It’s a long-standing tradition in small town and rural cow belt India. Few weddings or celebrations are considered complete without night-long song-and-dance events. But it’s a practice that hides a world of pain, shame and sexual violence. Yet its popularity continues to grow as more and more families flaunt it as a sign of affluence and virile decadence.

“Sometimes it was good—when the men were not very violent. But most often, the drivers would be drunk and abusive, hurting us,” Santosh says about his early days on the road.

In the wee hours, after everyone had gone to bed, they would dress up in the saris and skirts they had stolen from home, imagining themselves to be actresses romancing handsome heroes. Born as boys, but different from them, they had no one to turn to and nowhere to go.

As a young boy, Santosh had run away from home with two older boys who were having similar problems with their families—abuse and violence because they behaved like girls, preferring feminine dances and games to more masculine pastimes. They worked in a roadside dhaba, washing dishes and doing odd jobs in return for food and shelter. They also provided sexual services to drivers who stopped by.

At six, Santosh’s favourite clothes had come from his mother’s and sister’s wardrobes. He loved draping his mother’s chunni, wearing his sister’s skirts and bangles, playing with her toys and dancing to Bollywood songs. His grandmother often teased him, calling him Santoshi. “Your mother prayed to Ma Santoshi and observed fasts for a son—but the Goddess has given us another daughter instead of a son.”

At the age of six, it seemed okay. Family and friends even thought it cute; no function was celebrated without Santosh’s impromptu dances.

But no one thought it cute when at 10, Santosh continued to wear his sister’s clothes and jewellery and danced to songs made famous by Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit. “Santoshi” became a taunt used by neighbours and schoolmates alike. By this time, he’d adopted the gait and gestures of the actresses, swinging his hips as he walked. Santosh was mocked and bullied in school and in the neighbourhood. Once, a group of boys even stripped him to see if he was a boy or girl, tugging at his flaccid penis, pinching and pummelling his breasts to see if they would miraculously balloon.

Although he was in pain and nearly died of shame that day, Santosh was secretly happy at being seen as a girl. When his parents yelled at him, he wondered why they were angry. He did feel like a girl. At the school annual day functions and colony festivities, he continued to dress in feminine attire and dance, inviting whistles and catcalls that continued weeks after the event.

When Santosh was in class five, a neighbour dragged him into his house and sexually assaulted him, using a candle dipped in oil for lubrication, smothering the screams of pain with a resounding slap and threats of more violence. Santosh was badly hurt, in body and mind. For a week he couldn’t walk straight and bled from a ruptured rectum.

Once, his father caught him being pawed in the marketplace. The boy ran home in shame. That evening, his father caned him, blaming his feminine ways for the incident. “You walk like a slut, how do you expect not to be treated like one?”

Santosh spent that night on a bench in a nearby park where he was repeatedly assaulted by two drunk cab drivers. As he sat weeping, he was approached by two older boys, who were going through the same situation at home. They decided to leave and that’s when their new life began: at a highway dhaba. Though they got plenty of sex—they even liked it at times—it was still illegal, as they were minors.

One night, a bandmaster who had seen them dancing approached them. Would they join his band as professional dancers for ₹400 a night? For the next few months, they would travel with the band and be paid every night they danced.

It seemed like the opportunity they had been waiting for. Although they had male names, they considered themselves female and had secretly renamed themselves Sonal, Deepa and Sumi years ago. They looked forward to using the names openly.

Deepak (Deepa) is the oldest, and recalls the excitement of their first trip. “We were lured with glamorous stories, shown pictures of laundas (or maybe females, we couldn’t make out then) in gorgeous lehngas and sexy dresses. Kicked out for embarrassing the family and community by dressing, walking, and dancing like girls, youngsters like me had no option other than begging or prostitution. So the band’s offer of a steady contract for at least six months was irresistible. We thought they would pay us handsomely and, most of all, allow us to dress and behave as women openly.”

So they went to Uttar Pradesh (UP), near Ballia. Deepak—much younger then—was anticipating the thrill of coming out, as it were. “My first show was at a wedding near Gonda in UP. As soon as we reached the hall booked by the groom’s family, we were shown to a shed at the back. No loos, we used the fields. After lunch we had to dress up and dance outside the groom’s house on the street and then continue dancing with the baraat to the girl’s house.”

That was the plan, but not exactly what happened. Deepak’s face clouds over at the recollection.

“Initially the band would play lively music. But as the evening progressed, the men would get drunk and disorderly, demanding raunchier music and cruder dances. The guests would start pawing and molesting us. Once the women and children retired, the men would shed all inhibitions.

“They would drag us into any available room or shed, molest and rape us. Physically we’re men so people say we can’t be raped, but what we go through is gang rape and worse. Men took turns sodomising us, forcing us to give and receive oral sex.

“At one wedding, I was carried by a group of men into the field where I was assaulted all night. I lost count after the thirteenth assault because I had passed out. I woke up when the sun was already up—there were still three men and one was sodomising me. They had continued even when I was unconscious.

“They’d shoved liquor bottles up my anus, bitten me all over, stubbed cigarettes on my body, apart from punching, pinching and pummelling me. Somehow I picked myself up and ran to my shed. The other laundas there had been looking for me. Three of them had also been assaulted, but not as badly as me.”

That was the new life, and worse. Deepak bares a shoulder to show me a scar; it’s an old bullet wound. “It’s common for guests to carry firearms to weddings and fire them during the ceremonies,” he says. “They would threaten to shoot us if we didn’t oblige.” The scar is a grim reminder that saying no is dangerous in these parts.

Deepak fled his pursuers into an arhar dal field but he couldn’t dodge the bullet. He remembers the pain and how he swallowed the scream that nearly followed. He crawled into a granary, hiding behind a pile of sacks. Luckily, the injury was not serious and he was back with the band by morning. They patched him up and pushed him back on the treadmill.

“When I told the bandmaster, he took me to a local quack. He stitched me up and gave me some injections. But I still had to dance that evening. Because of the dressing and the ‘surgery’, I escaped assault that night, but was forced to give oral sex to at least a dozen men.”

Couldn’t they have refused?

“Could we? Many of us were still kids—13, 14, 16 years old. We had run away from home to escape violence because we dressed and behaved differently. We had disgraced our families, we were failures at school, and we’d already been chased like bitches in heat, not just by boys but men old enough to be our grandfathers. They too should be ostracised if we are deviants. But they had managed to hide their real nature and no one would believe that they were torturing me and my friends.”

What about the police, why didn’t they go there?

“In UP?” he asks. “Ma’am, we were a bunch of weirdoes in an alien land. The bandmaster told us that in the small town, most policemen would be guests at the wedding. They weren’t going to miss the booze and feast and the gifts they would get. Besides, the laundas were part of the treat. Why would they even think of entertaining our complaint? For all we know, some of our tormenters were policemen. This is how it is in the hinterlands of UP and Bihar.”

Not surprising in a state where former chief minister Mulayam Singh indulgently said “boys will be boys” while referring to rapists.

Hiring laundas is an old practice in boondocks Bihar and UP, where peasants who could not afford the rich courtesans patronised by the landlords would hire effeminate boys—usually between the ages of 15 and 25—to perform at weddings and festivals. Women were not allowed to dance on the streets. The rich hired female dancers to perform indoors and looked after them.

Poorer families settled for transgender boys at a fraction of the cost. In any case, women dancers in festive finery were probably not strong enough to accompany the baraat, dancing several kilometres to the bride’s place from the groom’s village. Hence, boys in female attire danced along the route and later at the wedding hall. They provided much of the entertainment and merrymaking through raunchy dances to risqué Hindi and Bhojpuri songs belted out by the band.

Over time, the launda naach became so popular that it is now an integral part of family celebrations in UP and Bihar, as well as during Holi, Dussehra, Chhat Puja, even at parties hosted by local politicians and businessmen. In fact, launda dancers are replacing female dancers even in middle and upper middle class families.

There are several reasons: it is easier to transport and house a bunch of males than females. Then, boys are more willing to go to extremes of vulgarity. They are also, oddly enough, a greater object of lust, curiosity and entertainment than women. In the feudal communities of UP and Bihar, they satisfy a much wider variety of sexual desires than women would.

What this says about the men is better left to the imagination, but one major reason why the boys are so much in demand is that there’s no one to speak up for them if they’re exploited. They have invariably been thrown out of home. Women are not always estranged from family. Indeed, they are often sent out by the family.

As dropouts and runaways, the boys have limited options: begging or sex work. The chance to be a launda is highly tempting, not just because of the promise of steady money (usually breached), but also because they can openly dress and behave like women.

According to Shivraj Yadav, a bandmaster who has launched many laundas, Bihar and UP see performances by at least 5,000 laundas every year at events that include weddings, birthdays, and parties hosted by businessmen and policemen. These events can feature anywhere between three and 15 laundas.

Agniva Lahiri is the founder and executive director of People Like Us, Kolkata (PLUS Kolkata), a non-governmental organisation to address the problems of transgenders. He estimates that the peak wedding and festive season draws about 5,000 laundas. More than half are from West Bengal, particularly Kolkata, Howrah, North and South 24 Parganas, Darjeeling and Midnapur. A few come from Bihar, UP, Maharashtra and Nepal. They perform mostly in villages around Maharajganj, Mau, Deoria, Gorakhpur, Varanasi, Ghazipur, Azamgarh, Ballia and Kushinagar districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh, and Gopalganj, Buxar, Siwan, Bhojpur, Samastipur, Vaishali, Patna, Muzaffarpur and Chapra districts of Bihar.

Earlier, these laundas doubled up doing other chores at the wedding, but now they just dance and sell their bodies. They’re usually brought into the troupe by peers who act as pimps, elderly laundas, and wedding band members. They migrate from place to place for a consolidated amount for six to eight months, traveling with the band, performing at different places.

The schedule for a season is fixed by the bandmasters with the help of agents, who also play a key role in enlisting young dancers. The deal is Rs.500 to Rs.3,000 every performing day, depending on experience, looks, age, and so on, or a consolidated sum of Rs.30,000 to Rs.1 lakh for six to eight months. At the end of the season the boys are paid—usually only half or less of the promised sum—after deducting board, lodging, medical expenses, and travel. These deductions are not mentioned at recruitment: the impression given is that the boys will be paid the money in one lump sum at the end, while the band would take care of expenses.

Much of the medical expense is because of assaults—sexual and otherwise—by the hosts and their guests. Medical attention is limited to hasty surgeries to fix a ruptured anus, razor slashes, cigarette burns, and other outcomes of violent encounters with inebriated and disorderly guests who visit their latent sexual sadism upon the laundas.

Rape is considered a demonstration of sexual prowess and masculinity. Little is done to ensure privacy and the pain inflicted is often deliberate. It is not uncommon to have a dozen drunken men between the ages of 18 and 60 dragging a couple of laundas to a shed or to the fields and raping them in an act of violent competition.

Madhu, a 35-year-old now cruising for clients near Sealdah station, recalls that as a 19-year-old launda in Chapra, he was grabbed by a husky 55-year-old, thrown face down, kicked in the buttocks, and told, “Your entry is too small for my manhood.” The man pulled out a knife, slashed the anus open and raped him, growling like a dog while punching and biting all over.

“Once he was done he turned me around, sat on me, dripping my blood all over, and jeered, laughing, ‘See I’ve prepared you for a fun-filled life, I’ve saved you doctor’s fees to enlarge your doorway’. Then he shoved his huge penis in my mouth and said ‘this is lesson two’.

“All the other men stood around laughing. Once he was done he wiped himself on my pretty pink lehnga already stained with my blood and mud, and walked out like a victorious warrior. The others then pounced on me.”

When Madhu complained to the “masterji”, he pleaded helplessness. “You must learn to take care of yourself. How will you continue dancing if you allow yourself to be injured like this?” he asked.

But he couldn’t say how a frail boy like Madhu could avoid the combined assault by a dozen or more well-built, aroused and depraved men.

After that incident, Madhu was taken to a local quack by the bandmaster’s agent. He stitched and dressed the wounds. Madhu came down with a fever that lasted five days, but he still had to dance for two more days and then travel to the next town.

“The worst part,” says Madhu, “was that ‘masterji’ deducted the medical expenses from my account although none of this was my fault, and he had already collected extra money for these expenses from the host. He also deducted my dance payment for the rest of the days at that place, saying my performance had not been entertaining enough. He didn’t consider the fact that despite surgery, intense pain and injuries and high fever, I dressed seductively and danced for hours together.”

Given such devious, hard-hearted agents, most laundas get less than half of what they’re promised. “The first year, I received less than ₹3,000 for six months of work, although I was promised ₹25,000. Now six years later, I drive harder bargains and end the season with ₹40,000 to ₹60,000,” says Prodip who calls himself Pinki now.

“There’s also the money from sex work at the wedding house and between assignments,” he adds. That apart, Pinki got himself castrated and joined a hijra group off-season. “On the worst of days, we can fall back on begging or sex work. There is always a way to make money if one is willing to use the body.”

As Prodip preens in front of the mirror, trying out his new wig and padded cholis, he says, “The same family—my mother, father and siblings—that called me good-for-nothing, stinking vermin, destined to rot in the gutter, that threw me out saying I was as good as dead and they never wanted to set eyes on me, with whom they were ashamed to share the world—don’t mind taking money from my dirty hands. No matter how disgusting I am and how repulsive my life, my money is not too tarnished for them. I now understand that money is the most important part of any relationship. Not love, not values. If you have money, you are safe and respected,” he says, packing for his next season.

Many groups hit the trail right after Diwali and return only in August, spending the intervening months as sex workers or performing odd jobs (including but not confined to sex) for rich landlords. They’re in great demand for sex and sometimes get themselves attached to a single family or landlord. 

Live-in laundas often end up as unpaid slaves, doing menial household chores, including looking after their man’s children. He not only becomes his owner’s sex slave but also has to entertain his friends. But after some years of providing constant physical gratification, when they lose their looks or fall prey to sexually transmitted diseases, they are cast away. After the season they either travel to other places for sex work or work with hijra teams, some undergoing castration for this.

In August, after a long season in UP and Bihar, Deepak returned to Kolkata, sharing a tiny room with another launda. He cut his long hair, grew a moustache, and tried to look like a man to visit his mother for five minutes while he handed over some of his earnings—which was not as untouchable as him and far more welcome. That was his routine until she was alive.

After she died, he moved back home to look after his sister. With fewer launda offers coming his way on account of age, he depends on prostitution as the primary source of income. He also freelances as an agent for a couple of bandmasters, looking for boys to lure into the abyss he has returned from, teaching them the nuances of dance and painting glamorous images of a dancing boy’s life. There’s no mention of the trauma that is a part of the launda’s burden.

It was at a bus stand near his house that he found Kaushik who was growing curves instead of facial hair.

At 13, Kaushik was different from the other boys around him. For one, he was brilliant at studies, excelling in subjects like mathematics and science. He loved reading and devoured books with a rare hunger. But what really set him apart was that—unlike his friends who spent most of their free time playing football or cricket—he dressed up in his sister’s clothes and jewellery and danced to Bollywood numbers of Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit, a passion ever since he could remember.

As he entered his teens, his family seemed more and more disgusted with his effeminate ways, and so he only did this when no one was at home. He tried to copy the gait and gestures of Hema Malini and Vyjayanthimala, the stylish swing of Helen or Zeenat Aman, so much so that he himself now walked with delicate steps.

At an age when boys monitored their entry to “manhood” comparing the first shadows of their moustaches, he was an object of raunchy comments and even pawing by seniors curious to find out whether he had breasts, a penis or both.

They openly called him hijra and gandu, expressions that left him in tears. Life at home was no better with his parents thrashing him and threatening to kick him out. More than once, he found men rubbing themselves against him in a crowded bus, and found his clothes wet with a stranger’s semen. But he enjoyed these encounters, although he was embarrassed.

“I didn’t quite understand my sexual awakening, but I realised that a man’s touch excited me immensely. While most of my classmates discussed women’s body parts, I fantasised about my bus encounters and longed to be hugged by men.”

At school and community festivals, there was always a dance number by Kaushik in female attire. The audience seemed to enjoy his dances, but he was jeered by family, relatives, schoolmates, neighbours and even teachers. The headmaster warned him that “this is a boys’ school, here the students grow from boys to men. But you seem to be turning into a woman. If you don’t mend your ways, you will have leave school.”

His family was upset too. Kaushik wanted to become a dancer “like Vyjayanthimala and Helen,” he said. Shocked by his desire, his mother suggested, “You’re good at studies; you can easily be a doctor or IAS officer and make the family proud. If you must learn dance, why don’t you try male stuff like bhangra or salsa?”

His insistence that he bore the soul of a female dancer only invited the belt from his father.

After one performance, Kaushik was approached by Deepak to dance at a Chhat celebration—a religious festival to pay obeisance to the Sun god a few days after Diwali. He would be paid Rs.500 and given food and prasad. Initially Kaushik was hesitant: his family would kill him. But Deepak painted such a beautiful image of a dancing boy’s life—glamorous clothes, public performances, unlimited male attention—that the boy was sold. He was ecstatic; he saw this as the beginning of his dream career in dance.

Soon after, he joined a group of laundas going to Bihar for a wedding. Since then he has danced at over a hundred family celebrations in UP and Bihar.

The lives of most launda dancers are alike—gender identity confusion in the early teens; strong and often violent opposition from family, school and community to their female attire and mannerisms; dropping out of school and leaving home; struggling for a livelihood through begging or sex work till they are approached by a bandmaster or agent (usually an ex-launda) to join a troupe; seasonal travels to UP and Bihar where they dance to earn money and are exploited in multiple ways, including sexual.

But the launda phase does not last forever, losing out to age, HIV, violence or death. After a decade or so in the business, they are forced out to seek other livelihoods.

Most migrate to the only other trade they can ply—sex. Some manage to lure other boys into the launda business or prostitution for a commission. Some like Saikit, a rarity, make a clean getaway.

Saikat used ₹25,000 which he had saved to open a small paan and beedi shop. Maybe not so complete a getaway—many of his customers for paanbeedis and condoms are transgenders back from a launda spell. Occasionally, he will persuade a young, tortured “female soul” in male body to join a band and step unsuspecting into the hell he has seen. Some, like Sonam, a former launda, teach the young recruits seductive moves.

Saikat is approached by laundas and agents alike. While agents are always looking for dancers—fresh and experienced—laundas too constantly jump from one band to another. “We often leave an old masterji and join a new group that offers more money. Sometimes we get cheated and find we haven’t really got a better deal. So if you have a good masterji who looks after you well and does not swallow most of your earnings, it is better to stick with him than follow false promises of higher money.”

The same agents provide a post-retirement source of revenue when they lure new boys into the trade.

Disillusionment with dreams of glamour and success sets in early, often as early as the first day of performance. Almost bonded to labour for the bandmasters, with no money till end of season, and certainly no hope of help from family or friends back home, they learn to adapt and survive sexual assault, violence of all kinds, humiliation.

Saikat says, “The only time we come alive is when we are dressed in women’s sexy clothes and dancing. We even enjoy some of the male attention and try to avoid (not always successfully) the more painful ones like slashes with hidden razors and blades on whatever bare skin they see: our backs, thighs, cleavage. Somehow we try to cover up for each other. But still many of us get slashed. The real violence comes after the ceremonies when we are dragged to be raped.

“The bandmaster tells us to take care of ourselves. He dare not intervene for fear of losing his money. In fact, he often ends up demanding extra money from the hosts to treat the laundas who get injured—frequently the local agent will mediate and settle the dispute for fear of losing the launda team. But none of this extra money goes to them. On the other hand, the ‘masterji’ will deduct medical expenses, and ‘trouble settlement money’ from the launda’s dues.”

In spite of this, when an injured launda has to see a doctor, he has to do it like a thief.

“Suhana” and three of her launda friends are at a clinic. It is almost midnight and the doctor is yet to arrive. He specifically told them to come only after 11.30 p.m. The compounder lets them in, giving them dirty looks and abusing them. Sonam bristles with anger, but controls herself. They need to see the doctor and can’t afford to antagonise the compounder either.

At 10 past midnight, the doctor comes and asks them to deposit `800 each before he even examines them. They troop in together. The compounder goes in and in 20 minutes, it’s all over. They limp out. Torn rectums are crudely sewn up and bandaged, sans anaesthesia. They are given some antiseptic ointments and antibiotics. They all go back to Sonam’s tiny room where they will stay for the next week or so, even though all have homes and families not far from Sonam’s place; he has a rented room of his own that his family in Midnapore thinks comes with his job as a driver.

As they leave, the compounders mutters, “Chootiyagandu.” They leave without responding; they will need to come back after every trip. No other doctor will even agree to see them. So humiliating is the experience that most laundas avoid going to a doctor. They consult one another regarding medication: whether for a simple painkiller, an antibiotic, or hormones for developing breasts and shrinking waists.

Apart from medical issues, there are transition problems. After months of working as laundas when they return, they can’t go straight home looking and dressed like women. The boys cut their hair short, grow stubble, cut their nails, and remove their nail polish. They change into male attire before going home. Unfortunately, most have no place to rest during these days of transition.

Which is why, Agniva Lahiri explains, PLUS has opened a shelter and drop-in centre exclusively for laundas, where they can spend these few days before going home.

Prothoma, in the crowded Narkeldanga area, consists of a small room with an attached kitchen. An attic provides another resting room that can accommodate four beds. According to Lahiri, Prothoma is the country’s sole short-term shelter home for laundas, and has been set up to provide immediate and short-term services for men who have no place to go to in a crisis. Apart from shelter, the home provides healthcare, finance and counselling.

The idea came up during a situational assessment report on launda dancers with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Following the study, PLUS, with financial support from UNDP India, started a pilot drop-in and short-term residential home in Kolkata.

“In the pilot phase, we saw that people started to pour in as there is no place for them in a crisis. Sleeping on the streets makes them targets for harassment, robbery, violence and police persecution. As a community, they are highly visible and are more likely to be abused,” says Lahiri . Prothoma currently has a four-bed residential and emergency care unit, and community staff who can manage the home in 24-hour shifts.

This is where Sonam is to be found when he is not begging or entertaining clients—sex work is the other source of income. He wants the government or an NGO to provide him with a monthly remuneration. Able-bodied and a self-proclaimed good cook, he feels no inclination to try and earn his living. Masoom too is no different—after a few years as a launda, he finds begging and prostitution in Kolkata lucrative during the “off-season”.

Masoom has picked up a smattering of English and is extremely active on
social media–the new cruising location for the tech-savvy sex workers. So he provides phone sex. Also, many clients are reached through Facebook and WhatsApp, saving them the effort of walking the streets. Although Masoom worked briefly at a beauty parlour, he intends to continue as a launda.

“After the first couple of seasons, one learns to handle the animals out there. Sometimes, we even make money out of the violence. We wanted to dress up as women and have sex with men—we’re getting plenty of it,” he says, covering the cigarette burn marks on his wrist.

Sumi has her own take. “We wanted to go from ladka to ladki—but got transformed to laundas instead. More glamorous than ordinary girls, free to dress and do as we want, enjoying the male’s freedom to roam freely, the female’s to dress up and dance, minus the inhibitions and responsibilities of either gender. If only so much violence and exploitation did not accompany this new option,” she says.

In sharp contrast to theirsunny disposition, on the footpath lies Anita, 40 but looking 60, HIV positive, suffering from TB, and waiting to die. “My launda days are over—all I need is a home and a doctor—both of which I left behind when I left home 25 years ago.”

(Annam Suresh is a development journalist based in Kolkata. She has been reporting from red-light and prostitution-impacted areas across India and several other parts of the world for over 15 years. Among her many awards, she has received the Chameli Devi Jain award, The Statesman Rural Reporting award, and The Brief Media award.)