Anosh Irani’s The Parcel hooked me from the very first line: “I go by many names, none of my own choosing.”
In Madhu, Irani has created such a beautifully arresting and evocative heroine whose story just draws the reader in and refuses to let go. This is particularly significant since Madhu’s story isn’t an easy one to read, and Madhu herself isn’t an easy person to root for, given what she is tasked to do. See, Madhu’s job is to ready a parcel for delivery, and in this case, ‘parcel’ refers to a ten year old girl from the provinces who was sold by her family into prostitution, and ‘delivery’ means readying the girl for the man who bought her.
I struggled to write this review, because, really, how can I admit feeling empathy for a character who does such a horrible thing? How can I detest what Madhu is doing while still in many ways understanding why she is doing it? It’s a terrible, inescapable tension that permeated my entire experience of reading this book, and it’s made even more difficult by the realization that there are likely people in the real world who live as Irani’s characters do and who face the same situation as Madhu and the parcel and the other characters in this book do. I’m not completely sure how I feel about this book or its characters, but I do believe it’s a testament to Irani’s writing that the book has affected me this much.
Irani plunges us deep into Madhu’s life, and shows us the world of Kamathipura, a red light district in Bombay, India, through her eyes. Madhu is a eunuch and a hijra, one who is neither man nor woman but a third gender. At forty, she is too old to continue as a prostitute, and based on experience, too ill-suited for performing at weddings. She is thus relegated to begging for alms from passengers in taxis, and when her hijra clan’s leader Gurumai orders her to prepare a parcel for a powerful brothel owner, Madhu can’t refuse.
In some ways, Madhu sees her task as merciful. Rather than the usual way of ‘opening’ a ‘parcel’ through force, Madhu takes the time to first remove any last shred of hope or humanity in the girl. Madhu’s reluctance is clear — she distances herself from the girl’s humanity, referring to her as a ‘parcel’ throughout, yet at one point, loses control and lashes out during a particularly disturbing stage of the preparation process. Madhu also clearly forms an empathetic link with the girl, being reminded of the past as she tries to make the girl break all links to her own past.
What’s clear is that Madhu views her work as necessary. She says that hope is dangerous, and the sooner a parcel accepts her fate, the easier it will be. So much of me rebels against this, yet part of me is also aware that, for Madhu and other hijras, and for so many other characters in this book, hope is indeed futile. Among the most heart-wrenching scenes in this book are centred on hope — Madhu standing on a bridge and looking at her childhood home wondering if she can ever return, or an elderly hijra Bulbul listening to the radio and absolutely certain she hears coded messages from a former lover who wants her back.
The full extent of Irani’s talent, however, is not in the bleakness of such themes, but in teasing out the strands of light and humanity in them. I absolutely love the community of hijras in Irani’s Kamathipura, in particular Gurumai and Bulbul, who take Madhu into their family and become the loving and accepting mother and sister she never had. I love how they take in hijra prostitutes who are ‘pojeetive’ or have angered their clan leader and are therefore cast out from the hijra community. Even these loving relationships and close-knit communities aren’t perfect — Gurumai is a maternal figure yet still takes her share of Madhu’s earnings — and it’s this inextricable intertwining of the positives and the negatives that make this world feel ever more real.
The Parcel is not an easy read, but it’s a powerful one. Irani’s world of hijras in Kamathipura will move you, and Madhu’s story will stick with you long after you finish reading.
Anosh Irani’s appearances at Toronto’s 2016 International Festival of Authors:
- Monday October 24 8pm “GGs at IFOA”
- Thursday October 27 8pm “Reading Award Winners”
- Sunday October 30 3:30pm “Stories of Redemption” (Reading/Round Table)
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and to the International Festival of Authors and blog tour organizer Buried in Print for the invitation to participate in this blog tour!