The Parcel: When a novel might be journalism

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Anosh Irani’s The Parcel follows Madhu, a transgender prostitute in Bombay’s red-light district, as she delivers on an assigned responsibility to prepare a captured girl, Kinjal, for induction into the sex trade. Woven onto this plot line is a thread documenting the history and culture of the hijra – those of the third sex – in Bombay, including the complex system of governance and authority in this community including what kinds of work are permitted, what kinds of allegiances are owed and how members of this community joined or are exiled. Layered, too, is an exploration of gentrification of this particular city (but cities more broadly) and the economic and social consequences for those displaced by this gentrification (a particularly compelling thread for me as I’m writing from a city that is currently grappling with how these displaced populations are represented both figuratively and literally in the sense of their political representation).

Out of this blend we are meant to closely identify with Madhu’s character arc, to see her as a complex character with a rich past and grappling with consequential moral decisions for the girl she is charged with ‘caring for,’ as well as decisions about reconciling her past with her present. And Irani really, really wants us to make this identification. It’s a novel that walks a fine line between the ‘show’ and ‘tell’ that every aspiring creative writer is warned against: routinely telling us of Madhu’s devastation, or conflicted feelings, or sense of loss, but also coupling these declarations with scenes that really do accomplish the same work of explaining but by way of description. You would think, then, that between the declarative reminders of the import of Madhu’s actions and feelings and the literary accomplishment of the same through description and image, that we might, as readers, feel invested in Madhu’s ultimate decision and outcome. This reader did… not.

Instead I found myself compelled by the scenes and the setting. Both because as a reader I was being called into a world outside my own range of experience and knowledge (more than once I had to stop and read about different aspects of Bombay geography, or of hijra culture, as I was so piqued by the narrative itself) and because the central plot conflict of the outcome for Kinjal is one that asks the reader to fully consider what constitutes compassion in a way that is – oddly? – gripping.

My lack of care for Madhu may be a consequence of a lack of empathy in me as a reader (and I do welcome your thoughts if you’ve read this one), or it may be that in Irani’s eagerness to tell the story and describe this particular community and place, Madhu herself becomes somewhat predictable and surface: she acts and feels exactly how you might expect a character to act and feel in her circumstances. In some moments it read as a journalistic piece where Madhu had been conjured as the ‘every’ hijra, poised for the reader to identify with a broader cultural phenomena rather than a unique individual.

I register this as a point of tension in my experience reading only because I think the narrative is otherwise compelling and I am curious whether this is my deficiency as a reader or whether I’m right in thinking the narrative falls short in Madhu’s fulsome development. So! Read it! And then tell me how I’m wrong.

 

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Governor Generals, Prize Winner

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