He has a reputation for being a recluse and he confirms it, saying he is happiest when writing. Excerpts from a conversation with Cyrus Mistry whose latest novel Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer has just been released.
There’s not much else you can find out online about Cyrus Mistry the writer besides a list of his books and the prizes he’s won for his plays, The Legacy of Rage and Doongaji House. And that a film named Percy, based on a short story of his, for which he also wrote the screenplay and dialogue, won the National Award for Best Gujarati Film of 1991 as well as a Critics’ Award at the Mannheim Film Festival.
There’s precious little on the personal side as well (except on his publisher Aleph’s website) and no interviews to mine. “Well, I’m not famous,” the author protests. (It also doesn’t help that another Cyrus Mistry is the anointed successor to Ratan Tata and tends to dominate a Google search.)
However, word on the publishing street is that he’s a bit of a recluse. Do you think that’s a fair assessment, I ask. Mistry offers a wide smile and wry acceptance: “Yes, I think recluse is fair. I’m not a very sociable kind of person. And I try not to organise or attend parties.” Neither is he comfortable doing the regulation book tour for his latest effort, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer; a launch in Mumbai is the only concession he’s made so far.
Smiling again (he does smile a lot for a reclusive guy), he admits, “I’m happiest when I’m writing; I feel whole and healthy when the writing is going well. When you’re exploring an idea and one word leads to the next smoothly — that’s the real pleasure.”
Most of that writing is now done in Kodaikanal, a world apart from his native Mumbai, the setting for much of his work. How did that happen? “For health reasons and because my son goes to school there,” he says. “Anyway, Mumbai has become insufferable and so money-centric. People seem to have too much money to spend. I don’t have that kind of money.” The language barrier doesn’t bother him either: “I may not be able to speak Tamil well, but I relate much better to the people in Kodaikanal than in Mumbai.”
Another reason Mistry has not been too much in the news is that, for many years, he battled a debilitating illness that has left him somewhat frail in body but stronger in mind. “I’ve overcome illness by using my mind,” he says. Though, in his customary self-deprecatory manner, he says later, “I’m not very cerebral, I’m not an ideas man. Emotion is very important to me.”
Plenty of emotion — joyous, aching, bitter, ribald — spills out of Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, a novel imbued with an overwhelming sense of loss and a dark, brooding humour that never lets up. A love story set against the backdrop of the khandhias or corpse-bearers of the Parsi community, the novel expectedly asks questions about life and death.
“These are questions one keeps asking oneself: How seriously should I take karma? How do miracles happen? When you’re a person of strong faith, God is on your side. You can rationalise even the bad things that happen to you; they don’t destroy your faith,” he muses. Of himself, he says, “I am a person of doubting faith; a person who likes the idea of prayer and faith but wonders whether there is any evidence to support it outside of our own minds.”
Mistry does not hesitate to ask these questions upfront in the book, partly because he sees that approach as integral to the purpose of writing. As he declares in his brief bio on the Aleph website, a work of fiction should be “able to move its reader at some fundamental level, to disturb and rearrange his outlook on life, perhaps even change him as a person for even a very short moment.”
The book’s ending provides an answer of sorts to his questions, but also raises new ones. “It is a redemptive, magical ending but it flies in the face of reason because it shows a dimension of existence on which we can’t hang our credos,” he says. (Afraid I can’t tell you more about the ending without it being a spoiler.)
The protagonist and narrator of the novel, Phiroze Elchidana, is a man who’s not born a khandhia but opts to become one in order to marry the woman he loves. The enormity of his choice lies in the work and life of the khandhias: ferrying corpses to the Parsi Towers of Silence to be picked clean by vultures and “the ostracisation and segregation of the khandhias, the pseudo-scientific reasons and justifications for that,” as Mistry puts it.
Marginalisation is a theme that also informs Mistry’s first novel, The Radiance of Ashes, published in India in 2006. Unfortunately, recounts its author, “Nobody read it; very few even saw it,” thanks to what he sees as the indifference of the publisher, Picador. So he fills us in: “It was about the social cruelty of man to man, the grotesque social differences in our society and their manifestations.” The novel had a character very similar to Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, he reveals, so “I was sure it would cause a stir. But it sank like a stone in a murky pond.”
The hurt rankles all these years later, but then, as Mistry has told us, he is ruled by emotion. In fact, in an unexpected revelation, he even admits to getting teary at overwrought Hindi film scenes. Any film-maker that he’s partial to? “I don’t see too many films, even though my wife (Jill Misquitta) is a documentary film-maker,” he replies, “but I do like the films of Guru Dutt.”
Another unforced confession pops up later, when we talk about the scatological tone of some of the dialogue in Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer: “I used to be a wild kind of guy,” he reveals. Did he meet his wife during the wild phase or after? “Very much during that phase; we met in college,” he says.
Some of that wild spirit seems to have lingered on when he started work as a journalist in the 1980s. At the book launch, author and columnist Anil Dharker talked about how, when he was editor of Debonair magazine (the Indian version of Playboy), Mistry was asked to write erotic fiction and “was brilliant at it.”
Hopefully, we will see some evidence of that brilliance as well in Mistry’s next novel. Lots of scope for heightened emotions there, surely.