On a hot summer afternoon, the eunuch held the little girl, now her adopted daughter Saleha. She recalled the injuries on her 13-month-old body.

"It was a sexual assault," Zeenath Pasha said. "Bringing up children in brothels is difficult. What do I do?"
In her room at Ramabai chawl, a brothel in Kamathipura, Zeenath broke down recollecting the injuries on her daughter's body.

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On the first floor, a few migrants make a living from pressing clothes. A couple of shops occupy the ground floor.

Kamathipura, in India's commercial capital Mumbai, is one of the oldest and largest red light districts in India.

The windows on the second floor face the street where a group of sex workers are sitting on the landing of the staircases. This is a hijra (eunuch in Hindi) brothel in Gulli (lane) No.1. Around eight of them live here.

Zeenath runs the brothel. During the day, the little girl sleeps, runs around and the eunuchs pamper her.

Informal adoptions

Zeenath adopted Saleha from another sex worker in the neighbourhood. The biological mother Shonali is HIV positive. Sometimes she comes and plays with her daughter in the evenings. Shonali is lean and pretty with slanted eyes. She laughs easily. She has two children besides Saleha.

When Zeenath found out she was planning on aborting the child, she approached her, gave her some money, and the delivery at a local hospital happened in Zeenath's name. That's how it happens because eunuchs can't adopt children legally in this country, she says.

There are many eunuchs who informally adopt children in the red light district, born to mothers who can't keep them for various reasons.

Zeenath has already named Saleha as her heiress
[Chinki Sinha/Al Jazeera]

A few send them off to boarding schools if they can afford it. The rest, at least in the brothels, rely on night schools and creches run by voluntary service organisations to keep the children away in the nights when customers stumble into the brothels.

That they want to be women is a contested point of view. Some say they want to be more than women. Gauri Swant, a hijra leader from Malvani in Mumbai, says they can never be complete women. Their bodies have betrayed them, she says.

Zeenath, who cut off her genitals to become a woman, knows castration at best rids you of the burden of maleness.
But they want to be mothers, or perhaps parents. She had adopted Gauri, a normal young girl, when her mother, a sex worker, died of AIDS.

'Uncles and aunties'

Gauri, 31, says she became a mother by accident. But she loves Gayatri, her daughter, and sends her to a boarding school. During vacations, her daughter comes to live with her. That she is a doting mother is evident in the way she pampers her child.

The child is quiet, and sometimes asks questions about her identity. Gauri, director of Sakhi Char Chowghi Trust at Malvani in Mumbai that works with the eunuch community, told her she was an adopted child because she would find out in any case.

Gayatri lives in a world where gender isn't compartmentalised. It flows, crosses over and is fluid. She struggles to make sense of her world and to differentiate between "uncles" and "aunties" here. Those who wear salwars and sarees, she refers to as aunties.

But Mandwa, a young boy who identifies himself as a transgender and is learning the ways of this community, sports short hair, and has a voice of a man. He is "uncle" to Gayatri.

Saleha, who will turn three next year, means pious in Urdu. One evening when Saleha was just a few days old, she came to live with 10 eunuchs in the three-storey chawl with its bunker beds where the eunuchs traded sex for a few rupees.

During afternoons, she sleeps on the blue tarpaulin sheet spread on these berths, a eunuch cuddling her.

The stigma attached to the hijra community makes them feared people who kidnap girls and push them into the sex trade. But Zeenath says she wants Saleha to be married, and become an independent woman.

Shrine for eunuchs

Every year, Zeenath makes a trip to Ajmer during the Urs festival that marks the death anniversary of Saint Khawja Moinuddin Chisti and to visit another shrine erected in memory of Maji, a hijra who, according to local lore, once became pregnant.

Zeenath relates the story of Maji, a name they are forbidden to utter. Long ago, a female-pilgrim struggled to carry her children up the hill. A eunuch offered to carry them. The woman told the hijra to stay away.

"We pray for the women. We want that when we bless them with children, our prayers are heard"

Zeenath Pasha, Brothel operator

The hijra, hurt, prayed at the Baba ki Mazaar to be blessed with a child. For 10 months, she carried the child in her womb. As her stomach bloated, the pain turned intense. Finally, the stomach burst, and a male child's face revealed itself before both died. A shrine was erected in their memory.

The womb is the privilege of the women. To bless them is our fate, Zeenath says. In India, blessings from the hijra is considered auspicious for women wanting to conceive a child.

"We pray for the women. We want that when we bless them with children, our prayers are heard," Zeenath says. "Hence, we come here."

The neighbourhood is full of guest houses where the hijra community stay during the Ur. There are celebrations every night. The earnings of the hijras are spent on offering chadars (clothes) at the dargah, and preparing feasts, and praying for others to become mothers.

"Where else will you find a shrine for a eunuch? At least there is an acknowledgment," she says. "But I know that the hijra who was blessed with a son was living in different times. We are living in a corrupt world. We must suffer."

Mother's wish

Zeenath is HIV positive, and fears that when she is dead, her adopted daughter will be pushed into the sex trade. She is sick, but is holding on.

In her will, she has already named Saleha as her heiress. Asif, an eight-year-old adopted son, also lives with her. His mother, a sex worker, died of HIV AIDS soon after he was born.

At around 4:30pm he leaves for the night school run by an NGO. By the time he returns around 8:00am Zeenath sweeps the corridors and the staircase, and removes the used condoms, the cigarette butts, and the alcohol bottles so he doesn’t know. But they will grow up soon, she says.

"Perhaps he knows. He doesn't ask," she said. "I will send them to boarding schools when I have some money."

Kamathipura is fading away. Realtors are slowly buying the chawls and the brothels in this prime real estate location in South Bombay, but Zeenath is holding on. The Rs.100 (this is on a good day) that her eunuchs earn per session isn't enough.

Zeenath hopes one day Saleha will get out of the streets, and enter a home. That's what every mother wishes for a daughter, Zeenath says.

Source: Al Jazeera