Soman was an eight-year-old boy leading a normal, middle-class life in New Delhi when he and his brother began to realise he was different. Soman felt like a girl, played like a girl and wanted to be a girl. 'My elder brother suspected something. He kept saying: 'You walk like a girl, your gestures are like a girl's'. I didn't want to leave my family but God made me like this. I couldn't go against my nature,' says Soman as 'she' spits a betel nut into a rusty tin can. Soman is a eunuch, one of an estimated 500,000 to one million men in India who believe they are women. This belief prompts them to undergo castration. Other eunuchs are so called because they were born with deformed genitalia. Whatever their story, almost all eunuchs in India feel compelled to leave their homes and families at some stage in their lives - usually aged between eight and 18 - to join a community of hijras (from the Urdu word meaning 'impotent one'). Soman is now a middle-aged, Junoesque 'woman' with thick make-up, lots of jewellery and a full head of dark-brown hair that she's proud of. She says she idolised her father, a timber merchant, but tension crept into their relationship. 'My father hated it when I played with my mother's make-up and walked in a certain way. He knew there was something wrong but couldn't put his finger on it,' she says. When neighbours began to make snide remarks, causing her parents distress, Soman decided to run away. She joined some hijras first in Rajasthan, then in Mumbai and eventually resettled in the capital. Like other hijras, she has made no attempt to re-establish contact with family members. 'The day I left home I knew it would be for good. No one in that society, not even my own parents, can ever accept me or love me as I am. My arrival would be the biggest misfortune possible for them. The only place I can be accepted is in the community,' she says, adjusting her white sari. Hijras are India's most despised, isolated and ridiculed community. They live in a shadowy, secret world on the fringes of society, following their own customs and rules and staying well away from most other people. Outcasts considered as being even lower than the dalits (or untouchables, a group below the four recognised castes), the majority of Indians shun them out of embarrassment. They are freaks: figures of fun and fear. When they walk down a street in colourful saris, chunky gold jewellery and thick make-up, others turn away or pretend not to see them. Ask an Indian where the hijras live in a particular neighbourhood and you'll probably be answered with a shrug. They surface mysteriously from nowhere in groups when they hear of a happy event - a family buying a new house, the birth of a baby boy, a wedding, the opening of a shop - and sing and dance until they are paid to leave. No Indian family can have a baby boy or move into a new house without getting a visit; the hijras' network of informants is ruthlessly efficient. Soman, for instance, earns a living collecting money at housewarmings and weddings in the Lajpat Nagar area of the capital. If it's a new house, she turns up with others to demand cash. If it's a wedding, she dances, sings and claps in the distinctive hijra style until she is given some money. Indians pay hijras hastily to get rid of them; anything to pre-empt the ultimate weapon used to persuade the well-to-do to part with money - the raising of saris and flashing of private parts. The reason today's eunuchs are able to get away with such outrageous behaviour is the age-old Hindu belief their blessings - and curses - are potent. Few Hindus dare send hijras away empty-handed from a wedding for fear a curse will be put on the newlyweds. If the money earned this way is insufficient, hijras turn to prostitution. Clients are usually heterosexuals who cannot afford a female prostitute, or closet homosexuals. Despite their pariah status, however, hijras are beginning to organise and assert themselves - trying to claw back some of the respect they commanded in days gone by, when eunuchs were employed in their thousands to guard the harems of India's Mughal emperors. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, more than 100,000 eunuchs worked in the royal quarters. Last month, in the Mumbai suburb of Vikhroli, about 5,000 hijras from all over India met for a special ceremony to honour their ancestors. They used the occasion to demand job quotas as compensation for centuries of ridicule and contempt. India already reserves a percentage of government jobs and school places for the lowest Hindu castes and hijras say it is high time some government jobs were set aside for them. 'If the lowest castes get job quotas, then we are even more deserving because we are totally beyond the pale of society. No one ever gives a hijra a job,' says Asha Singh, now 50, who left her middle-class home in Benares when, as a nine-year-old boy, she realised she was a 'girl'. Looking out for one another enables hijras to survive the isolation and social hostility they encounter. Unable to marry, have children or mix in society, their only friends and confidantes are other hijras. All hijras belong to a small group consisting of a guru and chelas (disciples). Each group is accountable to a bigger group and each bigger group to a still-larger one, and so on. Each group has its own assigned territory in which to solicit 'donations' from weddings and births. Turf battles are rare. Hijras are also beginning, in small ways, to break out of their hermetic isolation. In Chennai, Srinivas Nikkila, a beautician, is training hijras to work in beauty parlours. A few years ago, the organisers of a fashion show in Mumbai invited hijras to be models for an evening and strut down the catwalk in front of a high-society audience. Even their demand for job quotas is being entertained. The northern state of Haryana last month announced that an unspecified number of jobs would be set aside for hijras. 'This is one section of our society that has always felt marginalised and rejected. They feel they cannot earn like others. That is why we must do something for them,' said the state's chief minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda. Hijras are also being elected as municipal councilors. Three towns in Madhya Pradesh, in central India, have elected hijras as councillors over the past few years. 'People vote for us because we are not corrupt. We have no children to educate and no daughters to marry off with big dowries so we don't need to be greedy,' says Shobha Nehru, a municipal councillor in the district of Hissar, in Haryana, who has been elected three times in a row. Unlike many hijras, Nehru believes it is through politics, rather than job quotas, that they will earn social acceptance. 'When people see me getting the drains fixed and arranging water and electricity, they stop treating me like an outcast. Having a role in public life wins me respect. I get on the stage during social functions and I'm garlanded,' she says in a masculine voice that seems incongruous with her white salwar kameez. Nehru was taken from her upper-class home in Bangalore by hijras when she was a teenager. Once hijras become aware of one of their own or a child born with a genital deformity, they will not allow him to remain with his family. The hijras heard about Nehru soon after her birth. 'But my mother refused to part with me. She said I was her baby and I would stay with her, whatever I was,' says Nehru. But the eunuchs insisted on taking the baby and kept visiting the house. Nehru's mother told the hijras they could have her child if they insisted - but only after her death. She died when Nehru was 14. Hijras took Nehru to Mumbai. Many years later, she moved to Hissar, where she lived like any other hijra - dancing at weddings and asking for money at births. As she got involved in local matters, lobbying the authorities to clear rubbish heaps and set up water supplies, her neighbours recognised her organisational abilities. They asked her to stand in municipal elections in 1995. She won, won again a few years later and won for a third time in April last year. Nehru plans to go even further and contest elections to the Haryana legislative assembly - the regional parliament. 'I want to be [a member of parliament] one day. I don't see why not. I'm educated, I speak 13 Indian languages and I've shown my abilities are just as good as anyone else's.' In Hissar, as elsewhere, hijras are being regarded by some as an antidote to India's political corruption and nepotism. 'Why would we pocket the public's money when our needs are so limited?' asks Asha Singh, who also stood in municipal elections in 2002, but lost by just 50 votes. Yet for all their achievements, Singh and Nehru are exceptions. The life of most hijras is full of hardship. But at the Vikhroli meeting, they momentarily forget their problems. Dressed in their best clothes, they relax. Some burst spontaneously into song or dance, with much pelvic thrusting. Others sleep off a heavy lunch. Amid bawdy laughter, hijras greet one another in their silks and chiffons, anklets and glass bangles tinkling. The prettier ones are self-conscious about their looks. There is enough gold jewellery in the marquee to satisfy King Midas and enough lipstick, kohl and mascara to stock a battery of cosmetics counters. Many younger hijras are ravishing - with their refined features, they could easily pass for female models - while their elders like to think of themselves as voluptuous. The moment she sees a camera pointed at her, Soman reclines coquettishly on the floor and shakes loose her long hair so it cascades onto her shoulders. Some attendees, however, look like pantomime dames: thick stubble; broad shoulders and hairy, muscular backs burst out of flimsy sari blouses; chests are filled out with padded bras. Old, young, pretty or hirsute, one thing that all hijras have in common is their loss of biological family. 'When you realise you are a hijra, you leave that world forever. Other hijras become your parents and family,' says Gopi Amma, guru to Mumbai's eunuchs, as she gestures towards those surrounding her. 'Everyone here is my parent and my child.' The respect that a guru like Amma commands is evident. When she speaks, her instructions are carried out. When she gets cross because tea is not being served on time, she sounds like a colonel, her voice hard and deep. Interviews and photographs are only allowed with her say so. While chelas are expected to turn their earnings over to the guru, who manages the funds for the household, gurus are expected to meet the chelas' needs for food, clothing and pocket money. Few hijras admit to coming from poor backgrounds, perhaps out of vanity, and most of those at the Vikhroli meeting claim to be the children of industrialists, doctors and school principals. Amma says her father owned a sugar mill in Tamil Nadu. The one thing hijras crave from other Indians is respect. Oddly enough, they understand their parents' inability to accept them - who, after all, wants their son to end up castrated and dressed like a woman? It is society's loathing that hurts. 'I want people to treat us like human beings, not snigger when they see us,' says Singh. 'I want to do normal things - go for a walk in the park or sit in a cafe and have a coffee without being stared at or pitied. That would make me happy.'