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'All I wanted was to do justice to Madhu'

Anosh Irani’s The Parcel is a dark, intimate and probing look at Kamathipura’s hijra community through the eyes of its protagonist Madhu. Excerpts from an interview

The novel is set in the heart of Kamathipura’s commercial sex industry. File pic
The novel is set in the heart of Kamathipura’s commercial sex industry. File pic

There’s a smell of the the city’s underbelly that overtakes the reader as one flips through the book. How did that happen?
This is a story of Mumbai/ Bombay’s red light district slowly dissolving alongside a hijra’s body, which is letting her down, rebelling against her, and in the process revealing to her some hard truths that she does not want to face. So the underbelly is not just a physical space, it is also the unheard, unloved part of a human being.

Tell us about how Madhu emerged to play protagonist in this title.
I tried very hard not to write this novel. For many years, I really tried not to. It was too difficult an undertaking; the subject matter is highly sensitive and I knew that the research involved would force me into areas of discomfort. But eventually when something haunts you and inspires you at the same time, which is what Kamathipura has done to me since my childhood, you have no choice. You are compelled to write. One day, Madhu just unleashed herself. “I go by many names, none of my own choosing,” is the first line I ever wrote. She was right there, ready — wounds open, but head held high.

How and where did you discover the word ‘Parcel’?
I don’t know. It’s one of those things that I just wrote. But the weird part is I heard it in my head in Hindi. It wasn’t being used by someone who spoke English. The line I heard in my head was, “Parcel aaya hai.” And as I heard it, it sent a current through me.

There’s a certain dramatic pace to the book, and yet, a slowness that makes one stop and imagine each frame. How were you able to juxtapose the two?
There’s an engine in the novel that comes from wanting to know what happens to Madhu and the girl, an anxiety that pervades the story as we get to care about them. However, the slowness comes from Madhu realising that she is no different from the parcel. Here are two lost, lonely, and unloved human beings who find each other. So as the story moves forward, the characters fall into an abyss, go into a downward spiral, their wounds getting more and more acute.

Madhu’s moments of realisation are evocatively captured, as the reader plays silent companion to her travails and by default, the lesser-known, insightful side to the Hijra community. Tell us about that.
It’s a fascinating world to explore. For so many years hijras have been forced to operate in the shadows. And it is the shadow world that I find interesting as a writer. However, I also wanted the novel to reflect the beauty in their lives. And I did not have to go looking for it. I witnessed moments of courage and hope, and above all, there is beauty in survival.

Each accompanying character gives a sense that the reader might have encountered, or interacted with him/her at some point while in the city. Your thoughts.
If you find the humanity in a character, he or she feels familiar. After all, that is what we share as human beings — the need for acceptance, for love, and the hurt that comes with rejection.

As Madhu’s life unfolds, the reader sees a changing city too — its crumbling cinemas, real estate sharks. It’s a fascinating rediscovery...
It’s the way I encountered it every single time I came back from Canada. Suddenly, the Alexandra Cinema was defunct, or the compound that I grew up in, directly opposite Kamathipura, was completely transformed with high-rises. There’s a line in the book where I refer to the buildings as giant sentries advancing...it’s a bit ominous, this feeling of high rises closing in on you.

What was going through your mind as you reached the end of writing The Parcel?
I wanted the end to be as truthful as possible. My focus is to stay with the characters. Only then can a truthful ending emerge, one that realistically reflects the world of the story. All I wanted was to do justice to Madhu, to hold a mirror to her pain and her courage and inherent humanity.

Anosh Irani
Anosh Irani

About the book
The Parcel (HarperCollins India) isn’t meant for the weak hearted. Dark, disturbing and yet triumphant, it takes us through the life and times of Madhu, born a boy but a eunuch by choice, who spent most of her life among commerical sex workers in the bylanes of Kamathipura — Mumbai’s infamous red light district. At 40, she has moved away from her trade and is forced to beg to support the charsimatic head of the clan, Gurumai. What ensues when he receives a call from one of the most feared brothel owners about a ‘parcel’ that has arrived (a young girl from the provinces), makes for rivetting twists and turns. High on drama and emotion set in the seamier side of Mumbai, this novel is a page-turner.


An extract from 'The Parcel' by Anosh Irani

PROLOGUE

I GO BY MANY names, none of my own choosing.

I am called Ali, Aravani, Nau Number, Sixer, Mamu, Gandu, Napunsak, Kinnar, Kojja—the list goes on and on like a politician’s promise. There is a term for me in almost every Indian language. I am reviled and revered, deemed to have been blessed, and cursed, with sacred powers. Parents think of me as a kidnapper, shopkeepers as a lucky charm, and married couples as a fertility expert. To passengers in taxis, I am but a nuisance. I am shooed away like a crow.

Everyone has their version of what I am. Or what they want me to be.

My least favourite is what they call my kind in Tamil: Thirunangai. “Mister Woman.”

Oddly, the only ones to get it right were my parents. They named their boy Madhu. A name so gloriously unisex, I slipped in and out of its skin until I was fourteen. But then, in one fi ne stroke, that thing between my legs was relieved of its duties. With the very knife that I hold in my hand right now, I became a eunuch.

Perhaps my parents had smelled the strangeness in the air when I was born, the stench of the pain and humiliation to follow. At the least, they must have felt a deep stirring in the marrow of their bones to prepare them for the fact that their child was different. Neither here nor there, neither desert nor forest, neither earth nor sky, neither man nor woman.

The calling of names I made my peace with years ago. The one I am most comfortable with, the most accurate of them, is also the most common: hijra. It means “migration,” and we hijras have made it our own because its meaning makes sense to us. I am indeed a migrant, a wanderer. For almost three decades, I have fl oated through the city’s red-light district like a ghost.

But this home of mine, this garden of rejects—fourteen lanes that for the rest of the city do not exist—I want it to remember me. I want it to remember even though the district is dissolving, just like I am, like the hot vapour of chai.

Come on. Who am I fooling? I don’t taste like chai. I am anything but delectable. I have been born and brewed to mortify. At forty, all I have left is a knife dipped in the moon and a five rupee coin given to me by my mother.

But mark my words: I will make myself a household name. I will spread my name like butter on these battered streets.

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