Wednesday, 26 November 2014

On Cyrus Mistry’s ‘Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer’

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.’
- Phiroze

['Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer' by Cyrus Mistry is an Aleph publication.] 

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Book Review – He Fixed the Match, She Fixed Him by Shikha

Shikha’s book ‘He Fixed the Match, She Fixed Him’ is not about cricket. As an Indian, I thought it my responsibility to make that clear right at the onset. What the book is about the cover should amply tell you. If not, turn it over and read the blurb. For some reason, the main story line has been included in it, enough to have made me wonder at multiple points why the gist-with-the-twist was made public. Not everything that’s between the covers need come out. 

The book is a hate-to-love story of Shreya and Kunal, living and working in New Delhi and Mumbai, respectively. Matched through a wedding site and arranged by the families, the ceremony takes place in fast track mode only to come crashing down on Shreya’s head on the wedding night. That is when she realizes who Kunal really is, because that is when she sets eyes on him for the first time! A flashback away we realize they share a dirty past which neither is ready to forgive and forget, fixing the marriage being Kunal’s way of getting back at her. The book goes from festival to function to board meeting to festival again to show how the ‘husband’ and the ‘wife’ gradually get to know each other, enough to not just forgive the past but also to ‘rise in love’.  Shikha surrounds the hero and the heroine with enough characters to help take this main plot-line forward. 

Now, I take chick-lit very seriously, and have learnt to ignore men who think it’s only lit by a chick. As a genre, chick-lit is supposed to be an opportunity to write about women’s roles and relationships, aspirations and even their everyday. Of course, in a light-hearted manner and with an eye on mass appeal. Thus, the implied battle of the sexes in Shikha’s debut book’s title got me interested and the ‘She Fixed Him’ made me rub my hands in anticipation. This also marked my primary expectation from the book – that of a well-created female protagonist reflective of her creator’s own mind.

So …

I like how Shikha has trained her writer’s magnifying glass on the middle class marriage scene in India. Chapter 1, in some ways, is reminiscent of the first scene of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. We see Mahesh and Sandhya, Shreya’s parents, worrying over their ‘marriageable' daughter’s ever-increasing pay package. Since she is too qualified, Kunal is celebrated as ‘no less than heaven-sent’ by them.  While prospective parents-in-law talk, Shreya’s brother’s wife, Aastha joins in the chorus with ‘we must make sure Shreya doesn’t hear it until it’s nearly pucca’. In the meantime, Madhav, Shreya’s brother, asks Shreya to relax when she reacts to being ‘put on display on a matrimonial website’. He says, ‘you’ve got to leave it to us to find a good match’. Everything here is as it still happens in countless homes, and at this point Shikha impresses us with this realistic portrayal. This portrayal, however, eventually becomes disturbing.

What Shikha has also managed successfully is to give this book a movie feel, which instantly takes her novel into the mass-appeal category. I may not fully be a part of the ‘mass’ I speak about, but I can see how happily this ‘love story’ will be received by those who like happily ever afters. The days of dramatic reckoning that Shreya and Kunal spend as man and wife are seeped with emotional outbursts, dialogues, celebrations and temple visits straight out of Karan Johar flicks from the 90s. We have a gala Reception, a Karvachauth, a Mata ki Chowki, an ‘iconic dialogue of Kajol’ from ‘DDLJ’, a hero desperate to ‘make it happen that night’ and pulling shirt buttons out for his wife to sew, a man being the boss with his wife in office, a nick-of-time drive to the railway station to stop her from leaving and a swanky honeymoon to bring it all together. There is a short steamy performance in a satin nightdress too. The free-willing role that parents and even extended families play in sorting our very personal marital issues has also been duly portrayed in a good-humoured way. In short, the book is full of exactly the masala that we like to watch on the silver screen, and which I think will contribute to the enjoyment factor of this book for many readers.

Helping this is the language used, which is meant for easy reading, without working hard on descriptions of the pretty kind. You may notice the fickle use of Hindi terms like ‘bhai sahab’ in some places and ‘ma’am’ in other similar contexts, errors like ‘reverted back’ and the biggest word of the book ‘bellicose’ strangely in Sandhya’s mouth. However, the language remains simple and unpretentious and extremely suitable for the story of the book.

But then …

Since the blurb educates you about everything the book has, you expect some memorable moments and characters to go home with. Memorable moments there are, but beyond the song-and-dance growth of true love are some very thought-provoking character portrayals. Call me an over-thinking over-reacting idiot gunning down the romance here, but I am nothing if I have not leaked every drop in my mind. Here are some things which baffled me. 

Shikha’s book began on a note that reminded me of Austen’s classic, but while in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ the characters rose beyond their times in order to mark a break from regressive thought through intelligent thinking, everyone in this book seems to enjoy the time warp. So much so that at many points of the book I failed to realize that this was one written by a professional working woman in the 21st century. 

Shreya agrees to Lasik surgery because Kunal tells her in their first meeting that he doesn’t like spectacles. She readily agrees to Madhav’s advice that ‘you should look more like your profile picture … not to disappoint Kunal’. Later, when Kunal gives her a list of sadistic vows to follow as his wife, she is ‘terrified’ and as a classic case of feminine guilt, decides to suffer it out and ‘remain deaf, blind and even dumb’. Why? Ex-IIM, liberal-minded and scared of a man who wronged her first in the past and is even now being a rogue? Would you have room left for ‘admiration for Kunal’s expertise’ at work if he treated you like a pariah at home? 

Mid-way, she finally decides that he needs to know what ‘being a Woman is all about’. What does she do? Apart from being sassy, Shreya changes her wardrobe to ‘ATTACK!’ Kunal’s senses with her irresistibility. (Even the author calls her ‘correctly dressed’ on a certain card party day after she has modernized her look.) Why is it only her ‘battle half won’ and to be won fully? Why does she need to get irresistible for him? And Kunal’s reaction? A helpless man with a cushion pressing down in his lap! While her ‘selfless and pure love’ makes Kunal ‘rise in love’ and see his wife for what she is, we realize his temper problems and impulsive behaviour have been temporarily tamed and generously excused. All in all, both of them may be ‘qualified’ but they do not come across as mature. Why else would they work thus to resolve a problem that was just a hammering-away-the-past bedtime discussion away? 

To be honest, I really liked Saloni, Kunal’s model ex-wife who he finds ‘immature’ for wanting to continue with ‘stupid assignments … at least respect the fact that you are married now’. She seems to be the only woman who wants to work, sees nothing wrong with smoking or smoking hot clothes, sticks to her own ideas of self and seems in with the times that the readers of this book live in. By showing her a typically scheming vixen in the end I thought Shikha did not treat her right. Sandhya as a mother was well-done, except the unnecessary impolite-streak that she was given at Shreya’s new home. Some of the scenes between mother and daughter were touchingly done. 


I realize that a lot of ideas which don’t sit well with the kind of women I know on various media and fora are not just being portrayed but also endorsed in the book. While the story is filmy and may entertain, none of the characters shine through - neither in wit nor in intelligence. Perhaps Shikha did not want to add an element of seriousness to the book by making bare their real mental conflicts to do with something as serious and as life-changing as marriage. She does add a preachy note on relationships in the last few pages, and acknowledges God ‘as a perfect match-maker’ making you wonder if she means the match-making and travel sites that the book is advertising, and the role of a plush honeymoon in getting two hearts together. 

Shikha aimed to write a light-hearted love story with a happy ending, and if you can ignore what my over-thinking nutty head could not, it will be exactly that for you – an easy, filmy, happy-go-lucky ‘love story’.

Title: He Fixed the Match, She Fixed Him
Author: Shikha
Publisher: Vitasta

[This review was commissioned by the author. All views are my own.]

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Winter Sun

I began typing this sitting outside my son’s school, waiting for it to get over for the day. As always, I was the first parent to arrive, because I am yet to get over the look in his eyes when he sees me as the first person at the classroom door. Before any other ma or papa or driver uncle. I like it that way, so I make sure I leave home a little early and catch his face lighting up before the crowd catches up with our special moment.

Today, though, I was exceptionally early. There were 65 minutes to go before I could get up from this plastic chair under the tin shed and walk up to his class to take him home. Who knew the part of the Ring Road that was squeezed by the Metro workers for months would be thrown open to traffic. What a relief really to have a full road, but still … how much can I just sit and look around now? And look around at who? Or what?

But then, have eyes had time and had to look around. 

The recess had just got over. While the bell announcing the end was met with a loud uproar, a sudden silence was descending over all visible parts of the school. Much like how a dry dupatta falls off the clothes line on the first floor and comes gliding down. In no real hurry but getting there. The silence. The breeze felt nippy. I tightened my stole around my shoulders, hid my hands inside, and re-crossed my legs for the 14th time. Some minutes must have gone by, when I heard a screech loud enough to make the bus driver in the far corner of the parking area turn, and make me look up from fidgeting with my phone.

The guard at the main gate had dragged his chair two meters away from the post and was now sitting in the sun; the metallic letters on his shoulders making tiny reflected moons on the nearby tree. And his face? Gloriously snug and warm. Seconds later, as if it was a sign I was waiting for, I did the same. I shifted my own grey chair right on the shadow line where the tin roof’s shade ended and a sea of sunlight began. 

To describe what I felt when I re-crossed my legs for the 15th time, this time in the sunlight, is impossible for me. It did not feel like first love, no, but certainly like the first warm kiss of the season. I knew that the dark blue top would absorb too much too soon and I will have to relocate, but who worries about teething babies on their honeymoon night itself? I still had a lot of time on my hands, but at least my hands were in the sun now. I looked at them. I ran my left thumb over the slightly visible veins on top of the right hand. Like a ship breaking through pieces of ice, tiny brown wrinkles of collected skin formed. Dryness, despite the lotion. That’s when a scene from my childhood scooped me away from the present …

It either used to be petroleum jelly, which one of her NRI sons brought for her, or mustard oil. Most of winters you would find her rubbing either of those on her arms and feet. My grandmother. My dad’s mother who would enjoy the winter sitting on a folding bed in the tree-lined back yard, and always in the sun. More than the gold bangles it was the patterns on her wrinkled skin that held my childish attention. If I think now, I would say they looked like hexagons made from the most delicate glass. They shone so bright. So thick the layer of oil, so thin the skin. Once done, she would call for her sacred book and its exquisite wooden stand and go oblivious to the world around her, a world which was making its own life around the winter sun.

The older children, with their backs towards the brightness because young girls just didn’t want to get tanned, would be busy with their school books. Winter holidays never came without home work! One of us from the middle rung would be seen helping an aunt spread the orange peels and amla slices on newspapers. To dry. In another sunlit patch, empty plastic jars would sit agape, to be ‘dry-cleaned’ to hold this winter's pickles. Pickles too would be basking in their preserved glory a safe distance away from the two youngest imps throwing mud around, digging the flowerbeds and burying broken idols hoping for a temple to grow. At least one pair of just-washed sneakers would lean against a wall, snoozing in the sun, much like the writer of this post would right after lunch and just below her favourite mango tree, with a shawl on her head because some falling leaves can have tiny bugs on them, plus those fruit flies ... 

There was so much happening in the Sun back then, that the Sun just couldn’t have got bored for the day. Today, I sit wondering here in Delhi - where is the time, the space? Where are the people? And where is the full blown winter sun to enjoy? And then I answer myself – I think we bored the winter Sun away. Because even when we have such moments of free time on our hands and a bright sunny sky, we just don’t know what to do with them. 

Maybe, those bright patches of yellow sneaking in from our windows and doors or catching us unaware outside offices and schools are just asking us to see. To look closer, even if at our own hands. For who knows what streams of thoughts, what journeys into the past are waiting to happen. What bonds asking to be re-lived. And what stories knocking up there, hungry to be told. Spontaneous ones … told just as they come to mind, like this one here. Unedited for now, but a polished version of it waiting especially for him, for bedtime tonight. 

Him. My son. The one I was the first to pick, today again, and around whom my life now revolves. My sun for all seasons to come. 

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