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'Novels are about survival': Why Anosh Irani's fiction is about the search to belong

The author of The Parcel explains how growing up across the street from Mumbai's notorious red light district influenced his writing.
Anosh Irani's novel The Parcel is a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction.

When Anosh Irani was a boy, he lived across the street from Mumbai's red light district. He saw a lot of things he was too young to understand, but the place and its inhabitants stuck in his mind. He went on to become a playwright and novelist, and the stories he tells are inspired by his native city. His latest novel, The Parcel, takes an unflinching look at a horrible reality: "the parcel" the title refers to is a 10-year-old girl who's been sold into prostitution.

Stories you can't get out of your mind

I grew up opposite Kamathipura, which is one of the most notorious red light districts in the world. I've always found the place to be haunting as well as inspiring, and when I choose stories, I write about the things that consume me. There are certain stories, certain moments, that you try to shake off but they still stick to you for some reason. Anyone who operates in the shadow world, I find very interesting. Why are they there? What is it that drives them? How do they survive? Those are the questions that I ask myself.

The difficulties of researching a painful topic

Unfortunately it is quite typical for girls to be sold by relatives. This was something I was shocked to find in my research. When I spoke with people who worked with sex workers, I found out that a lot of times the children were betrayed by a family member. It wasn't just men who were doing this, but women as well. That was very shocking for me. The research was tough — to be honest, I would never have written this book if I hadn't been born in that area. 

The wound at the core of every character

I always start a character by asking "What is the wound? What wound does this person have?" Because if you think of human beings, we all have some kind of wound. We're all looking for some kind of healing, some light, some release. Novels are about survival, in a way. You have a wound, you try to survive, you try to reach towards some sort of light. 

For the main character, Madhu, the wound is rejection. Madhu was born a boy, and she was sort of rejected by her family because she always identified with the female form. I realized as I was writing the novel that I knew the world of Kamathipura really well. But Madhu's existence is very different from mine. So how am I able to write about her? I realized that in the end, all humans want acceptance, at some level. We all look for love, for kindness, for acceptance. And rejection is something that can wound anyone, especially when it happens to us as children.

Anosh Irani's comments have been edited and condensed.