Books·How I Wrote It

Anosh Irani on the universal search for home

In The Parcel, Anosh Irani delves into India's hijra (transgender) community and everyone's need for belonging.
Anosh irani was finalist for the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and for the Governor General's Literary Award in 2016 for the Parcel. (Glen D'Mello/Knopf Canada)

Growing up outside one of Mumbai's largest red light districts, Anosh Irani's dim childhood memories have evolved into a brilliant novel. In The Parcel, a powerful heroine spends her life searching for acceptance — first, as a girl trapped in a boy's body, then as a sex worker on the streets of Kamathipura and finally, as a beggar desperate to shed her own skin. The novel has been shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers' Trust Prize for Fiction.

In his own words, Irani describes the decades of observation that resulted in his latest novel.

Unlocking the story

"It began with the character of Madhu. I knew I wanted to write about her. The key for me was finding the present moment from which to enter the story. I grew up opposite Kamathipura [a Mumbai neighbourhood known for its brothels]. Since I was a kid I've been aware of the red light district. My understanding of it increased over the years. On a trip to India a few years ago, I noticed the district was changing. A lot of the brothels were being replaced by small factory units and that was an interesting point for me because the district itself was dissolving. Meanwhile, I had this character of Madhu, who's now 40 years old and feels her body is dissolving in a way, it's letting her down. She's feeling displaced all over again. So that was my point of entry for the story."

Homing instinct

"The hijra [transgender] community in India is extremely unique. It's a world of its own. But it's also a world that has a lot of pain in it because there's no real acceptance, at least there hasn't been for a very long time. Now things are slowly changing. I wanted to write about a boy who had been rejected by his parents because of who he was and then how he felt like a soul trapped in the wrong body. He always identified with the female form and then he found his place within the hijra community. This character trying to find home, feeling trapped all the time, I find that interesting because it's a very painful place to be in.

"I think everyone wants to feel at home. Someone like me, I grew up in Bombay and moved to Canada when I was 24. The meaning of home completely changed in a second once I moved here. I felt very isolated, but at the same time it was a great place for me to write and to develop my craft. I realized that for the longest time I didn't know what home was. I had two homes: Bombay and Vancouver. I kept trying to navigate my way between those two places and when we talk about the novel, to me it's interesting that Madhu is trying to find home, first of all within her own body and then in society. She's trying to find a place for herself because she's always on the margins."

Blending in

"I've been going to India every single year since I moved to Canada, so I'm very familiar with the red light district. I spent days and weeks walking through the district, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, sometimes at night, just to be an observer and see what happens. For me to write a novel I have to completely immerse myself in that world. I don't start writing until I have the confidence that I know that world really well.

"I was visiting that place year after year, observing. After the first two drafts, I interviewed a transgender person who also used to do sex work. Talking to real-life hijras gave me a lot of insight into their psychology, their state of being and into the way they live — their struggles, their hopes, their dreams.

"You can't go around with a notebook in a place like Kamathipura. That's definitely not something you can do. As a writer you have to learn how to be anonymous, almost an invisible presence. You can't really interview anybody in the red light district. It's quite a dangerous place. A lot of people who are from Bombay feel really uncomfortable and unsafe there. I've grown up there so it's familiar territory, but I also know I can't be complacent. I have to be aware at all times because it can turn in a second."

The truth within

"Once I get started, I try not to stop. I get a first draft out, no matter how rough it is, I just keep going. For that, I have to be really ready to write and that can take years. A lot of research is also thinking. As a writer you spend a lot of time just walking around. People will think you're not working at all — and they might be right — but there's something that happens just by being. I do believe that the stories are contained within your own body. They emerge from a place that is deep inside of me. It's not from the mind. The mind just aligns itself to the truth that the body wants to tell."

Anosh Irani's comments have been edited and condensed.

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