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When voices are suppressed under the Tower of Silence

Monday, August 27, 2012

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry. A mistaken identity can be the undoing of many a person, more so if you share the same name as Cyrus Mistry – one, a man who was plummeted into public eye as Ratan Tata’s successor, the other, an unassuming, reclusive writer. The latter is the Cyrus Mistry who makes his appearance here. A writer from whose pen flows vivid imagery and fluid prose. He may be known as Rohinton Mistry’s brother, but to correct the myth, at age 21, Cyrus Mistry coveted recognition for his play Doongaji House with the Sultan Padamsee Award in 1977, much before big brother Rohinton Mistry earned his stripes for Such A Long Journey. One of Cyrus’ short stories was made into a film Percy, for which he won the National Award for the Best Script for a Gujarati film. Unfortunately, his first novel Radiance of Ashes went unnoticed largely thanks to indifferent marketing.

 It is with his second novel Chronicles of a Corpse Bearer, that Cyrus Mistry makes reappearance.

In 1991, Cyrus was commissioned to research a documentary on the khandias/corpse bearers who live around the Towers of Silence of Mumbai where the Zoroastrians carry out their funerary rites. The process of research allowed the writer not only a glimpse into the rites of passage, but also an entry into the lives of these families and their stories. It is one such story that forms the germ of Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer.

Mehli Cooper, a young dock worker, fell in love with the daughter of a khandhia; he could marry her only if he forsook his early life to become a khandia. Mistry heard this story from Mehli’s son Aspi, a successful bookmaker at the racecourse. Mehli is also purported to have called a strike among the khandhias; although no mention of it exists in the records of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, Aspi, a young boy then had some memory of it. Mehli albeit came out a quieter and subdued person. With this seedling plot and Mistry’s research emerges a telling narrative of a group of people who live on the fringes of a shrinking community.

Although at one time there was no escape from this ostracized life, today the younger generations have broken through.

The protagonist Elchi (Phiroze Elchidana), the son of an esteemed Parsi priest, narrates   his life story growing up in a deeply religious household, a non-achiever at school, falling in love with Seppy (Sepideh), the daughter of a khandhia, giving up his family to marry her, only to lose her soon after their daughter Farida is born, to an untreated cobra bite.  Being a group of humiliated outcasts, the khandhias have no rights, put in unreasonable working hours, and earn very little money.  The book also narrates an equally attention-grabbing story of a revolt by Elchi and his co-workers against the Parsi Punchayet demanding more humane treatment. Chastened, Elchi lives the rest of his life as a shadow of his former self.  The narrative runs parallel to events which were precursor to India’s Independence, with well placed descriptions of morchas, etc. And the nocturnal theft of electricity to hear the news on a battered radio.

The second half of the book intertwines an amusing and touching incident concerning the funeral of a cancer patient Joseph, born to a Parsi father and a Christian mother, who upon realizing that his end is near, seeks release through a Zoroastrian funeral. The ensuing turmoil that this creates amongst the Parsi community, the Punchayet, press and the khandhias, is the highlight of the book, and it’s eventual outcome rings true of  today. Furthermore, Mistry also reveals the abhorrence that Elchi’s father bore towards his father-in-law. A subplot of familial vengeance emerges, well played out, with subtlety; with the retrieval of a lost treasure – a pair of ruby earrings.

Two places in the narrative stand out for black humour. The first is when Phiroze Elchidana and three other corpse bearers are making their way to the Doongerwadi, Elchidana faints and the corpse turns turtle. The other is when a young Phiroze ties the family’s pet parrot to a string to fly him like a kite round the room. The kidnapping of a corpse and its final internment in a cemetery are likely to evoke a smile. 

Cyrus Mistry’s narration blends measured doses of black humour, irony and tragedy. His characters are real people, and stay with the reader way after the last page has been turned. His description of Doongerwadi’s surroundings almost urges one to go on a nature walk and look for Elchi and Sepideh’s hideout.

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is a telling book, which not only bemoans the chasm created amongst men, thanks to society’s wanting to cling on to tradition; it also tells a disturbing  story of those people who live on the periphery of an alarmingly shrinking community.

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer
by Cyrus Mistry
Aleph Book Company
Rs. 495

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