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A file photo of a hijra asking for alms. Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times
A file photo of a hijra asking for alms. Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times

The Parcel: The story of an ageing Hijra

An excerpt from a disconcerting fiction novel about an unlikely friendship between a trafficked teenager and a former sex worker

Indo-Canadian author Anosh Irani’s new novel The Parcel is not an easy one to read. The novel follows the story of Madhu, a resident of Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red-light district, who is tasked to ‘break in’ a ‘parcel’, the term used for under-age trafficked girls. For Madhu, this task is one of deep humanity, as it strips the young girl of all illusion about the aunt who sold her into sex work, unlike pimps who torture the young girls into submission. As Kinjal, the young girl comes to terms with her reality, which seems to hold no hope for escape, Madhu revisits her past—her childhood in which she faced rejection from her birth family, and acceptance into her Gurumai’s hijra gharana, her youth in which she was a sought after sex worker—and reassesses her present, in which she begs for a living. An exclusive excerpt:

Gurumai told Madhu that she understood his pain, and she saw a good future for him. She would take care of things. Madhu had no idea what she meant. She said that Madhu was an adult now and capable of making his own decisions. But Madhu protested that he was no adult; he had just turned thirteen. So gurumai explained, while gulping down gulab jamuns, that being trapped in his current state meant Madhu had more life experience than most adults, and that he should add at least fi ve years to his current age, which would make him eighteen.

Once again she said, “I will take care of things."

“How?" asked Madhu.

But gurumai did not answer. She explained instead that the Hijra Gulli building was for her family. She was the guru and the rest were her disciples. She thought of them as her daughters. She said that each of her disciples could have her own disciples as well. So each chela could be a guru as well. But she was the overlord of the household, without question.

Madhu asked what sort of work they did. Gurumai replied that they were in the theatre business, and the hijras roared with laughter, cackling and shrieking. It was the truest laughter Madhu had ever heard. It came from deep inside the belly. Madhu felt it was not directed at him, and he bathed in it. For once, he was part of an inside joke, even if he did not understand its meaning. Then gurumai said that her door was always open for Madhu. He was not poor or homeless, and yet gurumai’s offer of shelter made sense. She could see that Madhu lacked a mother’s warmth and a father’s guidance.

Author Anosh Irani.
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Author Anosh Irani.

“I will be your mai-baap," she said. “Your two-in-one. Both mother and father."

“What do I have to do in return?"

“You’ll see," she said. “But don’t worry. I will take care of things."

Then gurumai told another hijra to show Madhu around. This one was kind-hearted. Madhu could tell by the way she looked at him that the two of them were going to get along, even though the hijra was almost twenty years older. Looking back now, Madhu was struck by how strange it was that he had already been thinking about getting along, as though some higher part of his brain had known what was going to happen. This hijra took Madhu to a dressing table and made him sit on a stool.

“You’re pretty," she said.

“No," Madhu said immediately.

“Just look at yourself," she said. “So fair, so smooth." Madhu wasn’t that fair, but compared to the others, maybe. “Why aren’t you looking in the mirror?" the hijra asked.

But she did not push Madhu to look. Instead, she removed some of the red bangles from her wrist and put them on Madhu, one by one. Madhu’s wrists were too slender for them, but with each bangle, he felt as though a holy amulet was covering him, offering him the tenderness that he had been so callously denied. Then she held both his hands and covered his face with them, as though they were playing hide-and-seek and Madhu was being asked not to look. But what she was doing was helping him peel off the shame that he felt. She was unmasking it, and when she said, “Open your eyes," he looked straight into the mirror, into his own eyes. He noticed that his eyes were dark brown, and maybe it was the afternoon sun that was making them glint, but he had never seen them turn this particular shade. Then she looked at his neck and stroked it, as Madhu wanted his mother to do so badly, and he wondered how his mother could be so cold as to stop caressing him just because she had another, healthier son. Vijju’s memory brought the ugliness back to Madhu’s face, and it must have contorted, because the hijra had to hold Madhu’s chin up again, steady him, make him look in the mirror once more. This time, Madhu straightened his back and his neck felt vast, as though a thousand tongues could lick it at once. He did not feel aroused, but joyous, and the hijra must have sensed it, because she kissed him on the cheek and took the bangles off his wrists one by one, looking straight into his eyes as she did so, and Madhu sank into hers. A deep friendship was born there and then, a friendship thousands of years old—they could have been sisters in the same harem or just old men who would have given up their lungs for each other.

The Parcel by Anosh Irani
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The Parcel by Anosh Irani

The hijra put the bangles back on her wrists and told Madhu that he should go home, but he was to remember how beautiful he was, and that gurumai had great things in store for him.

“You have what it takes," she said.

When Madhu asked, “For what?" she said nothing. Then she told Madhu that she had to leave to meet her lover. Things were getting ugly because her lover’s family had found out that he was in a relationship with a hijra. She was scared that it was going to be the end of things. Would Madhu pray for her? But she believed in love more than a prayer, she quickly said. More than anything else, love had the power to make anyone melt—anyone except politicians.

Madhu said, “Fathers too."

“Come by anytime," the hijra told Madhu. “Next time we will powder your face and try eyeliner, okay?" Madhu’s spirit soared at the thought. As he got up from the stool, he asked her one last thing.

“What’s your name?"

“Bulbul," she said.

Nine bangles on Madhu’s wrist had made him feel more loved than nine months in his mother’s womb. That evening at home, his father demanded to know where the hell he had been, and Madhu said, “For a walk." He had walked straight into his future. Hijra Gulli became his haunt. He tried on makeup, learned how to shuffl e cards like a shark, chewed paan, smoked beedis until his tongue burned, then gargled like one possessed so that no smell lingered when he got home, made lewd jokes, learned about two types of cocks, cut and uncut, understood the differences between a hermaphrodite, a transvestite, and a transgender, and heard gurumai’s famous line, “The Third World is not a place, it is a gender." Madhu visited Hijra Gulli in short bursts—a quick afternoon here, a short morning there—but never at night. He was given entry into the hearts and lives of its inhabitants with total generosity, and there was only one room he was never to step into: not the randikhana with its bunk beds, not the sickroom, but the room through which he would later be transported into the Third World—the operating chamber. It was there that he would become a “chhakka."

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins.

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