Cyrus Mistry On Life And Death

| Updated: March 18, 2022 12:11 pm

This week, I would like to talk about a novel that turns a lot of things upside down, so to say. The author, I would like to discuss is Cyrus Mistry. His brother, Rohinton Mistry is the toast of Indian Writing in English but Cyrus Mistry is no less. His play, Doongaji House was many well-received years ago and is considered as one of the seminal Indian plays. One of his short stories, “Percy” was made into a Gujarati film, Percy, and was an award-winning movie too.

It is Cyrus Mistry’s second novel, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, which won him the DSC South Asian Literature Prize 2014 that draws my attention this week. This novel also won him the Sahitya Akademi Award 2015 or the Award of the National Academy of Letters. Usually, Parsi Zoroastrians as a community have been spared the scourge of the caste system much as it afflicts other communities across the country. Or at least as MN Srinivas states in his work, India: Social Structure. This is kind of true as the caste system in its manifestations in Indian Society seems to have escaped the Parsis. So, Cyrus Mistry pulls off something quite remarkable. He writes about the community of Khandhias, the corpse bearers among the Parsis, who are not allowed to intermix with the other communities and who also lead secluded lives among the confines of the Towers of Silence. 

Mistry goes a step further in the novel as he shows that the protagonist, Phiroze Elchidana, the son of a Parsi priest, falling in love with Sepideh, the daughter of a corpse bearer. Thus, Mistry shows the existence of a marital relationship between the priestly class and the Khandhias, the corpse bearers. Caste may not exist as such in the Parsis but the social exclusion of the Khandhias is all too real and their lives are largely doomed. I also do not recollect any other literary work which sheds light on the community of corpse bearers among the Parsis. The novel is set in 1942, Bombay. The novel has its genesis in a possible strike that the Khandhias had planned. Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is replete with instances of the author’s dark humour or Parsi humour much as I like to call it.

There is an excellent interview of Cyrus Mistry with Arshia Sattar at The Punch Magazine that you might like to read.

When Phiroze Elchidana, the son of a priest, falls in love with Sepideh, the daughter of a corpse bearer, the daughter’s father imposes a condition that they could marry only if Phiroze came and lived in her house and did the work they did. Thus, Phiroze marries Sepideh, leaves his house and family, is virtually excommunicated from his family and lives with Sepideh and her family in the Tower of Silence. I have not come across the surname ‘Elchidana’ among Parsis and it actually means, ‘a single pod of cardamom’, which also sounds like an unlikely name for a priest’s son. I suspect this is Cyrus Mistry’s way of poking fun at social institutions. When the novel opens, Sepideh is already dead. 

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is an amazing tale of cogitations on life and death. It is also quite radical in its subject. It is, in my view, a revolutionary novel but one that is narrated as a miniature portrait, at a slower pace, allowing the reader to ponder over the different issues it encompasses within itself.

Quotes:

In the dream, I was walking through some kind of narrow sluice or gutter.

There wasn’t much water here, only a kind of viscous, transparent fluid, and a

great many dead bodies— decomposed, half-eaten, some only bone with shreds

of torn flesh sticking to them. . .I was wading through this ghoulish tumult of

the dead searching frantically for something or someone.

(Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, Chapter Fourteen)

As in the usual course of things, earthquakes, floods, droughts, riots, wars,

exploitation of the helpless, accidents, calamities of every sort continue to take

their toll—the meaningless, mindless decimation of millions of human ants, or

should I say, vermin? I’m not talking merely about the misery of the poor, or

the disingenuousness of the powerful, but of that unstoppable merry-go-round of

human suffering, of the abominable lack of any higher meaning or significance to

life, entirely at the mercy as it is of random death.

(Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, Chapter Fourteen)

The legalistic shilly-shallying of the reformist faction, both within the

Punchayet and outside it, led to the orthodoxy’s vocal majority raising its

campaign to a shrilly hysterical intensity.

(Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, Chapter Thirteen)

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