NEW DELHI—The eunuchs came calling before I'd even moved in.
On a recent afternoon, as I stood surrounded by a dozen workers hammering, sawing and drilling in my new apartment, they materialized out of nowhere, two sari-clad women with suspiciously mannish features.
"Yes?" I said cautiously.
The tall one launched into a stream of Hindi. Newly posted to India, I know little of the language. But one word I did recognize, baksheesh (tip), clued me in to what was going on -- that and the fact that the voice repeating it over and over was a richer baritone than mine. I was being hit up for a handout by one of this country's many hijras.
They are eunuchs or otherwise transgendered people by birth, accident or choice. Something between male and female, they are shunned by Indian society as unclean. Many make a rough living through prostitution or by crashing weddings, birthday parties and other festive occasions, threatening to disrupt the celebrations with vulgar behavior and to bring bad luck unless they are paid off.
And now they were in my living room.
I don't know how they found me, but I didn't want to provoke them; some hijras are known to grow violent, and the bigger one could easily take me down. But I also don't like being bullied for money, so I thought it best to smile blandly and feign incomprehension. They were undeterred, trailing me from room to room in the wilting heat.
"Mister, baksheesh," the smaller one said, more insistent now, tugging at my shirt and pawing at my pocket. Then she reached into the bosom of her sky-blue sari and pulled out a wad of bills, like some scene out of a bad movie, so that there was no mistaking what she wanted. I kept playing dumb.
India has somewhere between half a million and a million eunuchs. The estimates are very approximate, because the hijras live in a secretive, shadowy world they've created for themselves away from the abuse and persecution of general society.
They gather in public in large numbers only at their annual conventions, which always attract media attention for the skillful dancing, the raucous atmosphere and the sight of gaudy clothing draped around burly shoulders and dainty jewels hanging off overly thick wrists.
In antiquity, India's eunuchs dressed as men, and a few were granted royal jobs -- for example, as guardians of harems. But today's hijras make themselves up as women. In the West, they would probably be identified as something between a cross-dresser and a transsexual; in India, they often describe themselves as a third sex, and refer to themselves as "she."
A few have become well-known. One was elected mayor of her city. Another has recently written an autobiography. Activists demanding greater rights scored an important victory last year when the Foreign Ministry began offering "E" as an option under "gender" on India's passport application form.
Only a handful of outsiders have managed to pierce the veil of secrecy surrounding the hijra community. The writer William Dalrymple, in his book "City of Djinns," describes an often well-ordered sisterhood divided geographically into local "parishes" whose members, overseen by den mothers, diligently work their beat.
To ferret out parties to crash, eunuchs often bribe, flatter and flirt with the doormen in their neighborhoods, developing an impressive, reliable network of informants that, as a reporter, I couldn't help but admire.
As a target, I wasn't too happy. After several minutes, the persistence of my two interlopers began to make me nervous, as did the tic in the big one's jaw, which was a good bit squarer than mine.
The tradesmen in the house tried to help me out, pointing out that I was only a tenant, not the owner of the new apartment. "Go talk to the landlord," they told the two hijras, who scowled in response.
The short one continued to appeal to me directly, gazing at me meaningfully and sprinkling her Hindi with unmistakable English phrases like "a thousand rupees" (about $22). At one point she knelt down and touched my feet in a sign of obeisance or importunity. Then, growing frustrated by my stinginess, she drew up the hem of her sari, perhaps to warn me that she was ready to flash her mutilated parts, a common tactic among eunuchs to hurry horrified partygoers into forking over cash to get their uninvited guests to leave.
How the hijras come by their condition varies. Some are born hermaphrodites, considered by many Indians to be a terrible curse. Others feel as though they are feminine souls trapped in masculine bodies and undergo voluntary castration -- the luckier, better-off ones through chemicals or by trained surgeons, the poorer ones in dangerous back-alley operations involving little more than booze and a dirty knife. There are also hushed stories of boys being kidnapped and mutilated against their will.
I wasn't in much of a mood to quiz my two visitors about their life choices. I just wanted them to leave. I kept on shaking my head and smiling to take the sting out of my refusal to be shaken down.
Finally, after 20 uncomfortable minutes, they gave up, visibly angry as they walked out, uttering more words I couldn't understand, which turned out to be a good thing.
"They talked to me in very dirty language," one of the workers in my apartment told me afterward.
Since that initial courtesy call, the two hijras have come knocking once more. So have another pair, no more savory-looking than the first. Now, I must admit, I take the easy way out: When I see them through the peephole, I don't answer the door.
Instead, I tiptoe back and huddle quiet as a mouse, praying that they'll go away, while an annoying voice in my head snickers, "Who's the eunuch now?" I don't answer that either.