From Eunuch To ‘Unique’: This Photo Story On Mona Ahmed Is Incredibly Poignant

“She wanted to tell the story of being neither here nor there, neither male nor female, and finally, neither a eunuch nor someone like me. She would always ask me, ”Tell me: what am I?”

World-renowned photographer Dayanita Singh’s Myself Mona Ahmed is a bold, empathetic glimpse into the life of Mona Ahmed, who belongs to one of India’s many visible-yet-ignored communities, the eunuchs. Feared by some and revered by others for their supposed mysticism throughout Indian history, it would be unfair to say that they haven’t been documented sensitively through various mediums in recent times. Yet none cut quite as deep as Singh’s poignant portrayal of Mona over the course of so many years, parallel to their deepening relationship.

"My attempt to buy false happiness, pretending I am happy to Dayanita so she would not worry about me." Photo © Dayanita Singh

“My attempt to buy false happiness, pretending I am happy to Dayanita so she would not worry about me.” Photo © Dayanita Singh

The two first met in 1989, when Singh was on a shooting assignment for London’s The Times. Speaking of the assignment in the introduction to her book, Singh says it started out as  “a way to establish my credentials as a photojournalist, to show that I was on par with the boys in my male-dominated profession. When you work for the media, which tend to see India only as either exotic or disastrous, a story on eunuchs is a must, along with a story on prostitution, child labour, dowry deaths, and child marriage.”

However, the assignment didn’t proceed as planned. When Mona realised that the project was for the Times in London, she was concerned and asked that the film be returned to her—she had relatives in the UK who did not know she was a eunuch. Singh returned the film and Mona promptly threw it into the trash. While that put an end to the assignment, it was the beginning of a friendship whose importance in Singh’s life was not imminently clear.

Over time, the photographer found herself welcomed into the very private world of the eunuchs as Mona’s friend. She was even invited to the birthday celebrations of Mona’s recently adopted daughter, Ayesha. She recalls, “Whenever I was passing through Delhi, I would wander towards Turkman Gate and spend hours lying around in Mona’s room.” The bond that formed between the two is evident throughout the work, and in the privacy of Mona’s home they talked like old friends.

"I get this strong urge to dance from within." Ayesha's second birthday, 1991. Photo © Dayanita Singh

“I get this strong urge to dance from within.” Ayesha’s second birthday, 1991. Photo © Dayanita Singh

Their friendship grew and when Ayesha was taken away from Mona, it was Singh’s shoulder that she leaned on. Things unravelled rapidly after that for Mona. She had a falling out with the other eunuchs and was thrown out of her community. She subsequently moved to a graveyard, where she built a house atop her ancestors’ graves.

The photographs in this book capture various sides of Mona: exultant, brooding, pensive, grieving. They have allowed Singh, and by extension, us, to see a side of them the world never gets to see. Our experiences with and exposure to eunuchs or hijras, as many derogatorily call them, are restricted to seeing them beg for alms at traffic lights. But as is usually the case with the people we see on the other side of the glass, we rarely acknowledge or try to understand their reality as they experience it. For one thing, their human experience isn’t any different from ours. They have hardships, much like us, in addition to that largely unfulfilled quest for identity, or an answer to the question of ‘belonging’: ‘who am I?’ It’s this all-pervading sentiment that makes Singh’s book so timeless in its relevance. It’s a question that we may very well always seek to answer, and it’s a question that poses another more pertinent one—if we grieve, love, and feel the same, why are they still so marginalised?

Mona and myself. 2013. Photo © Dayanita Singh

Mona and myself, 2013. Photo © Dayanita Singh

In addition to Singh’s photographs, the book contains many letters written by Mona to the publisher. In one, she laments, “I constantly think, ‘Why did God make eunuchs?’ A mother has 4 children, why is just one a eunuch? Of course, it is from God, but why does only one boy feel he wants to dress like a woman? What this is, I do not understand. No one can explain this question. A eunuch has a male body, but the spirit is female. Why does it happen? No one becomes a eunuch by choice, meaning no one says, ‘I want to be a eunuch.’ If God came in front of me, I would ask him, ‘Why did you make me like this; why did you make me born if you had to make me born as the third sex? And if you did make me the third sex, why did you not ensure respect in society for us?’”

The photographs progress from happy to sad, charting Mona’s life, through its rising arcs and pitfalls. In almost every picture, she is up close and personal with Mona. There’s a clear sense that this is not the dynamic between a photographer and her subject, as much as it is the act of anybody taking a picture of somebody they love. There is a level of empathy that simply cannot be discounted. Considering Singh spent years shooting Mona, and had no intention of publishing the photographs anywhere, makes this work all the more personal.

"When I feel like dying because I cannot bear the world any longer, Dayanita arrives to give me love and encouragement." 1998. Photo © Dayanita Singh

“When I feel like dying because I cannot bear the
world any longer, Dayanita arrives to give me love and encouragement.” 1998. Photo © Dayanita Singh

In the book, Mona shares painful memories of the time she tried to meet Ayesha after she was taken from her, and how the police beat her brutally for it. Instinctively, she ran to Singh’s house in Delhi for help. In her hour of need, Singh was the first person Mona wanted to see. And Singh photographed the extent of Mona’s injuries. The dark bruises on her leg and the pained expression on her face, speaking volumes about the internal and external pain at the loss of her child.

Though Mona is always the focus, Singh’s lens captures other little giveaways with great detail—the way Mona clutches her pet rabbit to herself, or the way she holds her monkey, almost as though it were a baby, showcasing her deep love for her pets. “I started to dislike humans so much that I started to adore animals and made them my family. I had one Doberman, one monkey, four rabbits and two dozen ducks,” Mona explains in the book.

Singh says, “Mona has repeatedly tried to recreate a family for herself. Once again, she has an army of animals, and all the little children living around the graveyard are gathered around her TV set. Yet, finally her inner loneliness is eating her up, the feeling that she belongs nowhere, an outcast among the outcasts.”

"My rabbit Moti (pearl) that the cats ate up a few days later." 1999. Photo © Dayanita Singh

“My rabbit Moti (pearl) that the cats ate up a few days later.” 1999. Photo © Dayanita Singh

Before the book was even a concept, Singh recalls writing to Mona and telling her that a publisher was interested in turning the whole thing into a book about her ‘unique self’.“The whole world calls me a eunuch. You call me unique,” Mona wrote back. It’s a wonderfully concise summation of the feeling this work of art leaves with its viewers, once all the pages are turned.

Nixi became Dayanita Singh, the photographer, here on the lap of her favourite Mona Ahmed, New Delhi. 2013. Image from The Archivist by Nony Singh, published by Dreamvilla Productions. Photo © Dayanita Singh

Nixi became Dayanita Singh, the photographer, here on the lap of her favourite Mona Ahmed, New Delhi. 2013. Image from The Archivist by Nony Singh, published by Dreamvilla Productions. Photo © Dayanita Singh

All at once a chronicle and a memoir that cuts across social boundaries and class barriers in a country that is otherwise, still hopelessly stratified,  Myself Mona Ahmed is so much more than meets the eye. Singh’s own closing words feel like an open wound, “As I now am thinking about which city and country I would like to live in, what kind of home and family I would like to have, my two main concerns are my own photography, which is profoundly rooted in India, and my dearest friend Mona. More than my mother, more than my friends and my sisters, it is Mona I worry about.”

Perhaps then, this book is about nothing more or nothing less than a beautiful friendship between two individuals whose paths might never have crossed under normal circumstances.

Scroll down to see more images from the book

"To bless the newborn child, I am dancing in front of the house." 1994. Photo: © Dayanita Singh

“To bless the newborn child, I am dancing in front of the house.” 1994. Photo: © Dayanita Singh

"Ayesha fulfilled my dream of becoming a mother, so I celebrated her first birthday for 3 days and 3 nights and invited over 2000 eunuchs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh." 1990 Photo © Dayanita Singh

“Ayesha fulfilled my dream of becoming a mother, so I celebrated her first birthday for 3 days and 3 nights and invited over 2000 eunuchs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.” 1990 Photo © Dayanita Singh

"We lie around like a normal mother and daughter." 1992. Photo © Dayanita Singh

“We lie around like a normal mother and daughter.” 1992. Photo © Dayanita Singh

"My beautiful monkey Shabnam (my eunuch brother’s name) that was killed by the Muslims. They said that a monkey is a Hindu god and therefore cannot live in a Muslim graveyard. So they poisoned him." 1999. Photo © Dayanita Singh

“My beautiful monkey Shabnam (my eunuch brother’s name) that was killed by the Muslims. They said that a monkey is a Hindu god and therefore cannot live in a Muslim graveyard. So they poisoned him.” 1999. Photo © Dayanita Singh

 Words: Neville Bhandara & Mandovi Menon 

[Dayanita Singh recently started a blog where she shares her thoughts on photography and image making. Check it out here]

Share

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS

Comments

comments