This novel was published at the perfect time for me. I'd read Arundhati Roy's sprawling new novel “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” over the summer. While I admired so much about her impassioned writing, I was disappointed that she didn't concentrate more on the full story of Anjum, an intersex character or hijra whose story begins the novel. Then, more recently, I read Shobha Roa's book of short stories “An Unrestored Woman” for the Anna & Eric Book Club and one of the stories which struck me most was 'Blindfold' about the madam of a brothel who purchases young girls to turn them into prostitutes. Both these stories left me eager to better understand characters like these and learn more about these aspects of Indian society.
Coincidentally, Anosh Irani's “The Parcel” is essentially a blend of these two tales as it follows a character named Madhu, a 40 year old hijra whose years of prostitution in the notorious Kamathipura red light district are behind her. While she lives in a household with other intersex individuals, she's been reduced to begging on the side of the road to earn money. Madhu also works for Padma, a fiercely independent madam of a local brothel. Madhul helps new girls (who are frequently purchased from their families in Nepal) to adjust to a life in prostitution and accept their new situation. The novel follows the way she indoctrinates of one such ten year old girl and the dramatic changes that occur within the house of hijras where she resides. It’s an arresting and incredibly thought provoking story that totally gripped me.
The author presents such a difficult dilemma for the reader from the very beginning novel. Madhu is someone who has been rejected by her family and encountered brutal challenges throughout her life just to live as a woman. This makes her very sympathetic. Yet, she embarks on a job to indoctrinate a new girl to Padma’s brothel by psychologically, physically and sexually breaking her in. These torturous actions amount to the most heinous kind of mental manipulation; at one point she says to the new girl Kinjal (referred to as a parcel and kept in a cage): “Each time you think of your mother, I want you to hold these bars and ask yourself one question: What feels more real, your mother or these bars?” Her process for breaking this girl’s spirit is intended to make Kinjal’s miserable fate more bearable than if she were thrust into a bedroom and subjected to multiple clients. That’s how Madhu reasons it is an act of charity to train them. It’s also meant to ensure the girls don’t fight back and consequently they will be more valuable for the brothel’s business.
Of course, this process of training Kinjal is incredibly harrowing to read about and Madhu’s actions are sickeningly sinister. But gradually her logic is revealed. This is someone who has fought with her body for her whole life: “The body was the enemy. The more you loved it, the more you thought of it as a part of you, the more it blackmailed you.” She’s had to learn to mentally separate herself from her physical being. Madhu has also been socially and economically dependent on the charity of other people as she’s held within such contempt by the majority of society. It’s fascinating how the author goes into the history and cultural attitudes towards hijras who are religiously held in high esteem for possessing special powers, but simultaneously they are social outcasts and frequently reviled. Madhu’s goal is to drill Kinjal in abandoning all hope because Madhu has learned that hope is more of a hindrance for people in their dire condition. That certainly doesn’t make her logic right or her actions permissible, but it does make them understandable. It made me so eager to follow Madhu’s journey to see whether or not her beliefs would change, learn more about her past and discover what would happen to Kinjal.
Irani also has a fascinating way of portraying the city of Bombay (later Mumbai) in a state of economic, social and religious flux. Property moguls are snatching up the dilapidated buildings in their area for developments: “Bombay hadn't yet become its savage sister. It was bubbling and brewing toward its new avatar, but hadn't fully imploded.” These purchases often mean the owners can move away with a bundle of money, but the poor (particularly hijras and prostitutes) are left with nowhere to go after being ejected from their long term residences. This has a personal effect upon Madhu and her gurumai, the elderly hijra who became a mother figure/mentor for Madhu and recognized what Madhu was before she knew it herself. These larger changes within the city have an impact on their lives and it gives the story a thrillingly tense momentum as the date for Kinjal’s initiation with her first client draws near
“The Parcel” is such a fantastically moving novel. Madhu’s story raises so many meaningful questions about identity, social responsibility and the plight of those who are rendered voiceless. As different as I am from Madhu and despite some of her contemptible actions, I found myself falling in love with her character. It’s so easy to take for granted being born into a gender that feels like it naturally suits you. Irani powerfully describes Madhu’s path towards becoming a woman and the painful consequences of standing up for who she is. I love literature like this and Sara Taylor’s novel “The Lauras” that provoke us to question our assumptions and understanding of gender lines. Irani pulled me into Madhu’s experience and really made me feel the full complexity of her life. This is undoubtedly one of the most heartbreaking and fascinating novels I’ve read all year.