A dark lit­tle se­cret of the Parsi community is at the cen­tre of this novel

India Today - - LEISURE - By An­var Alikhan

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.

SAU­RABH SINGH/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

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