Chronicles of a Corpse Bearer, by Cyrus Mistry

Chronicles of a Corpse Bearer is written by Cyrus Mistry an Indian playwright and author. He is from Mumbai and began his career as a playwright at a very young age. He also worked as a short-story writer and a journalist. His first short story was published in 1979. He wrote short film scripts and several documentaries. Chronicles of a Corpse Bearer was his second novel and it won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2014. This story is about the Parsi community, specifically about the Khandias who carry the dead bodies to the Towers of Silence where they are eaten by the vultures.

Summary

PhirozeElchidana, son of a Parsi priest falls in love with Sepidah who is a daughter of a corpse bearer. He sees her at the age of seventeen while returning from a funeral with his mother. He is bowled over by her beauty and then sees her again in the forest, the next day. They become friendly and meet in the forest every day. Once they make love they realize they love each other and decide to get married. Naturally there was opposition from his father because the girl belonged to the Khandias community. There was another reason for the reluctance in giving permission. In some ways Sepidah was also a relative of Phiroze and they never married their cousins. Phiroze knew he would be thrown out of his family and community but sticks to his decision. As expected he is ostracised and now the son of a priest works as corpse bearer.

Sepidah and Phiroze are in love and live a happy life for seven years. Sepidah dies after seven years leaving behind Phiroze and Farida, their daughter. Phiroze continues to visit the forest where he had met Sepidah to relive his love for her. His love for Sepidah never dipped even though he was working with corpses all the time. He also believed the Sepidah’s spirit was helping and guarding him all the time. There were couple of instances when Phiroze felt the spirit of his wife. The community of Khandias always faced contempt from the rest of the Parsi community in spite of the fact that all depended on this community for the disposal of the dead bodies. All in this community faced suffering but Phiroze suffered a little more. His father did not allow him to enter the house.

The story unfolds parallel to the freedom struggle and there were changes in perceptions with the strong advocacy of Gandhiji. These people had to drink alcohol to bear the smell of corpses which were anointed with bull’s urine before it was wrapped in fresh muslin. One day Phiroze faints and all blame it on the alcohol. The Zorastrian community then bans the use of alcohol in the Tower of Silence. When they protest they are put on probation even though many had been working for more than eight years. Phiroze tells the trustees that he did not faint because of alcohol but it was because of sunstroke and hunger. No one was willing to listen to it. Now Phiroze leads a strike for the betterment of the Khandias community. They refuse to take bodies and then the rest of the community realises the value of the corpse bearers and give into their demands. The story ends with a positive note of Khandias victory and the beginning of a social change.

Characters in the novel

The story revolves around the life of Phiroze. He was considered as a dimwit by his own family from childhood. Yet his father hoped that he would one day become the head priest; but that was not to be. He married into the Khandias family. Though he was considered dimwit, he knew what he wanted. He ignored his father’s threats and stuck to his love. All through the story, even after the death of his wife, he never once regrets his decision of marrying her. So in many ways Phiroze was a man of character and it was this that helped him to lead the strike.

Other characters in the novel are equally strong. His father Framroze, his wife Sepidah, Sepidah’s father and his colleagues are some of the other important characters. Sepidah had a great influence on Phiroze. Her words kept ringing in his ears before he ventured into the strike. “If you guys are so important to the Zarthostis, why don’t they provide you better working conditions? Its sheer hypocrisy to say you guys’ll have your reward in the next lifetime; yet treat you like offal in this one….Why don’t you guys get together do something about it? Protest …. “

Theme

The main theme discussed in this novel is the social ostracization of the Khandias community. It is not a figment of imagination but more a chronicle of their vilification during the pre-independence period. What really happened is woven through a fictitious character Phiroze. Phiroze also makes obvious his irreverence to the religion Zoroastrianism and the importance given to the elaborate rituals. Another theme that peeps through in many places is the love between man and woman. The love between Phiroze and Sepidah was boundless and never does it change all through the story. Even after her death he remembers her fondly and takes good care of their daughter.

Setting

The setting of the story is in the homes of different people of the Parsi community, the Tower of Silence and the streets through which the corpses travel; all in Mumbai. In the setting what is important is also the period in which the novel is set. It was during the pre-independence era and Gandhij’snon-violence movement, the removal of stigma and name of untouchables also play a role in the novel. With the coming of better times for India there are some changes for the members of the Khandias community in the novel Chronicles of a Corpse Bearer.

Critical Review

“I use a very simple strategy for liking or disliking books. There are books that make sense or make you learn something. And then there are books like Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry, which transport you to an unknown world. And books like these always leave me stunned and asking for more. A story about a less known cast of Corpse Bearers residing in Mumbai amongst Parsi community, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is a story that will leave you enlightened about a hidden world and at the same time, unsettled.”  Aleph Book Company

“The writing was absolutely wonderful and evocative. The author does a fantastic job of taking us inside this community of corpse bearers and their everyday lives and struggles. Also Mumbai and the 1930s and 40s comes alive in these pages.” – Pooja . T

“At some places the author rambles a tad excessively on life, death and relationships, and some parts of the narrative don’t connect.Yet, Chronicles of a Corpse Bearer is an engrossing read – on one of the most fascinating, and rapidly dwindling Indian communities.”  Preethi Singh.

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