A southern sojourn
Retreating from his breeding ground Mumbai, award-winning author Cyrus Mistry situates his new novel in Kerala with a gripping and moving tale centred around the death of a priest
History is inundated with examples of men who were never what they seemed. That's why pastor Pius Philipose, whose death sets the plot in motion in Cyrus Mistry's latest novel The Prospect of Miracles (Aleph Book Company), sounds all too familiar. The charismatic pastor is remembered for his fine sermons by the parishioners of Idukki in southwest Kerala. His wife and protagonist Mary Agnes, however, remembers him for a lot more — mostly terrible things — elevating the story to examine the heights of love, hate and madness.
"Mary is a two-sided person. Initially, she seems entirely normal and sensible until her obsessions get in the way. In the end, you can question if she is totally sane. That is how the character develops and it wasn't completely pre-planned," Mistry says, on a phone call from Kodaikanal, where he currently lives. The author chuckles when I remark that the halfway through, the book reminds one of George Cukor's Gaslight (1944). "I like that film quite a lot. It probably crept into my book, unintendedly," he admits, while giving a brief comparative analysis between his work and the movie before adding, "... but let's not give away too much about the plot." This isn't the first time Mistry is asking questions about love and death — his previous novel Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer that bagged the $50,000 DSC Prize in 2014 about the son of a priest who falls in love with the daughter of a corpse bearer, only to become one himself after marrying her. But does the 63-year-old author regard such an antithesis as central to his work? "I think most good writing or art is concerned with tragedy and love. So, although I think these things will be present in my writing, I hope other aspects of life come through, too."
Of research and imagination
Mistry began working on his new book in 2015 and took about three years to complete. He has credited renowned artist and sister-in-law Milburn Cherian for giving him 'a seed of an idea'. "She's a very religious person who is slightly obsessed with the idea of the end of the world. So, that gave me an idea to write a book around this obsession, with a dimension of spoof," he shares, adding that he used to read the The Holy Bible a lot, too — for quotes from the New Testament and his personal interest in the story of Christ. Giving a glimpse into a world of spice fields and tiled roofs, Mistry's vivid description emerged from his first ever trip to Kerala. And although this was a 10-day sojourn, the novel doesn't reflect that; it's authenticity, the author says, was vouched for by one of the sub-editors at the publishing house who hails from the same
region the novel is situated in.
"My work has mainly been concerned with the Parsi community, and there's another play on the East Indians of Bombay. They are the two I've lived with intimately. But I've been living in Kodaikanal since 2003 and thought of writing about a place like this. It's been a challenge because I haven't yet been assimilated into Tamil culture or language," he informs, adding that the story isn't inspired by a true event but a pure work of imagination, "I feel like there is no point in writing about a particular community if it doesn't appeal to other readers. I hope I've been successful in that. I didn't want to be typecast as a Parsi writer." Moving to Kodaikanal has been more of a lifestyle choice for Mistry — an alternative to the noisy, populated city life — where he has a few friends that he isn't compelled to meet all the time. "This thing about me being reclusive was just something I once said and people have latched on to it. When I was young, I used to enjoy partying, dancing and music. Now, I'm over 60 and don't enjoy socialising for the sake of it. Being in Kodaikanal has helped me stay calm and continue working," he explains.
The city of dreams
But Mistry, who took to music as a child, misses the city especially when he hears of orchestral events. But music has helped him write — the rhythm of words, he says, has so much to do with musicality. "I used to play the piano and wanted to be a composer. I didn't have the determination to continue in that field and ended up joking about it," he laughs. Mumbai still remains Mistry's breeding ground. He's currently writing a play set in a Parsi colony in Andheri, which ought to be performed before publishing. "I'd like to go back to writing plays. I like the form of the stage, you can use fewer words than a novel." Mistry isn't compelled to think about what the reader wants, he calls it a dangerous territory. "This is like being a print journalist, writing about the state of life in Mumbai or India and thinking about what would please the current government," he explains. So, as per formality of an acclaimed author with a new book, do we get to see Mistry in literature festivals now? With all honesty — as apparent in his writing — he replies, "No, I just turned down two. I don't mind interviews and readings but I don't like festivals where you've to make a point forcefully."
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