Books

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer

A good read for anyone interested in a compact, intergenerational drama

There are several similarities between Cyrus Mistry’s new book and his first, The Radiance of Ashes. Here too, a child, deemed a failure by his immensely oppressive parents, is on a personal mission to “chronicle his times”. Like the earlier novel, this too has an easy writing style and a cast of believable, idiosyncratic characters that draw you into their world – a slice of Parsi life in Bombay. This slice though is more obscure than in Mistry’s debut; here his subject is the little-known community of the “khandias”, or corpse bearers, at the Tower of Silence, an ancient Zoroastrian structure for the disposal of the dead. 

Set just before Indian Independence in the thick forests around the Tower in the middle of a city that “nibbles at its edges”, this is the story of Phiroze Elchidana, son of a Parsi priest, who does the unthinkable: falls in love, marries and has a child with the daughter of an “untouchable” corpse bearer. If that’s not bad enough, she’s also his cousin and the child of his father’s sworn enemy. In his research for a BBC documentary on the same topic, Mistry came across a man named Aspi Cooper whose father, Mehli, like Mistry’s protagonist, voluntarily joins the ranks of these unfortunate men for the love of a woman. According to Aspi, Mehli also organised and lead the first and only strike by the khandias, in 1942. This strike is nowhere mentioned in the records of the Parsi Panchayat, and may or may not be a historical fact, but it takes on great significance in the novel, against a backdrop of political upheaval. 

As the love story unfolds in this eerie Garden of Eden, so do family secrets and the rituals surrounding death in the Zoroastrian faith. Mistry’s imperative to chronicle, to fill up the holes in history with his stories, is as subversive and delightful here as it was in The Radiance of Ashes. A good read for anyone interested in a compact, intergenerational drama filled with not just love, sex and betrayal but also some keen observations on human nature.

Cyrus Mistry's Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer Aleph, R495

By Tara Sahgal on August 14 2012

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