LORD OFTHE UNTOUCHABLE
A dark little secret of the Parsi community is at the centre of this novel
Poor Cyrus Mistry. His situation reminds me of playwright Anthony Shaffer: When Anthony wrote his plays, like Sleuth, everybody automatically compared him to his more famous playwright brother Peter Shaffer, writer of plays like Equus and Amadeus. And so it is with Cyrus and his more famous brother, Rohinton, author of Such a Long Journey and A Fine Balance. To make things more complicated, both brothers trawl the same literary territory: The claustrophobic little doll’s- house world of the Mumbai Parsis, with its curious obsessions and eccentric ways. But any comparison between the two is naive and, in any case, what most people don’t realise is that it was Cyrus who was probably the role model, his dark, award- winning 1977 play, Doongaji House, being a factor that nudged older brother Rohinton to take to writing seriously.
Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is, at its heart, a collision of the most sacred and the most abhorred elements in Parsi life. It is the story of Phiroze Elchidana, the slow witted son of the head priest of the Soonamai Ichchaporia fire temple. He grows up surrounded by the white marble spotlessness of the temple, the hallowed chains of prayers, the arcane Persian purification rituals and the fragrance of frankincense. And, as his father hopes, “Perhaps, Hilla, one day our Phiroze will become a great priest, or a renowned Zoroastrian scholar.” But then one day, wandering in the lush, forested grounds of the Towers of Silence, Phiroze falls in love with Sepideh, a wild, long- limbed forest nymph of a girl. She is the daughter of a nussesalar, a corpse bearer and, in the Parsi tradition, a ‘ Lord of the Unclean’, the tiny community who personally absorb the evil putrefaction of corpses— a noble service for which their souls will forever escape the cycle of rebirth, although in this final incarnation, they are condemned to be shunned by fellowParsis as “untouchable to the core”.
Phiroze commits the sin of wanting to marry Sepideh, and for this he is cast down from his priestly family. He must now himself become an abhorred corpse bearer, like Sepideh’s father, spending the rest of his days living in the Towers of Silence, collecting corpses, and ritually cleansing and anointing them with bull’s urine before laying them out for the vultures. “I felt immense bereavement,” says Phiroze. “All that immaculate purity and holiness was out of bounds for me. Everything I had once held dear was lost, and forever. I had become a pariah.” He can never go home again.
The novel, apparently based on a true story that Cyrus once stumbled upon, goes on to explore the twin themes of love and, inevitably, loss. And in the process, it takes us through tangled tales of family intrigue, betrayal, revenge, forbidden love, prostitution, and even hints of necrophilia. But, most of all, it is an unflinching look at the lives of the nussesalars— the dirty little secret of the otherwise admirable Parsi community— which is presented through a combination of heartbreaking candour and occasional ribald Parsi humour. Cyrus is a fine literary craftsman who has the power to move us profoundly ( although I’m not entirely sure that he “has long been known as perhaps the best writer of his generation”, as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra claims in his blurb on the cover).
Gieve Patel once wrote a poem, “The Ambiguous Fate of Gieve Patel, He Being Neither Muslim Nor Hindu in India.” Mistry’s novel delves into the dark and painful new dimensions of that ambiguity.