Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 14, 2017

The Parcel, by Anosh Irani

Anosh Irani is an Indo-Canadian novelist and playwright. The Parcel is his fourth novel, and like the others it is set amid the marginalised peoples of Mumbai (which he refers to by its old English name of Bombay).  The novel was shortlisted for the Canadian Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction.

There were times, reading The Parcel, when Irani’s depiction of the depths of human depravity overwhelmed me.  The novel is well-written but savage in its concerns, and immersing myself in its dark world is all the more horrific because we know that the issues it raises are only too real.   It’s not a novel for the faint-hearted… and I really struggled with writing this review.

This is the blurb:

In the swollen and crumbling red-light district of Kamathipura, at the heart of Bombay, Madhu is given a difficult and potentially lucrative task by her housemother — to prepare a newly arrived ‘parcel’ for its opening.

Madhu’s home is Hijra House, one of the last bastions in the land war slowly consuming the area, as property developers vie for land, desperate to make way for their empty grey monoliths. It is here that ‘hijras’ — eunuchs, people of the third sex, ‘neither here nor there’ — ply their trade. Now forty and with her looks and spirit waning, Madhu struggles with the task she has been given, confronted by memories of her past, of how she was rejected by her family — and by how she longs, secretly, to go back to them. Everything is dissolving within and around her. Then, as the land war comes to a head, and with her housemother coming under pressure by the hijra elders to sell their home, Madhu realises she must do something to save herself.

One of the issues a reader must confront through The Parcel is cultural relativism.  I saw a review at Goodreads which said that the ‘parcel’ – a 10 year old girl trafficked from Nepal for the sex trade – was being ‘groomed for consensual sex’.  The reviewer was from India, where cultural norms may well be different, but no.  No, no and no again.  10 year old girls aren’t ever old enough to give consent, not anywhere.  What happens to this child is in breach of almost every article of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, (ratified by India in 1992) and especially Article 34 which states that Governments should protect children from sexual abuse and Article 35 which says they should not be abducted and sold.  The girl in The Parcel has been sold into prostitution, and there isn’t going to be any consensual sex.  She is going to be a sex slave, and she is going to be raped by someone who has paid extra for her to be a virgin.   This child is caged up in the dark without food for days and terrified out of her wits to teach her to submit.   It is presented as an act of kindness because the alternative for this girl is to be repeatedly raped and tortured instead.  So this novel forces the reader to confront acts of extreme cruelty as an alternative preferable to acts of extreme brutality.

I don’t think there is any moral ambiguity about this situation, but the author’s characterisation of the ‘hijra’ Madhu as the person terrorising this child does make the issue more complex because Madhu is vulnerable and marginalised and trapped as well.  Madhu was born intersex into a society that is preoccupied with male children and devalues girls.  His mother tells him that his existence humiliates his family and that his younger brother’s chances of marriage will be prejudiced unless he goes away.  Marginalised by his own family and other children, at the age of fourteen he seeks out others like himself and identifies with them.  After a crude operation surrounded by pseudo-religious rituals he makes the transition to female and makes a life for herself in the sex trade.

In the India of this novel, the life chances of people like Madhu are determined by tradition and superstition and not by any rights as human beings.

When the Mughals were dominant, the hijras were exchanged as slaves, as novelties, and were assigned a value similar to that of gold and horses and land. They were therefore included as  part of the booty when a kingdom was lost.  But they stayed close to the women and listened for secrets, and they became confidantes to queens, until eventually they rose to the ranks of commandants an diplomats.  By carving their bodies, they carved a niche for themselves in both the household and politics. (p.138)

But when the Hindus came to power, the power and prestige of the hijras declined, until a (probably fabricated) story from the Ramayana arose and the Hijras were believed to confer ‘blessings’ at ceremonies such as weddings, because Rama had repaid their devotion with a boon ‘whatsoever you speak, it shall come true.’ 

That is why people believe that if a hijra curses you, you are doomed, and if she blesses you, no matter how the stars are aligned, no matter what your astrologer has predicted, her tongue can make the stars shower luck on you, like divine saliva.  (p, 137)

Nevertheless they are segregated within the city into the red-light district, and their lives are compromised by an accident of birth.  Madhu, subservient to her gurumai seems to have no option but to become complicit in the sex-trade of little girls.  She justifies this to herself by reference to the historic role of eunuchs.

In being asked to be this parcel’s caretaker, Madhu felt the weight of history repeating itself. Throughout the ages, eunuchs had served as protectors of harems, rakhwalas [custodians] of precious vaginas that meant the world to the men in power.  […]  So the eunuch had a place.  Some even rose to the position of high-ranking government officials, or served as confidantes to members of royalty.  The severing of their penises meant that they were severed from their families as well, rendered unfit for society, which made them subservient to just one master – as Madhu was to gurumai – loyal to a fault, out of helplessness.  However that same loyalty afforded them a level of prestige.  Eunuch slaves were status symbols, exchanged between noblemen, or demanded as part of the war-spoils when a kingdom was lost. (p.44-5)

How many centuries of human misery lies behind this paragraph?

Madhu recognises that times have changed:

But now, Madhu reflected, history had been perverted.  In this cramped loft, there were no kings, only the kingdom of Kamathipura, and this parcel might be worth protecting but Madhu’s function was to protect her and keep her safe until it was time not to protect her – history made topsy-turvy.  (p.45)

To retrieve some agency in a life where she has few choices, Madhu chooses to ‘break’ the ‘parcel’ – like others she has ‘broken’ – by teaching her not to resist because it will be less painful.  It is, Madhu believes, kinder to teach the ten-year-old girl to submit, to accept that there is no escape, and not to harbour dreams of going home to Nepal because it was her mother who sold her into slavery.  The Parcel does not endorse this PoV and the novel concludes with a sort of redemption … but the reader is left with a persistent sense of horror about the other little girls traded for sex in a society that does not value them.

This is a very confronting novel, which is uncompromising about the culture of violence against women and the dubious morality of contemporary Indian attitudes.  Late in the novel, there is a furore over a crime.  A billion souls were passionately demanding the blood of three men who had raped a bride on her wedding night. 

Madhu was as hopeful as everyone else that the accused would pay for the vileness of their act. […] It also bothered Madhu 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? (p. 222)

Yes, there is hypocrisy in the West about crimes about women deemed not ‘innocent’ and the justice system has not always treated rape victims fairly, but India is notorious for turning a blind eye to violence against women, seventy years after it became a democracy and gave women the vote and elected its first female prime minister in 1966.  I wonder if The Parcel is being read there as well as in the West.

Author: Anosh Irani
Title: The Parcel
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2017, first published 2016
ISBN: 9781911344452
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Available from Fishpond: The Parcel or direct from Scribe.


Responses

  1. Caged in the dark. The idea of extreme cruelty as an alternative to extreme brutality. I’m crying. It is probably one of those books that demands to be read and yet I am not strong enough . . . even for the reading.
    Another thoughtful review. I hope you had a chance to go for a nice walk or a sit in the sunshine after you’d finished it. And I hope you have something light and happy to read next. :)

    • To be honest, I finished it two weeks ago and I’ve taken all this time to do the review because I was so angry when I finished reading it that I couldn’t really be objective about it as a work of fiction.
      And yes, when I read something really dark like this, I do need to ‘debrief’ myself: the best antidote was a nice walk along the beach with The Spouse, breathing fresh air and watching children playing in the sand, enjoying their childhood as all children should be able to do.

  2. I have been intrigued by this book but also worried about the brutality. That put me off one of his earlier books. But, you know, I met him last year at our writers’ festival (I was volunteering for artist liaison where you check the authors in) and he was just about the nicest person you could want to meet!

    • It seems as if he is driven to make people aware of the underbelly of life. But he has a point: I just watched the film Lion, and at the end it says that thousands of children go missing in India every year and that there are projects in place to try to reunite them with family. But it takes money, and money only becomes available when people are made aware that there’s a problem.

  3. Thanks for reminding me of this book for I heard the author on the radio not that long ago and decided I must read it based on his voice and articulation. These are difficult subjects but our own society sexualises girls at a tender age which limits their potential for a full and healthy life.

    • Yes, that’s true. However, I think what’s different in the India portrayed in this novel is that the abuse of little girls is openly tolerated by the police there. If there are police in Australia who are turning a blind eye, they are doing it covertly not overtly.

  4. This was such a difficult read and I understand why you had such a hard time writing about it, but it’s such a necessary story and I hope at least a few more readers will discover your review and read the work for themselves and begin other conversations. It is so complicated – so many layers – that it deserves to be discussed in detail.

    Two things that I thought were remarkable about the work: first the pacing, for it must have been hard to keep readers engaged in such a demanding work, for I never thought of quitting despite the relentless suffering of the characters and, second, the resolution, as he managed to find some satisfaction for the reader even though there is good acceptable conclusion, given the situation.

    Do you think you would read another of his novels? I have them all in mind, but I have been reading some other difficult works since The Parcel.

    • You’re absolutely right, it was very well constructed, and it was also the voice of Madhu, who engages the reader all the way through.
      Yes, I think I would read this author again.
      But after a little break, I think…


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