Not many books manage to transport you to a different world. A world that is self-sustained. This despite the characters moving only within a short radius. Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry surprises you by doing just that.
Mistry’s second book [after The Radiance of Ashes] takes you to the world kandhias [Parsi corpse bearers] of Mumbai, who live as outcasts — banished from all the happiness of the society, not allowed inside others’ houses, not allowed to participate in social functions and in short, doomed for life.
Now the question is, would anyone want to live such a life willingly? That’s the ‘factor differentiator’ in Mistry’s story, for here Phiroze Elchidana, the protagonist is an upper caste who willingly embraces the life of an outcast.
Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer takes you to a Bombay of the 1940s, when the freedom movement is in full swing but the heat of the movement doesn’t burn the world of the novel. Elchidana is the son of a respected Parsi priest who falls in love with Seppideh, the daughter of a corpse bearer, is denounced by his family but still goes ahead and marries her. However, it is not happily ever after. Seppideh dies soon after childbirth, due to a snakebite not too far from home.
In spite of abject poverty and despair, suffering only forms a sub-text with romance taking centrestage in the novel.
Mistry insists it’s a love story at its core: ‘Seppideh is already dead in the first chapter itself’. ‘But the story keeps travelling back and forth which is why her presence is felt right through the book,’ explains the author. Mistry says he quite liked the idea of not following a linear chronology in the book. However, that doesn’t take away the charm.
The premise of the novel is essentially dreamy and that was the very intention, says Mistry. ‘It is small self-contained world that very few people have access to’.
The idea hit the author about 20 years ago when he was looking for a subject to make a documentary and heard a story of a man in similar circumstances. ‘That man was a dock worker who gave up his social status,’ says Mistry.
The idea remained with him for several years. ‘I felt it was important and found it very strange that even after giving up everything, a man could have such a sense of fulfilment,’ says the author.
But when he started researching on the subject, his efforts drew a blank. ‘There weren’t any records on the conditions of corpse bearers at the Parsi panchayat offices. But 60 years back, the conditions were worse than they are now,’ he says.
But the idea of a corpse bearer fascinated him. ‘It is not a social problem. They are segregated and not allowed to mix with other Parsis. I found it quite interesting,’ says the author, elaborating: ‘The idea was to create a small world and within that to touch issues, which are relevant.’
But to call the novel a social commentary will be a gross misnomer, for Chronicles of a Corpse Bearer remains a love story to the core. ‘That is what it is essentially,’ agrees Mistry.
His second novel took him four years to pen down. ‘But that’s because I am very much a family person and tied up with too many things to do,’ he says, matter-of-factly.
Indeed, Mistry is a man of many talents. He wrote plays, worked as a freelance journalist, wrote film scripts, penned short stories which became National Award winning films, made documentaries. In short, he has a finger in almost every creative pie.
He doesn’t get back to writing film scripts any more though. ‘I didn’t find it satisfactory. The director has the last word and wants the story according to his vision’.
But writing is what gives him the ultimate high. ‘The written word is the most important. The whole thing about writing is that you have to live within yourself and pick up ideas,’ says Mistry. The author has already started work on short stories.
And does he consult his famous brother (Rohinton Mistry) when he sits down with an idea? ‘Not at all. He lives too far away and we haven’t met in years,’ says Mistry.