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Anosh Irani, The parcel (#BookReview)

October 19, 2017

Anos Irani, The scribeOne of the main reasons I read is to enter worlds unknown to me – physical worlds and more interior or personal ones. Anosh Irani’s novel The parcel meets this criterion perfectly. It is set in the Kamathipura red-light district of Bombay/Mumbai, and its main character is a eunuch, or hijra, named Madhu. Brought up as a boy, but never comfortable with that gender, teased and ostracised for his feminine walk, he joins the hijra world at 14 years of age. When we first meet her, though, she’s forty.

The novel opens with a first-person prologue from Madhu, who describes herself as “neither here nor there … neither man nor woman”. It’s clear that she’s at a crossroads in her life, just as Kamathipura is, with the developers moving in and AIDS wreaking havoc. The novel then moves to third person subjective, but still with Madhu who remains our guide until the first person epilogue. It’s a clever structure: it ensures that we are immediately engaged, but then facilitates a narrative that shifts easily between present and past, as Madhu goes through her days while reconsidering her life.

From the beginning, we see that Madhu is deeply unhappy. She is and always has been “a shivering, jittery soul trapped in the wrong body”. She starts her day smoking a beedi, which she flicks away:

She smiled as the beedi disappeared into a gutter. Even dead cigarettes wanted to get away from her as soon as possible.

As the first chapter progresses, we feel Madhu’s pain. She’s forty, no longer in her prime, relegated from being her brothel’s most sought-after prostitute to a mangti hijara, a beggar peddling blessings. She’s grateful to gurumai, the now-failing hijra brothel madam, for taking her in, but she mourns her family who had never given her the love and acceptance she craved. More and more her thoughts turn to them and to her decision to leave when she was fourteen.

“an act of compassion”

It’s important that Madhu be established for us as a figure of pathos, as a character we care about, because by the end of the first chapter we meet “the parcel”, a young 10-year-old virgin girl from Nepal sold by her aunt into sex-slavery. Madhu’s job is to prepare her for her “opening” by the man who has paid for her. It’s a horrific and shocking start to a novel which explores the murky morality of human beings – and we are now attached to Madhu. What are we to think?

Madhu and the parcel are not the only characters, of course. Irani creates a community of people surrounding them – the prostitutes, the brothel madams, the hijra leaders, and Madhu’s ex-lover and dearest friend Gajja. While there is warmth, trust, and loyalty between many of the characters, overall it is a devastating picture of marginalised people who struggle to survive in a world where survival, no matter how or in what form, is all there is.

This is a character-driven novel. We are acutely aware not only of Madhu’s inner conflict, but of her fundamental decency, and her desire to reduce the pain of those around her. This is why she had taken on parcel work many years previously. She’d seen the cruelty with which they were treated and wanted to prepare them – she has no notion of helping them escape – so that the trauma will be minimised, so they will live, so they will not go mad. For her, it’s “an act of compassion” – but, oh my, what this “compassion” involves is unbearable to read. It’s the ultimate perversion of the I’m-doing-this-for-your-own-good scenario, except we are not talking about a little slap, or a time-out. We are talking cruelty – being caged in a dark place, starved, and emotional deprived, in order to to remove hope and teach submission. This is better, Madhu believes, than the pimps’ method of preparing “the parcels for whoredom by plundering them beyond belief, turning them into vegetables.”

The parcel is, however, also a plot-driven novel. As Madhu divulges more of her past – and increasingly questions her decisions and behaviour as well as those of her parents – we wonder what decision she will make about her future, because a decision is surely coming. We also wonder what will happen to “the parcel”. Will Madhu save her? And we wonder about Kamathipura, as internal politics within the hijra hierarchy, and with and between brothel madams, are revealed. It’s not only Madhu who’s in transition, but the community as a whole.

And, it’s an ideas-driven novel. In a way it could be seen as Irani’s love-letter to the hijras. He says in his acknowledgements at the end that he grew up opposite Kamathipura. It inspires and haunts him he said, and he is grateful for the “transgendered people, sex-workers and residents … who opened up their hearts and minds to him over the years”. For Irani, writing this book, I’d say, is “an act of compassion”, and he weaves through it the history of and legends involving this “reviled and revered” group of people, the hijras.

But, there are other ideas too, including the moral complexities inherent in Indian society (and in fact society in general). Prostitution, Madhu sees, keeps “the privileged and selfish safe” by satisfying men’s needs:

As long as the people outside Kamathipura were not harmed, what happened inside the cages was justified. It prevented rape. But in order to prevent rape, parcels were being torn from their homes and raped every minute.

This double-standard is forced home later in the novel when there’s an uproar over the rape of a bride. Madhu is bothered by

how much coverage this incident was getting: a bride had been violated on that most sacred of nights. But what about ordinary women on ordinary nights?  Or indecent women, perhaps, like sex workers? Or hijras? What happened when less-than-ordinary souls got violated? Why not create a furore then? Why let their pain slide away like rainwater into a gutter?

“Like rainwater into a gutter” is one of the many striking images used by Irani. The writing is direct, accessible, and full of images that startle with their clarity, such as Madhu seeing that, for the parcel, “hope was leaving in the way the sun left the evening”, or observing that, for the aging hijra leaders, “as their bones turned brittle, money and power were the only forms of calcium that worked”.

Madhu is a finely wrought, complete character. With maturity, she comes to question her simplistic understanding of her parents’ and indeed gurumai’s actions. Her life becomes increasingly empty and lonely, and yet still “she believed that sometimes life gave you a lesser version of a dream, and it was up to you to take it.” You could, perhaps, say that this is what she does at the end, an end that’s inevitable and, in its own way, redemptive.

In a recent interview, Australian author Richard Flanagan said that novels ask questions. In The parcel that question concerns compassion. I can’t think of a better question for our times.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has written an excellent review of this book.

Anosh Irani
The parcel
Melbourne: Scribe, 2017
284pp.
ISBN: 9781925322262

(Review copy courtesy Scribe Publications)

16 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2017 3:23 pm

    Thank you, Sue, that’s praise indeed and I value it all the more because I really struggled with writing that review…
    I love the way you’ve characterised it as a novel of character, plot and ideas, and focussed on how it questions what compassion might be. I think it’s a magnificent book.

    • October 19, 2017 4:45 pm

      Thanks Lisa. I really liked the way you looked at the socio-political aspects, he needs my comment. It’s such a rich book.

      BTW it’s funny how some reviews are really hard for to write and others almost write themselves, and it’s rarely related to how good you think the book is or how much you liked it, but whether you can find an angle to hang your thoughts on. At least that’s how it is for me.

      • October 19, 2017 5:11 pm

        That’s true, but with this one it was more a matter of sorting out my thoughts. I was so torn between anger and pity for her…

        • October 19, 2017 5:40 pm

          Yes, that can be an issue too.

          I guess I just felt pity, despite what she was doing. There was no malice in her. She clearly felt trapped and unable to escape, so she was doing the next best thing in her sad mind. I felt pity for the parcel too. The terrible thing is that all this is still happening.

  2. October 19, 2017 4:54 pm

    I think I read to understand the world I’m in, rather than to understand other people’s worlds. Might also explain my (crumbling) aversion to travel.

    • October 19, 2017 5:12 pm

      Ah ha! Itchy feet after your adventures in Europe?

    • October 19, 2017 5:45 pm

      Haha Bill, now I understand the focus on independent Australian women! We’re everywhere!

      Seriously though I love learning about other worlds from surfing in Breath to Koreans in Japan in Pachinko. Glad your aversion to travel is crumbling!

  3. Deepika Ramesh permalink
    October 19, 2017 6:37 pm

    Thank you for this extensive review, Sue. I was looking forward to reading it ever since you left a comment. 🙂

    The book, although just about 280 pages long, seems to explore some of the burning problems in India. I want to read it, Sue. But I must brace myself first to face it all. The stories about Mumbai’s red-light district keep flowing, but the pain of the people there continues to grow sharper, and thanks to books and movies on them, their lament is now heard and critical conversations have begun to take place.

    I will surely read this book once I align my thoughts better. Thank you, Sue.

    • October 19, 2017 8:17 pm

      Thanks Deepika. Yes it is a powerful book and is one Irani thought about and researched for 10 years. But it is confronting. Don’t read it until you feel strong – as you have worked out for yourself 👍

  4. October 20, 2017 6:36 am

    This sounds like a powerful and deeply disturbing and uncomfortable book. I am not certain I can brace myself enough to read the book any time soon, but I will keep it on my list in case that day comes. As always, great review!

    • October 20, 2017 7:12 am

      Thanks Stefanie. Yes, it is disturbing, but a beautiful book too – it takes great skill and sensitivity to write such a book I think, but I appreciate it’s not for everyone.

  5. October 20, 2017 7:45 am

    Reblogged this on World Peace Forum.

  6. ian darling permalink
    October 21, 2017 8:14 pm

    This book sounds very good and I would certainly read it. Fiction and drama – how important they are in humanising all our various “others”. Learning about other worlds is where fiction scores so highly.

    • October 21, 2017 10:31 pm

      Hi Ian, I’d love to hear what you think if you do read it. It’s powerful – if that’s not too cliched. I might forget the details of the plot over times, but I won’t forget the character, or the complex morality of the world she’s in and the decisions she makes.

  7. buriedinprint permalink
    October 24, 2017 8:20 am

    This is such a remarkable story; I hope it finds many readers. There is a redemptive side to the story, too, and that makes the reading of it bearable (besides necessary), I think. His compulsion to tell these difficult stories is amazing to me; I’m so grateful that he is willing to endure this territory creatively, so that stories like these can be experienced by wiling readers in turn. I have a recent short story of his earmarked in a magazine for this week; I’m keen and anxious.

    • October 24, 2017 11:26 am

      Have you read this one Buried? I’ll go look.

      Yes, I totally agree re being grateful that he’s willing to tell these stories. I wish more readers were willing to read them. It might help move more people out of a black-and-white view of the world, because he shows so clearly that life is often just not that simple.

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