Sunday 28 January - Epiphany 4 - Evensong - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN 4 after Epiphany EP: Numbers 21. 4-9; John 3. 1-21

The Parcel, by the Indian writer Anosh Irani, is a novel about life and death in the brothels of Bombay. When the main character, who is called Madhu, is a schoolboy, he feels in his heart that he really is a girl, and when this comes to the notice of his parents they reject rather than reassure him.  Eventually Madhu finds a new home in a community of hijras, transgender people of the third sex, who are neither male nor female. A sex change operation is performed by the community’s leader or guru, who becomes his, now her, substitute mother. Like some other hijra communities, this one is also a brothel, and because Madhu is young and beautiful, she becomes a very successful prostitute. But age takes its toll and by the time the action of the novel begins, Madhu, while still a member of the hijra brothel community, has to earn her living by begging.  Life, for her, is a daily struggle to maintain in deeply degrading circumstances some inner sense of herself as more than a broken-down body; and this is made even more difficult by a further task her community requires of her. Every so often a young girl from some distant village is trafficked, sometimes sold by her family, into prostitution. These young girls are referred to as ‘parcels’ (hence the title of the novel) and it is Madhu’s task to ‘break’ the ‘parcel’, in other words to convince the girl by whatever means, that she has no hope of returning to her old life and must now submit to whatever is required of her as a member of the brothel community.

Madhu accepts this task because she too feels that she has no alternative: her community and mother-guru are all that stand between her and even deeper degradation. But her way of ‘breaking’ her ‘parcels’ includes another task not assigned to her by the community. Desperately trying to maintain in herself some sense of self-respect, some element of human dignity, she tries to instil in the trafficked girls some way of maintaining an inner core of their own worth as themselves which will survive all that will be done to their bodies. But this is an almost impossible task; and in the end Madhu begins to fear that by conspiring with the evil of trafficking she is destroying not only the girls’ but her own human worth and dignity.

I won’t now attempt to describe what happens next: you’d need to read the novel. But what Irani, its author writes, is based on many conversations with people like those in its pages, and the culmination of its plot is complex yet credible. A combination of events leads to the death of her guru-mother and the disintegration of her community, and at the same time Madhu is made uncomfortable aware of the particularly evil use designed for her latest ‘parcel’.  In the midst of all these circumstances, Madhu remembers a moment, long ago, when she truly loved and was loved by another person. She realises that it is in this experience that her sense of her own inner worth is most deeply rooted, and it is this that she cannot, must not, deny to her last ‘parcel’ – whom Madhu new sees - and loves - by the girl’s own name of Kinjal, a bewildered ten-year old child with all her life before her.  Madhu devises a way whereby the little girl can escape from the brothel to a place where she will be safe and looked after: but for reasons again complex but credible, the only way in which this can be achieved will involve Madhu herself having to die.

Madhu dies and her plan succeeds. Six years later, living in a community with other girls who also are being helped and healed from having been trafficked, Kinjal, the girl Madhu rescued, reflects on her experience. As one way of helping the girls shed the shame they still feel for what others did to them, the ‘Marys’, the women caring for them, suggest that they ‘pick someone to pray to at night. Like Jesus, for example.’  They tell her that Jesus ‘listens to everyone’, Kinjal says; and ‘I talk to Jesus’: but, she adds, ‘he is not the last person I call out to before I sleep… In the dark, I seek Madhu. I talk to her and bless her. She caused me a lot of pain, but she gave up her life for me…. I speak to the one who set me free.’

‘God so loved the world…’ The words from our gospel reading tonight are so familiar that it can take a long time for their meaning even to begin to sink in. For many people too, the idea that God ‘gave his only Son’ has been historically so contaminated by patriarchal conceptions of a wrathful God demanding human sacrifice, as to make these words seem not just meaningless but even offensive. But what John wrote of long ago was not what so many word-spinners, logic choppers and literalists lacking imagination often would make of it. What John wrote, had its origin in what all human experience, from its earliest beginnings in our infancy, has its origin - in the experience of relationship. Israel’s relationship with the One who was too beyond human understanding to be pinned down by a single name, the relationship of the disciples with Jesus who taught them to say ‘Our Father’, the relationship of subsequent Christians with the living spirit of Christ among and within them: it was these relationships, of listening, and then speaking not about, but with the eternal Thou, that people of faith would seek in many different ways to express in words, none ever ultimately adequate.

‘God so loved the world…’ If that is true, what in the world does that love so encompass as those like the prostitute Madhu and the trafficked girl Kinjal? True, they are characters in a novel, but the novel is based on the lives of real people known to its author, and novels can sometimes awaken us more nearly to the truth than social science or sermons. And Jesus of course had good things to say of prostitutes and their priority in his kingdom. That is not to say that religious people do not have a part to play also: the ‘Marys’ who cared for Kinjal clearly did: but perhaps they were also wise in telling the rescued girls to ‘pick someone to pray to at night’, not necessarily Jesus, someone then like Madhu, who gave her life for Kinjal to set her free, and did so out of love and the memory of loving and being loved. It was her memory of loving and being loved not by God, but by another person, that moved Madhu to give her life for Kinjal. But these are the depths of the mystery of the Incarnation, the word made flesh, not only once but now forever: ‘For’ as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces’.



Anosh Irani The Parcel : Melbourne, London: Scribe Publications 2017