Anosh Irani’s novel about hijra (transgender) sex workers in contemporary Bombay contains a fair amount of disturbing description, including a castration performed in a less-than-clinical setting with tightened ropes used in place of anaesthetic. And yet The Parcel’s most discomfiting aspect is arguably its central metaphor, a “parcel” being a prepubescent girl stolen from her family and sold to a male client who will “open” her.
Our protagonist, Madhu, a 40-year-old hijra eunuch, has made of the parcels a kind of calling. Though demoted by her gurumai (guru) to begging in the streets, during her years as a prostitute Madhu developed a way to humanely “break” them without recourse to pain and torture. As the novel begins, she’s just been summoned by the district’s fearsome brothel owner, Padma, who tells her that a new parcel has arrived for processing. Though Madhu initially protests on the grounds that she’s retired, we’ve seen enough movies about “retired” detectives to know her acceptance of the task is inevitable.
The ten-year-old Nepalese girl waiting in a cage too small to stand up in isn’t outwardly different from other parcels. Nevertheless, she triggers something in Madhu. For us, she triggers a series of flashbacks to Madhu’s boyhood, his rejection by his father for effeminate behaviour, and subsequent “rescue,” at age fourteen, by the gurumai who would become his physical guardian and spiritual leader. Now, thirty years after her first encounter with gurumai, Madhu suddenly finds herself wondering if her family might not be ready accept her as the woman she was destined to become.
Relationships — between Madhu and her parents, her gurumai, her erstwhile lover, and even the parcel — anchor this novel, yet they tend to be psychologized, rather than evoked (“Her father’s scorn had been replaced by society’s”). There’s a dash of Hollywood melodrama, too, to Madhu’s nightly vigils spent staring longingly into people’s homes from local bridges; a habit she calls “her smack, her ganja.”
To be sure, the exhaustive, sometimes vivid detail with which Vancouver-based Irani depicts hijra customs, brothel life, and the world of sex trafficking suggests much painstaking research. But knowledge, or rather the impulse to impart its fruits, can be a mixed blessing for the art of fiction, and that often proves the case here. This being a novel that seeks to answer, rather than provoke inquiry, the feeling of fullness we get after finishing The Parcel ultimately feels more pedagogic than aesthetic.