I read 'Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer' some months back. And in those months passed I have confidently recommended it to readers like myself. Then why have I not already put these thoughts together about a book that my husband led me to and which shone like a special sea shell found among the many lining the shores? Perhaps, I did not want this to sound like just another review - following a pattern and trying to make one in the readers’ minds. It may still do both, but my aim is to confess my love for this piece of writing. And all confessions require some making-up of the mind. Thus, delay excused.
I pick a line from the book to tell you what the book is about: ‘a sad (and obsessive) investigation into the heart of impermanence’ and metaphorically set in the Tower of Silence.
This is the story of Phiroze Elchidana, the son of a Parsi priest who falls in love with the daughter of a corpse bearer, Sepidah. By all man-made standards of purity our communities live by, Phiroze becomes the son his father never hoped for. Shunned, he lives the life of a corpse bearer, a ‘Custodian of the unclean’, to feed his family. The story is Phiroze's bildungsroman and circles around this microscopic Parsi community which he chooses to become a part of and which not many of us know about.
If you think bare-naked depictions of want, of loss, of death and its surrounding hypocrisy make for a "heavy" subject, don’t read this. But if you want to be touched by the beauty these very bleak subjects can come clad in, please do. Don’t get me wrong because I don’t mean fineries. I mean that note of the softest of songs which carries power enough to make you sway. No … loud grandeur, but a prose written with the deftness of effortless art; enough to make you cry at the deprivation portrayed while yet making you enjoy every bit of the description of it all. Not entirely guiltless enjoyment, but then what can you do if good writing makes you enjoy reading about another’s pain?
But it isn’t about pain alone. A thought that catches Phiroze often, to do with his Sepidah, goes thus:
‘The conundrum that lurks behind sexual joy, perhaps behind every form of ecstasy: that ultimately there’s nothing to satiety but emptiness, something not far removed from the void of despair.’
And in no real hurry (because the book does not want you to) you realize that this juxtaposition of joy and despair, of satiety and void, of ecstasy and emptiness is the very idea that this book is created around. The idea of Blake’s ‘contraries’, without which ‘there is no progress’ and a certain ‘marriage of heaven and hell’, to freely borrow from dear Blake.
So in this book you will find all kinds of beliefs being questioned, including the one in Life itself. Yet, some are affirmed too and especially at the end of the book. The subtle juggling of opposite forces find a face not just through characters and their thoughts but also in the imagery and symbolism used in the book.
You will notice the Towers of Silence, symbolic of death, are actually surrounded by a lush, fertile garden reminiscent of Eden and where love grows, gets married and bears a child. At the same time, the irony of the pariah life of a corpse bearer being even worse than death itself will not escape you. Thus, Doongerwaadi Hill, the estate of the Towers of Silence, is where Phiroze begins ‘to spend all my time in the sanctuary of its woods’ in order to escape his father’s wrath for ‘childish extravagances’ defying rituals, in the sanctum sanctorum he was the head priest of.
Except in the last few scenes, where the faith of love makes us see ‘something that flies completely in the face of rationality’, throughout his life Phiroze's relationship with ritualistic beliefs borders on rejection. As a child he finds them humorously confusing, twisting mantras his mother works hard to make him remember. As a teenager he qualifies his narrative about accepted beliefs with ‘or so it is believed’ and sees his father’s priestly activities as ‘a grim religiosity, a credulously ‘scientific’ approach to spirituality’. As an adult he has seen through the ‘smell of piousness’. Yet, at various points you will find him musing whether all the cruel ‘twists and turns of fate were not simply meet punishment for a fatuous giggler … in the face of the divine’ (that he had been all his life).
However, nothing dilutes the primary portrayal this book aims at, that of ‘the horror of contamination our (Parsi) people are susceptible to.’ Which brings me to this. Mistry’s book is a bold, unflinching depiction of the Parsi community and its obsessive ideas of clean-unclean, living-dead, and those somewhere in the middle, the ‘nussesalar … a glorified untouchable’. Nussesalar? ‘Who performs his duties scrupulously, forever escapes the cycle of rebirth, decrepitude and death. What the scriptures forgot to mention, though, is that in this, his final incarnation, his fellow men will treat him as dirt, the very embodiment of shit.’
What will make you cry as you laugh is the easy, humorous talk of the corpse bearers, that bunch of friends and foes who ‘clean and swaddle (corpses) for the banquet of the birds’ because of the ‘squeamishness and ingratitude’ of the Parsi community. Like the graveyard scene from Hamlet, parodying death with laughter, the most poignant philosophy will stem after drinking from bottles that stiffened thighs of corpses held between their legs. It is a life so devoid of respect that sexual molestation by another man makes Phiroze feel ‘more human' because the molester saw him as ‘more than some cadaverous unclean thing’. It is a life where, ‘you have no rights, certainly no right to feel hungry’ especially when you are suspended because you fainted out of sheer hunger and exhaustion and let a corpse drop to the ground while carrying it. Towards the end, the ‘legalistic shilly-shallying of the reformist faction’ of Parsis leads to a tragi-comic fate for a corpse who wanted to die a certain way but is denied even that.
At two points in the narration Phiroze calls his narration faulty. While he questions his memory as an old man narrating his life’s story, we wonder if this is Cyrus Mistry’s apologia-of-sorts for showing us his community in such starkness. Or is it just a way to escape censure, standing behind his protagonist? While it's difficult to believe if it's either of the two, it also fails to matter because the book is what it is. Each character is flesh and blood, each emotion strikes a chord and every irony spoken is like a hammer on the last nail. The final one being that ‘vultures have become extinct, even before Parsis could’ and one that rings not just with laughter but with the loudness of discomfort too.
Some lines which refuse to leave me -
'Do you seriously believe you won’t need me one day? Astride those emanciated shoulders rides the ghost of a corpse. You don’t see him now, but it’s only a matter of time, believe me, before your blood turns to ice, your limbs harden like wood. Then, ask yourself, will your near and dear ones wash and clothe you for the final goodbye? No, sweet man, you’ll have to depend on one of us. And then, we’ll rub you all over …'
And a parting thought to begin your day with, or maybe a note to read after the sun sets:
‘At all times life demands from one courage, and perseverance. Humour, too, perhaps wit and discretion as well … without a grain of each of these, I’d certainly feel crushed by the monstrous encumbrance of an incoherent and meaningless existence.’
['Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer' by Cyrus Mistry is an Aleph publication.]