CHAT: Cyrus Mistry, author of “Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer”, on winning the DSC Prize 2014

On the DSC Prize Winner’s Tour last year, Jeet Thayil remarked that the 50,000 USD prize had given him “50,000 reasons to celebrate” and “the gift of time”. This year’s winner, Cyrus Mistry, is less euphoric, but no less grateful.

“It was a very fortunate and good thing that happened…there is not much a writer can earn if he is writing in English in India. And if you don’t have money, you have to do some other job which cuts into your full time writing. In the last six months I was doing some copywriting for an ad agency and all kinds of other things. So this has come as a great relief,” says Mistry, in a telephone interview.

Mistry’s novel “Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer”, published in 2012 by Aleph, is set in the little known world of Khandhias, a Parsi community of corpse bearers, in Mumbai. Its protagonist Phiroze Elchidana is based on Mehli Cooper, a middle-class dock worker from the last century who loved and married a Khandhia’s daughter, and became a corpse bearer. The author came across Cooper’s story in 1991, while working on a documentary. “The documentary was never made but it so happened that this story caught my attention,” he says.

“Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer” was in contention for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature with five other titles: “Book of Destruction” by Anand, translated by Chetana Sachidanandan; “Goat Days” by Benyamin, translated by Joseph Koyippalli; “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” by Mohsin Hamid; “The Blind Man’s Garden” by Nadeem Aslam and “Island of a Thousand Mirrors” by Nayomi Munaweera. “I had very high hopes of winning, until about five minutes before the announcement, when I felt that maybe I won’t get it,” Mistry says.

Announcing the winner, Antara Dev Sen, the DSC Prize 2014 Jury Chair said, “Cyrus Mistry’s ‘Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer’ is a deeply moving book, exquisitely drawn on a small, almost claustrophobic canvas. It takes a tiny slice of life, the life of the Khandhias or corpse bearers of the Parsi community, and weaves a powerful story about this downtrodden caste we know so little about. A fantastic storyteller, Mistry offers a beautiful novel rich in historical detail and existential angst, gently questioning the way we look at justice, custom, love, life and death.”

The starting point of the novel was its setting — Doongerwadi, “where the faithful consign their dead to the vultures in a final act of charity”. A place unlike Mumbai, the author’s hometown, Doongerwadi is an island of quiet. “If you see the place you will know that it’s a really marvellous place to die,” Mistry muses. Using Doongerwadi as his stage, as his Eden, enabled Mistry to articulate larger questions about death and morality in his narrative.

The author, now living in Kodaikanal, has previously written a novel, “The Radiance of Ashes”, and his first two works — “Doongaji House” and “The Legacy of Rage” — were plays. “Plays seemed to be the simplest thing for me to write. I feel I have a talent for writing dialogue, and the interchange between characters. Because I am an emotive kind of writer, I have always been very attracted to the raw blast of emotion which plays can give you.” He says he might have gone on writing plays all his life, had making money from them not been so difficult.

The author is now planning to finish an incomplete play, and bring out a compilation of the three plays. He is also working towards another novel, and bringing out a collection of short stories written over the last three decades.