Flashes of irreverence and quiet beauty are interspersed with lyrical passages.
Deep inside the cacophony of Mumbai lies a dense green patch that has stood firm against the relentless assault of the urban jungle. It keeps to itself; it contains its secrets well. This is the 55-acre estate that holds the Parsi dakhma or Towers of Silence, where the community brings its dead, to be returned to the elements. The estate also houses the khandhias or corpse bearers who ferry the bodies in their final stretch into a tower, for “the banquet of the birds”, to be devoured by vultures.
Not the most salubrious setting, perhaps, for a romance. The pall of death hangs over the woods and Mistry’s novel, spun around an all-too-brief love story, is expectedly suffused with loss; an aching longing surfaces now and then like a phantom that refuses to go away. But, amid the corpses and prayers, the tale has its flashes of dark irreverence and raucousness, quiet beauty and reflective moments.
Mistry uses the romance interrupted by death to ask the big questions: What happens to us after we’re dead? And what do you choose to believe in when alive? What do you make of the “... abominable lack of any higher meaning or significance to life, entirely at the mercy as it is of random death”? And how do you explain the great social inequities that persist? (He sets the story against the backdrop of the Independence movement, the nation’s cry for freedom and justice reflected in the khandhias’ own quest for liberation.)
Mistry has created an apt platform for these questions with a storyline based on a real-life tale he came across during his research for a film that was never made. The khandhias are a small sub-caste of Parsis, in which in-breeding has wrought its problems, compounded by their isolation because the Parsis consider dead matter unclean. Though Phiroze Elchidana, the novel’s narrator, is a nussesalar and ranks higher than a khandhia, he tells us: “You could say that as a nussesalar, I am a glorified untouchable.”
The job is largely hereditary but Elchidana, son of a revered head-priest of a fire temple, chooses to become one because it’s the only way he can marry his love, Sepideh or Seppy, daughter of a khandhia. She dies, bitten by a snake in the woods, when their daughter is three years old. The impact of her loss suffuses the novel and we constantly hear about her though we see precious little of her ourselves (one of the factors that leads to some dissatisfaction.)
Mistry weaves his dilemmas into a novel that is, thank God, not unduly melancholic; talk of death is invariably interspersed with imprecations and irreverence, much in the style of the community he’s writing about; the book’s khandhias are a scatological, garrulous lot. Phiroze himself is a rebel who visits gambling dens and brothels — without his pious family’s knowledge, of course.
He also manages to bunk school regularly and has no interest in matters scholastic. And therein lies another problem. Phiroze, who professes to be not the most intellectual or sophisticated of men, speaks with a voice that is sometimes exceedingly formal, sometimes elegant and poetic. You first savour the lyrical passages, then try to reconcile them with the character drawn out for you.
I also thought the ending was a bit of a letdown, though I have to concede it might work for others. By the time you reach end-point, however, you’ve probably got used to those mixed feelings.
The Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, Cyrus Mistry, Aleph Book Company, p.247, Rs.495.