Love and death in paradise

Imagine this. It’s your mother’s funeral, and you are denied entry into the family home. Likewise, you have to forego attending your best friend’s wedding. And later in life, your well-qualified daughter might not stand a chance to find a suitable groom. Circa 1940, Bombay. These and countless other forms of segregation were part of the stigma that was attached to the life and times of the corpse bearer or the khandhia, employed to bring the Parsi dead to the Towers of Silence.

In his book, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, author Cyrus Mistry (above) writes about a Zoroastrian priest’s son who falls in love with a corpse bearer’s daughter. PIC/AFP PHOTO

This community is the subject of freelance journalist, playwright and short storywriter, Cyrus Mistry’s latest book, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer. In between the 247 pages of this sometimes unsettling, otherwise heartwarming tale, are bookmarks about life and death, moral codes, the universe and a magical ending that questions the very core of our existence.

Record search
“I wanted to take a microscopic view of life, a look at a minimalistic world,” explains the Mumbai-based Mistry on his choice of subject. “It was incidental. Back in 1991, a proposal to document the khandhias for Channel 4 reached me. The germ of the book’s idea was in my sub-conscience. One of the stories told to me was by Aspi Cooper. His father, Mehli, a dock worker, had fallen in love with a corpse bearer’s daughter and was compelled to become a khandhia at the insistence of the girl’s father who had his reasons to extract revenge from the boy’s family.

This extreme form of social vendetta stayed with me,” recalls Mistry, whose research opened him up to the terrible conditions faced by this sub-caste. There was very little documentation available — “the Parsi Punchayet had no records of the alleged khandhia strike (for better conditions) that was led by Mehli. In fact, even their most trusted chronicle, The History of the Parsi Punchayet, which records the community’s history since the 18th century, has no mention of it.”

Mistry, who is a non-practicing Zoroastrian, adds that his earlier novel (The Radiance of Ashes, 2005) had a universal theme on the cruelty of man to man, the disparity within Mumbai, where the main protagonist had to live with a reality that made him schizophrenic. “It didn’t do as well as I’d expected. Besides, the publishers didn’t promote it. I was doubly clear that my next book would look at life in finer, minute detail,” he reveals.

Plot the characters
From the protagonist Phiroze, his parents Framroze and Hilla, his brother Vispy, to his young wife Sepideh and their daughter Farida, there is a certain human-ness and familiarity to almost every character in Mistry’s book that the reader is able to identify with.

One overlooks the fact that they belong to another community (possibly one of India’s tiniest), or that this story is set in a time when Mumbai was Bombay, in the throes of India’s freedom movement. “My characters and plot are fictionalised, except for the events that were taking place in the backdrop and the demography of the city,” cites Mistry. He tells us that the core of the plot — that of a temple priest’s son leaving his family to marry a khandhia’s daughter — was never heard of. “It was a horrifying thought in any case for them; they faced segregation from every kind of social outing, weddings, birthdays, family gatherings, anniversaries and navjyots (thread ceremonies). In return, they were made to believe that they were glorified for doing such a good job for the Parsi dead. Conditions have improved now, of course,” Mistry adds.

He admits that perhaps that non-documented strike, which was snuffed out in 2-3 days, would have probably helped matters. “The Punchayet would have worked towards improving their lives.” Years later, when Mistry returned to meet Aspi while working on this novel, much to his surprise, Aspi failed to recognise him and wasn’t of any help.

Revenge road
While emotion is the key element that runs thick through its pages, Mistry’s story doesn’t fall into the trap of being a tearjerker. Humour, dry wit, reality, simplicity and vendetta crisscross the lines of the plot such that its pace never falls flat. “Since this plot was centred on the unlikely situation of a boy from a priestly class falling in love with a girl from the lowly khandhia community, I had to find a justification. The revenge theme seemed ideal, and I was able to flesh out the hows and whys of its manifestation by using the complex character of the high priest (bolstered by his cruelty and occasional pettiness) to drive the plot forward. “This book took me nearly four years to complete but I was happy,” he admits. Little wonder then that when prodded about his most complex character, Framroze is his pick. “He was a most fascinating person, complex and multi-dimensional.”

Mistry wasn’t even sure about the course of his story — “I didn’t know which direction it would take; and I was definitely unsure about the ending, because I had a hero who was coping quite courageously, against the backdrop of the freedom struggle, echoed against his own freedom and slavery. Mumbai also plays a huge role in this plot. The reader will encounter topography, propped with countless references to places and people from a sepia-tinged city on the thrust of a new dawn. Horse-drawn carriages, trams, long-gone street names, parlance, city slang (including oh-so-familiar swear words), and some still-standing landmarks (thankfully) will add a sense of belonging and a tinge of warmth for the city-bred soul.

Community clash?
Throughout, one cannot ignore the transparent, non-biased and refreshing take on the many sides and layers to Zoroastrian community. Quiz him about any apprehensions he might have had on touching upon several unspoken and taboo subjects on the community, and his reply is welcoming. “Overall, the focus of this book is a narrative about a love story. It was so strong that even I was swept away with it! I hope it is taken in the right spirit. Yes, there might be issues where Parsis might voice concerns but I urge them to not get interested in the book for such reasons. I might not be a practising Zoroastrian but I was born as one and I have immense regard for the community. It is one of the world’s most ancient, evolved religions, and was also the first to emphasise on the ecological aspect of disposing the dead,” he elaborates. It’s clear — Mistry wants the reader to take an interest from a human viewpoint, and not with the intent to highlight the grotesque or the sensational aspects to this book.

Questions for all
“Since I began writing this book, I wanted to focus on a small area that would lead to a larger interest,” Mistry repeats, after we remind him of the ease and flow with which this non-Zoroastrian journalist was able to navigate through this saga of the bittersweet love story of Phiroze and Sepideh, which although short-lived, remains the book’s essence.

“It’s not meant to be a Parsi novel. It must have a wide appeal where central questions of life and death, universe, morality, justice and the debate over the co-existence of other dimensions must be asked.”  

Wretchedly poor, their clothing bedraggled, they looked like they had been rescued from the streets and provided shelter at the shrine. On the other hand, there was something strange about them. Their faces seemed haunted, vacant. They stood, or sat on the floor, motionless, drained of expression, like zombies. Others, among them,however, were completely preoccupied with the enactment of recurrent, mindless gestures — acting out twitches and tics, compulsive rotations of the neck and head,contortions of the hip and torso. I hadn’t noticed this earlier, but was startled to see that many of them were actually manacled, their ankles clamped and attached to individual chains leading onto one collective ring in the wall, secured by a large padlock.

An elderly devotee standing beside me followed my perturbed gaze, and whispered, ‘Yes, poor unfortunates...their minds have slipped...someone lays a black spell on them, and their own families don’t know what to do. So they bring them Baba’s grace most go home cured. He resolves every kind of problem. I could tell you-if you only knew-what miracles he has worked. Oh, oh...shh...the service begins...’ he pointed out, immediately assuming a countenance of devout absorption.

The first resonant murmur of taut skin drew my attention to a huge kettledrum in a corner of the hall, placed on a slightly raised pedestal; a garishly colourful cloth was tied as decoration around the enormous drum. A slow, hypnotic beat began to rumble softly, at first. Dhoom...da-bhoom-bhoom-dhoom...da-bhoom...da-bhoom- bhoomdhoom...

The drummer, striking the drum with long, padded knobsticks, appeared to be entering a trance of deep concentration, such were his own exaggerated movements.

Slowly, the tempo increased, and he struck the drum more fiercely with every minute: layers of rhythm and resonance enveloped us. The commanding precision of his mighty booming, its irresistibly gradual and intoxicating acceleration brought life, I noticed, to the women in the balcony. Someone must have released their chains for the service, for they were on their feet now, swaying in their places, though their movements were still measured and restrained, as though they were only gradually rousing out of a deep stupor. But as the drumming grew louder and more abandoned- though still preserving the compulsive strictness of its rhythm- they were possessed by frenzy, a wild spontaneity.

Extracted from Cyrus Mistry’s Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, published by The Aleph Book Company, July 2012 

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