It wasn’t until I finished reading The Parcel (Knopf Canada) and then, having rolled a cigarette to recover from this harrowing yet strangely heroic journey through Bombay’s prostitution district of Kamathipura, that I realized I had reviewed Anosh Irani’s work before. That was back in 2011 when I was still learning the ropes of reviewing and the novel was Dahanu Road. What I wrote about that tragically beautiful love story applies quite well to this novel; “The reader is led along not just the horizontal paths of narrative but also deeply vertical caves of character and cultural belief.”
In narrative substance, the two novels couldn’t be more different. Dahanu Road was as I’ve said a love story, set amidst groves of mango trees, and is a commentary on the divisions and prejudice among Arab, Zoroastrian and Warli peoples in India. The Parcel has no such sweet and fragrant orchards to soften the scene. Rather, you’ll look far and wide to find a grimmer or grimier place anywhere in literature than the Kamathipura. The hijra, or “third sex” transsexual castrati prostitutes live within bunk bed dormitories in squalorous buildings amidst closed cinemas, beaten bulls, ceiling fans tossed onto the garbage heaps as fans are handy things from which to hang oneself, resting beside curbside tattoo artists whose clients drip blood onto the street. The Hijra House, the brothel where the novel’s central character of Madhu lives and works, is cleaned top to bottom only for the most special of occasions when what is effectively the hijra high council meets to settle issues amongst its caste. And yet, this cauldron of cacophony is just a bridge away from the standard, every day life of going to work, paying the bills, and raising the families of middle class Indian life. Madhu, who was born into the latter, walks regularly and precisely forty-seven steps along one of those bridges to a point where she can look from the shadows at the balcony of her childhood flat.
Madhu, as I suspect you might have guessed, was born male with very much a female psyche. As a lonely little boy he is, much to his surprise, invited one day to join in a game of cricket and he hits one for six. Joy! Acceptance! Victory! Except, he holds his captain’s hand a little too long in a post-game handshake. Let the schoolyard hatred begin.
There’s a bit of Job to the story of Madhu in that everything she touches turns to shit either by choice or horrible timing. In the saddest episode of a novel filled with them, Madhu’s hope that his father and mother will accept him as gay comes achingly close to happening. A selection from that scene, beginning with the father speaking:
“Madhu …” he said. “I think …” He was finding it hard to speak. “Madhu, I … I want you to know that I …”
Madhu got up and went to the window. He was willing to wait for his father’s words. For the first time in his life, his father was talking to him, man to man. He waited with a patience that could calm any fear.
That was when the lights went out.
His father’s face turned dark. It was a power shortage; there had been one a month before too. Madhu’s mother got a flashlight and shone it around their tiny flat. It lit the calendar on the wall, one with a precious pink baby on it. Madhu’s father, distracted by the power cut, turned away from his son, mumbling about the papers he had to correct.
A few moments later, the hijra gurumai (what you or I would call a brothel madam) knocks on the flat’s door and says she has come for Madhu, who had befriended the hijra as they were the only people willing to befriend him.
Now, is that episode or others in The Parcel such as inopportunely twisted ankles and such too much coincidence to be believed? You might argue so, however I would not. Coincidences happen. After all, if you are or were married, how did you and your partner meet? Wasn’t that one hell of a coincidence? As Plato, Shakespeare, or William Butler Yeats all might have said in their respective eras, “Shit happens.”
You’ll want to know about the title. What is the parcel of The Parcel? That is a ten-year-old Nepalese girl who has been sold into prostitution by her family and sent to Bombay in order to be raped by a syphilitic man who has been told by a pundit that sex with a virgin child will cure his disease. May I get you more tea?
Yes, it is just like that. It is just an everyday transaction to everyone except of course to the terrified girl herself, whom Madhu is given the task of preparing/dehumanizing the child before the crime so she doesn’t scream too much and put the old bastard off his game. You don’t think very much of Madhu right about now, now do you?
The choice of prejudice – and it is a choice – forces its victims into nearly impossible choices. If you were shunned and abandoned by your family and the only quasi-family around that might just accept you, might you (do pardon the term) have your dick cut off to join them? Without anesthetic? Don’t be quite so hasty in saying no. And, if you knew this child was doomed to repeated and repeated and repeated rape for money no matter what you did, might you not want to at least make that experience possibly just a shade less painful? After all, the real pain to a Madhu isn’t the rape, it’s the rejection that led to it.
I will not in any way pretend that The Parcel is an easy read. It’s not. It is draining and awful and disturbing on every page. Yet, it does in its own way enrich for a survivor’s tale is the best we can hope for in our own lives. We carry on. ◊
Hubert O’Hearn is a writer/editor born in Canada and currently living in Ireland. Author of four books, as a reviewer he has previously been on the editorial staff of Winnipeg Review, San Francisco Book Review, Le Herald de Paris et Cie and many other publications.