Friday, August 17, 2012

Review: Cyrus Mistry's Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer

My review of Cyrus Mistry's Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer in The Sunday Guardian last Sunday.

I have come to realise that I like stories with edges & this one isn't a smooth read. Which is not to say it's diffficult or boring; by no means. Just that it has healthy doses of roughage attached.


Those who are recently bereaved are encouraged by custom and by religion to keep their minds on higher things: on the soul's afterlife, perhaps on rebirth or some transcendental narrative of continuity. We are meant to dwell on the metaphysical to forget the horror of the physical fact of death.
Then there are those who are not themselves bereaved but who are never allowed to forget the physicality of death. Like many castes that live on the invisible margins of society performing the most difficult and distasteful tasks, corpse bearers rarely impinge on our collective consciousness.

Cyrus Mistry's novel Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer takes us into the world of the khandhias in pre-Independence India. The khandhias are a sub-caste of the Parsi community whose job it is to dispose of the dead. Phiroze Elchidana is the son of a priest who falls in love with the daughter of a khandhia, Sepideh, and gives up his life of privilege to marry her. He leaves home and himself becomes a corpse bearer, living with Seppy in their own personal Eden that is Doongerwadi, by the Towers of Silence. Their brief period of happiness ends with Sepideh's death by snakebite, and Phiroze is left with a baby and no possibility of return to his earlier life.

It is not a return he seeks. Instead, through his constant grief, Phiroze retains his early sense of scepticism and a deep, transgressive irreverence for all forms of ritual and religious belief. Phiroze recalls his frequent urge, as a child, to giggle inappropriately at the most solemn moments. As he grows older and loses all interest in his studies, he learns to lie, he samples all the seedier pleasures of the Bombay that lies outside the Fire Temple, and comes back home from visiting graveyards, deliberately not bathing or 'purifying' himself afterwards. Once, he even considers peeing into a fire, knowing how much it would profane the Parsi reverence for the sanctity of fire. He doesn't act on the impulse, but the mere thought is defiance enough.

Like a doctor who can feel desire even after examining suffering bodies everyday, Phiroze experiences a capacious sorrow for his dead wife, even though he deals with death every single day. As a khandhia, he retains his sardonic eye for the process of tending to bodies and the people he interacts with while doing so. But as a man and a husband, Phiroze reflects on death as anyone would who has felt the loss of a dear one: he looks for grand design, feels sure he will meet Seppy again, and yet he accumulates memories of acts of courage and wit to resist 'the monstrous encumbrance of an incoherent and meaningless existence.'

Cyrus Mistry risks much in making this a first person narrative, but Phiroze is a self-conscious narrator, aware of the unreliability of his memory. He constantly questions his own recollection of events or specific feelings he claims to have felt. This, and his unique position of being cast out from the life he was born into gives him the perspective of an detached observer.

At one point, soon after the success of a strike called by the khandhias — which the Panchayat tries to deflect by emphasising the sacred nature of the khandhias' work and promising their liberation from rebirth — Phiroze observes: 'The argument smacked so completely of human rather than divine machination; I could see this more clearly, I suppose, because I didn't belong by hereditary to the sub-caste of corpse bearers'.

There are many things to like in this book — the intricate stepping across time and memory, the dark humour of Phiroze and the other khandhias, and the flickering glimpses of a world outside the confines of the Fire Temple and Doongerwadi. Even the prose that slides from the high-toned vocabulary of the educated narrator to the casual, rough cadences of everyday speech is easy enough to get used to.

But for me, the most impressive thing about this book is the sleight of hand that Mistry pulls off. He offers to the reader a relationship that Phiroze sees as central — the love he has for Sepideh, for whom he gives up his life as he has known it — but it is a love that is hard to understand, because Seppy is mostly absent in the narrative. She is already a ghost and an elusive memory. It is only with the death of Phiroze's father that we see which relationship is really central and held the narrative together. That Phiroze himself is unable to see this, even as he grieves for his father and finds he has nothing more to say, is most poignant.

1 comment:

km said...

Who knew the Parsis had their own little caste system?