ridding society of stigmas and superstitions will be the true test of the hijras hard-fought recognition.