Anosh Irani's The Parcel explores the daily lives of the third gender
Author's experiences in Bombay gave him the confidence to write about the hijra
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When Anosh Irani was a young boy, up until about the age of eight, his family lived in a compound about 100 metres away from Bombay’s red-light district, where the sex workers would line up in the evenings. Even as a child, walking by the area with his mother or riding past on a bus, Irani recalls being haunted and fascinated by what he witnessed.
That district is also home to many hijra, a group that uniquely identifies as a third gender, neither man nor woman. Objectified, reviled and yet wanted for their blessings, it is a culture that operates on a guru-disciple relationship, where its members are welcomed into the community through a unique set of rituals and practices, including castration.
Irani knew he wanted to write a novel with a hijra protagonist, but it took a decade before the Vancouver-based playwright and author felt ready to write The Parcel, about a young boy named Madhu who feels born into the wrong body, and spends a lifetime trying to find love and acceptance.
The story follows Madhu from his early years, when he is taken away from his family by a gurumai, and subsequently becomes one of the most desired hijra. We meet Madhu again later in life, when, as a beggar, she is tasked to prepare a “parcel”: a young girl who has been sold into prostitution.
“I don’t think I would have ever written this book if I hadn’t been born just outside the district,” Irani says. “I wouldn’t have had the courage. I wouldn’t have had the confidence. I’m writing both as an insider and an outsider.”
Irani, who travels back to Bombay for several months every year to visit family, would spend hours walking through the city. It was only after he finished a couple drafts of The Parcel did he actually interview a hijra, to ensure his novel was factually correct.
“There are different ways of coming to the truth and fiction is one of the best, most complex ways to get an incredible amount of depth,” he says. “The good thing about being in a city like Bombay is that you can be invisible very fast. You go there, you walk, you overhear things but you observe. Research for me is observation of the actual physicality of the place.”
One of Irani’s observations was that despite the often horrific conditions, there was humour to be found, which he deliberately wove throughout the story.
“It comes from the street level, and just listening to how people speak, you get the sense that it’s very alive,” he says. “Often times humour comes from pain, but it is very much part of that world. Also, as a novelist, if I’m writing something that’s so realistic and in many ways really bleak, you need humour to allow the reader to continue.”
Although the Western world is finally coming to terms with trans rights and the fluidity of gender, Irani’s motives for writing the book were not political.
“I feel very privileged to be able to do this because there were moments when I was there — once you see something you can’t not see it. Once you know something, you can’t erase it from your memory,” he says.