The protagonist is Madhu, a 40-year-old who identifies as a hijra, a person belonging to the third gender, neither male nor female. Born a boy with very effeminate behaviour, she was seen as a source of shame by her family. In her teens, she ran away from home and became part of a group of hijras in Kamathipura, the red-light district of Bombay. Much of her past is revealed via flashbacks; in the present, she is asked to prepare a 10-year-old Nepalese girl, known as the parcel, for her opening and subsequent life as a sex worker.
This book is not an easy read. It shows the daily life of hijras in great detail. Rapes, assaults, suicides, AIDS, drug addiction, human trafficking, castration, prostitution, and sexual slavery are depicted. And there is no sentimentality in the depictions. A sex worker is taught that “Rape was like the common cold. You had to catch it at some point.” A hijra dying of AIDS is described: “The very things that made one human – love, hope, health – had been ripped from her calmly and precisely, the way a syringe extracted blood.” A similar fate awaits the parcel: “once the pojeetive worm entered her, ruptured its way into her being, her weight would drop and drop, and she would be abandoned, left to rot and dry under a bridge somewhere, or in an alley soaked in garbage. Even rain would hurt her skin.”
It is the portrayal of Madhu, a representative of the hijras, which most effectively conveys their loneliness and suffering. Madhu is full of self-hatred; she feels constantly at war with herself. She speaks of not having a face but “a visage confused beyond measure, man and woman fighting it out to see who gained possession.” At 40, she is old, like “a mere lemon peel lying on the road.” Her entire body is in rebellion: “Each day she woke up rougher, her body in some sort of race to look fifty. It wanted to be ahead of its time.” She doesn’t think of herself as a human being but as “a soft, ungainly pulp” and she knows that others see her as “a thing in a green sari.”
The emotion that rules Madhu is despair. She speaks of “the hot Sulphur of failure . . . eating her bones” and concludes, “Everything she did, everyone she touched, ended in dust. She was a master at one thing: failure.” Like every human, she wants love and acceptance. Sadly, she has learned that hijras are not accepted; they “had been pushed to the fringes and were left sitting on the margins the way flies sat on the rim of a plate, unwanted, circling the perimeter to find a way back in, but never succeeding.” And “in Kamathipura, love meant ‘temporary relief’.”
It is quite clear that Madhu’s soul does not possess peace. There is a telling description about midway through the book: “On most days, she managed to keep the piercing reminders of the past at bay by wrestling with them, by crushing them to the ground until they stopped thrashing about and behaved.” She has not been “truly liberated” as she was promised. And “For forty years she had lived inside this body. No matter how much she accepted who she was, she was still afraid. She was still angry. She still wanted answers.”
It is obvious that Madhu is trying to help the parcel by referencing her own experiences. Madhu wants to prepare the parcel for her life so she will not lose her mind like some girls who have gone “completely mad.” The parcel, like Madhu did, must “sever old ties, physically and emotionally.” Madhu wants the parcel to realize that there is no hope of escape from her fate; she works to remove any spark of hope “because that was the deadliest of sparks”.
There is some social commentary throughout. Society’s argument that prostitution is essential because, otherwise, streets would not be safe is addressed: “But, scoffed Madhu in spite of herself, has anyone asked whose streets would be safer? As long as the people outside of Kamathipura were not harmed, what happened inside the cages was justified. It prevented rapes. But in order to prevent rapes, parcels were being torn from their homes and raped every minute. . . . It was the way the city worked, the survival of the privileged and selfish. . . . how warped the human mind is. How blind, how bent, how convenient.” There’s a news story about the rape of a bride on her wedding night, and Madhu rages: “It also bothered Madhu how much coverage this incident was getting: a bride had been violated on that most sacred of nights. But what about ordinary women on ordinary nights? Or indecent women, perhaps, like sex workers? Or hijras? What happened when less-than-ordinary souls got violated? Why not create a furor then? Why let their pain slide away like rainwater into a gutter?” At one point, Madhu sees a poster for a workshop to save birds, and she asks, “Were birds worth saving because they could not tell their stories, tell of the cruelty and injustice they had encountered over the years? Or was it because it was possible to fix them, bandage a wing or two, and then make them fly away, out of one’s life forever?” Religion gets equal sarcastic treatment: a statue of Jesus is described as facing “away from the brothels, just like everyone else” and “The only comfort his arms could provide was as a resting place for crows, and even they knew not to stay too long.”
The book is certainly informative about the lives of hijras and others on the margins of society, but at times the explanations overshadow the narrative. One example occurs when the difference between true hijras and fake hijras is explained. Another instance is the description of how hijras are used to bless weddings and births.
I definitely recommend this book. Though sometimes exposition overwhelms the narrative, there is a memorable character that cannot be easily forgotten. The book forces us to look at some people from whom some of us too easily turn away.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.