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The Parcel author Anosh Irani.

Title
The Parcel
Author
Anosh Irani
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Knopf Canada
Pages
284
Price
$32

Indian eunuchs, or hijras, are some of the most marginalized individuals in the country, criminalized under the penal code, harassed by police and the public, and overwhelmingly poor. Yet, as the hijra protagonist of Anosh Irani's fascinating new novel, The Parcel, implies, the hijras have long been "reviled and revered."

In the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, the royal Pandavas rely on a warrior eunuch to help them win a crucial battle.

Madhu, the novel's 40-year-old protagonist, is a depressed, demoted hijra, once a highly desirable sex worker, now obliged to beg for money. She still lives with her affectionate hijra clan, including the sometimes kindly, always demanding Gurumai (raunchy matriarch of the Hijra House). Gurumai, now in her 80s, is a respected "midwife" – one who performs an ancient, ritual operation to remove the male genitals; Madhu, who met her as a troubled boy, considers her the only true parent she ever had. Madhu also has six colourful "sisters." The 60-ish Bulbul, oldest and closest to Madhu, spends her spare time taking selfies and dreaming about a long-lost lover; the two youngest, still sex workers, tease her relentlessly. This rambunctious family is traditional. Gurumai takes most of the hijras' earnings and pays for their needs. An enterprising materfamilias, she imagines building "McBrothels" throughout India.

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Madhu's heart, however, is flagging; though she also has a devoted lover, Gajja, she is deeply lonely, and longs to connect with her birth family. Everything around her seems to be fading, including the once indefatigable Gurumai, who begs Madhu to massage her feet; the carefree Gajja, who wants to go back to his village; and Bulbul, who is increasingly living in a fantasy world. Madhu's "asylum" is no longer what it was. Gurumai is indebted to a powerful madam, Padma, who protects the small Hijra House. A once thriving, thousand-strong hijra community has dwindled, owing to the work of real estate "vultures" hungry for land. Indeed, all of the Kamathipura neighbourhood is slowly crumbling; old houses have been torn down to make way for factories.

Within this context, the action begins with the arrival of the titular "parcel," a trafficked 10-year-old girl from rural Nepal, in Padma's enormous whorehouse, Lucky Compound. Padma has long engaged in selling such "goods"; her drugged-out, undernourished little girls entice rich Mumbaikars in search of young flesh. Gurumai is personally asked by Padma to make Madhu take charge of the girl – that is, keep her in a cage and ensure that she is "broken in." Madhu, smoking a Shivaji cigarette before meeting Padma, invokes the historical Maharashtrian warrior to determine what to do.

Part of the reason this comedy-cum-confessional-cum-social-commentary work manages to kick into Mumbai noir is that we are not sure until the end what Madhu's intentions are. She engages in cruelty toward the "parcel," releasing an unidentified creature into the cage, ostensibly to prevent the girl from fighting and receiving a beating or worse from Padma. Madhu also buys her food and gifts from her own savings; but she is a poor woman dependent on Gurumai. Amid the tightening drama surrounding the child's welfare, there are hints of imminent police raids, mysterious hijra elders that want control over Hijra House and Madhu's nighttime visits to the bridge near her childhood home.

The reader is occasionally pushed out of this tension during Madhu's lengthy flashbacks or unnecessary explanations, such as "Madhu had tried to embrace womanhood." In general, however, the writer's slow, deliberate revelation of Madhu's youthful transformation is perfectly linked with her increasing connection with the "parcel," Kinjal. The reader gradually understands the root of the loneliness of both and it becomes clear by the end that this loneliness is beyond background, age, community or country. Madhu calls herself a "migrant." While the titled word first seems to refer to the trafficked girl, it becomes clear that there are many, many parcels – a universe of human beings not loved, not cared for, but commodified and discarded.

Part of the way this excellent book heals such a sprawling, horrifying reality is with beauty and religious depth. Gurumai asserts: "A hijra is one because of the soul." Madhu's loved ones are like the Pandavas under siege. Devyani is a "sentry from a different era, on a fort tower"; Gajja, perhaps, is Krishna on his chariot-motorcycle. Kinjal could be seen as a contemporary Sita of the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. With the hijras, the parcels, the eyes, arms and power of a moody deity, one looks at the strange only to discover unity.

Aparna Sanyal is a Canadian writer and editor living in Calcutta.

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