One 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.
Melbourne: Scribe, 2017
(Review copy courtesy Scribe Publications)