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.
Few mixtures in American life are more emotionally combustible than the one formed by the combination of politics and race.
That helps explain why Democrats, in general, and President Obama, in particular, have tended to steer clear of overtly raising race as an issue to explain some of the opposition to Obama's presidency and agenda.
There seems to be a shift in recent days, however.
Top Democratic party officials have either directly or indirectly blamed race for some of the hostility to Obama, his policies, or both.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader from California, and New York Rep. Steve Israel, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, both cited racism, pure and simple, among some Republicans as explanations for the House GOP's resistance to legislation that would comprehensively overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder took a slightly subtler approach. Speaking to the National Action Network, the largely African-American civil rights group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, Holder suggested some Republicans had a racial animus toward the president and himself.
"The last five years have been defined by significant strides and by lasting reforms even in the face, even in the face of unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive adversity," Holder said.
"If you don't believe that, you look at the way — forget about me, forget about me — you look at the way the attorney general of the United States was treated yesterday by a House committee. It had nothing to do with me, forget about that. What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?"
All of this has led to accusations that Holder, Pelosi and Israel are themselves guilty of playing the race card.
The attorney general later pointedly stated that he never explicitly said race explained the political right's treatment of him or the president. Instead, he said his complaint was about Washington's growing incivility.
What Holder demonstrated is that just as those on the right can use dog whistle politics to motivate their base, those on the left can also send messages that are heard a certain way by theirs.
It's a safe bet, for instance, that many African-Americans who heard or read Holder's words didn't doubt he was talking about race. And he did it without ever uttering the R-word like Pelosi and Israel.
Is this partly about activating minority voters during a midterm election year in which Democrats stand a good chance of losing the Senate if their voters don't go to the polls in numbers? Could be.
When Obama has been on the ballot, minority voters, especially African-Americans, didn't need much more motivation than that to vote. But a midterm election when he's not on the ballot is different.
Social scientists who have studied voters have found that voter participation rises when voters are emotionally engaged.
For some voters, suggestions that some of the opposition to Obama and his policies is more than just honest disagreement — and is indeed racially based — could help do the trick.
The Democrats' use of voting rights strikes the same chord. Voting rights and race have been so inextricably linked in the nation's history, and in the African-American experience, that Obama can send a resonant message to many minority voters without ever explicitly mentioning race.
He did exactly that when he spoke to the same Sharpton group as Holder, a few days after the attorney general.
Obama portrayed Republican voter ID efforts as attempts to undo civil and voting rights protections enacted during the Johnson administration — protections won at the price of blood.
That those Johnson-era laws were needed to counter racist laws and practices that prevented blacks from voting, especially in the South, could go unsaid before an audience well-steeped in that racial history.
"You think about Brown v. Board of Education, and the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act, and Freedom Summer," Obama said. "And with those anniversaries, we have new reason to remember those who made it possible for us to be here." He mentioned three civil rights workers who became famous after they were killed registering Mississippi blacks to vote.
"James Chaney and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner believed so strongly that change was possible they were willing to lay down their lives for it," Obama said. "The least you can do is take them up on the gift that they have given you. Go out there and vote. You can make a change. You do have the power."
"People died so you can vote" is a powerful emotional appeal. Come November, we'll see if it was powerful enough.
Everyone has a favorite Gabriel Garcia Marquez book, and mine is Love in the Time of Cholera. It's the story of a romance that lasts decades, unwinding through the pages of the book. It's verbose, vibrant and full of love.
But that libro isn't my favorite section of the Garcia Marquez canon. My favorite is actually something he didn't even write: It's an interview he did for the winter 1981 issue of The Paris Review, as thrilling a work of literature as Gabo ever penned — and wholly his.
Garcia Marquez was at a perfect time to sit down and reflect. He was a year away from becoming a Nobel laureate, old enough to look back but vigorously pushing off any talk of being an elder statesman. In the Paris Review piece, we see the author at his finest: witty, profound, demanding, transparent, simultaneously of the pueblo and the world. Garcia Marquez talked about his life, his books and how journalism influenced him. On the latter point, he joked, "I've always been convinced that my true profession is that of a journalist. What I didn't like about journalism before were the working conditions." Preach, hermano.
He bashes critics, praises Hemingway and Faulkner and admits to loving gossip mags. This is not the imperious giant of legend, but a blood-and-flesh hombre who'll answer to no one's tastes but his own. Asked to conclude with what his next project would be, he said, "I'm absolutely convinced that I'm going to write the greatest book of my life, but I don't know which one it will be or when. When I feel something like this — which I have been feeling now for a while — I stay very quiet, so that if it passes by I can capture it."
Fans of Garcia Marquez should read this masterpiece. And if you've never bothered with him? You're in for a treat: It's a love letter to literature, and the perfect gateway to the magic that is the prose of el maestro, Gabo.
Gustavo Arellano is the editor of O.C. Weekly and the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
As soon as you drive into town, it's pretty clear that Long Beach, Wash., is all about the razor clam. The first clue is the giant frying pan. It's 14 feet tall and a relic of the clam festivals of the 1940s. And then there's the clam statue that spits when you insert a quarter.
But if you really want to see how much people here love their clams, you'd have to be like Karen Harrell and get up before dawn and drive out onto the blustery beach to go clam digging.
Harrell is one of hundreds of people already out on the beach, just ahead of the low tide, tramping around in rubber boots. Her husband, Ron, points out the telltale dimples in the wet sand.
"See that one? See how it went down?" he says. "See him squirt and go down?"
Ron goes after it with a clam gun, which, if you've ever been clam digging, you know isn't so much a gun as it is a tube with a handle.
"You push it on down over the clam," Ron says. "And then you put your finger on the hole on the top, and it creates a suction. And as you pull, it just sucks all the sand up."
And chances are, that tube of sand will contain a clam as big as your hand.
Plastic guns cost $15, or you could pay more than $100 for the fancy ones. On this beach, you'll sometimes see an heirloom.
The one Andi Day uses has been in her family for more than 40 years. Day, who works for the local visitor's bureau, says her grandfather made it for her grandmother around 1974.
The gun is welded stainless steel, but the handles are wooden — that's a special touch. "The hands don't get cold," she says. "It keeps your hands warm."
Once you've got a good clam gun, even the kids can catch dinner. Heck, they can catch several dinners.
Fifteen clams is the daily limit, and around here, that's a magic number. When friends bump into each other on the sand, the first thing they ask is, "Did you get your limit?"
Inveterate clam digger Jim Neva admits it's kind of a race. "It's a guy thing. You want to be the first to get your limit, you want to get the biggest ones," he says. "You want to be down there washing your limit off when somebody else has got only one or two in their sack."
Clam digging also satisfies that primeval urge to go out into nature and find free food.
"To me, when I open the freezer door, and I see all those stacks of clams, it's like going to your safe deposit box and looking at your collection of gold bullion," Neva says with a laugh.
He says he gives most of his frozen clams to family because "the freezer is where food goes to die."
Like Neva, most people freeze their clams for later. Others smoke them and "can" them in jars.
Clamming is what separates old-time Washingtonians from the newbies, especially on the Pacific Coast. On the Long Beach Peninsula, locals talk about digging clams as being "in the blood," and they reminisce about long lazy evenings of bonfires and family fun on the beach.
But clambakes are not so common, at least not in the spring. In the Northwest, the Pacific tends to spit at you a lot more than any angry clam. So the clams are cooked indoors.
And as for cooking them, there isn't a single recipe that's typical of Long Beach. Every family has its own preference. The Razor Clam Festival traditionally focuses on clam fritters, but that may be because giant fritters lend themselves to giant frying pans.
There's also talk of rolling them in Ritz Cracker crumbs and frying them. But purists just sauté the fresh clams in olive oil with a pinch of salt and pepper (and, for the citified types who've spent too much time in Seattle, garlic and cayenne). If the heat is high and you cook them quickly, they're as tender as the best calamari.
But this all went away for a while. Too much digging caused the clam population to collapse a few decades back. That's one reason they stopped needing that giant frying pan.
Tighter regulation has allowed the clams to rebound — a lot. The town even brought back the annual Razor Clam Festival — and another giant frying pan. The festival is this weekend, and organizers have drafted Neva to teach digging basics to an army of visiting newbies.
First lesson: Do not turn your back on the ocean. There's nothing more embarrassing than having a clam in your hand — and letting it get away.
Mohammed Ali Isaac's hands shook as he showed his Kenyan ID to the police officers. They let him pass, but his cousins weren't so lucky. The two women had forgotten their IDs at home, and the police were threatening to load them into one of three large trucks they'd brought for the purpose.
Today's raid, with dozens of armed police officers in the middle of the day in the predominantly Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh in Nairobi, was timed for just after people streamed out of Friday prayers. It was the latest — and perhaps boldest — roundup in a series of police sweeps that have caught up thousands of undocumented refugees, immigrants and Kenyan citizens of Somali descent in recent weeks.
"I'm nervous," Mohammad Ali Isaac admitted. He was waiting with his cousins while they sent another relative back home to pick up the forgotten IDs. If his cousins were arrested, he said, it would be difficult to get them out without a bribe. And bribes, he added, were higher on Friday, when the police could threaten them with a whole weekend in the cell.
At age 20, Isaac is already a veteran of the struggle of growing up Somali in Kenya. The community has always felt like outsiders, despite the fact that Kenya is home to hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees, and to many more ethnic Somalis who were born here.
"In Eastleigh, we're used to police operations and police crackdown," said Ahmed Mohamed, secretary general of the Eastleigh Business District Association with 20,000 members. "But this is unprecedented. We've never seen such security forces during the daylight and during the Friday prayers."
Wearing his customary blue blazer, Mohamed said he was trying to negotiate with the police commander to stop the arrests, while aiming to quell an increasingly restive crowd.
Thirty-two people were arrested in the sweep, including the mother of a 4-month-old child who was hastily tossed into the arms of a relative. When that relative presented the baby to the crowd, there was an angry roar. A woman named Fatumah Hassan shouted that she was born in Kenya, but that if this harassment continued, she would "give up her Kenyan ID" and fight back. The crowd cheered in support.
"The fear," added Mohamed, the business leader, is that Kenya "will exacerbate the very thing they're fighting, which is radicalization."
The police commanders says Friday's sweep is a normal operation. The Kenyan police enforcement campaign began last week in response to two terror attacks: a deadly bombing here in Eastleigh, and a church shooting in the coastal city of Mombasa that killed six people. Neither of those attacks has been directly linked to Somalis.
However, the attack on Westgate Mall in September that killed at least 67 people was claimed by militants al-Shabab, and some of those attackers used refugee cards to enter the country from Somalia. Since then, some Kenyan politicians have dusted off an old xenophobic pledge to drive all Somali refugees back to Somalia, though the Kenyan High Court recently declared that a violation of both Kenyan and international law.
Twenty-four-year-old Sadia, who asked that her last name not be used for safety reasons, said she was two months pregnant when police officers forced their way into her apartment last week. She showed them her refugee card from the United Nations, she said, that gives her protected status and the right to live in Kenya. She said the officers told her, "That's no good," and arrested her along with her three children, age 4, 3 and 1.
She had a miscarriage in prison two days later that she blames on rough handling by the police and sleeping on a cold cell floor comforting her toddler. When the bleeding wouldn't stop, two officials from the United Nations finally came to escort her to the hospital. But only long enough for a checkup — then back to her cell to spend a third night.