Cyrus Mistry: Chronicles of a Corpse Bearer

I’m a sucker for books about Parsis. They’ve got some mad stories about them. Dysfunctional families, property disputes, affairs with first cousins, renting out apartments to suspicious tenants, unhappy marriages, colonial bungalows and what have

you – murder, betrayal, divorce, illicit affairs – all ingredients for very gripping plots.

By Arcopol Chaudhuri

corpse-bearerBeing a close-knit community, their proximity produces interesting equations. But what about those Parsis who are kept at bay? They’re the khandhias (corpse bearers) whose job involves carrying bodies of deceased Parsis to their final resting place at the Towers of Silence in Doongerwadi in Mumbai. Ostracized and marginalized in every possible manner, Chronicle of Corpse Bearer is a book about them.

Written by Cyrus Mistry, the story for the book was concieved in 1991 at a time when the author was working on a Channel 4 documentary on corpse bearers in Bombay’s Parsi community. The film was never made, but one story he heard in the course of his research stayed with him. That story was about a middle-class Parsi dock worker in the pre-independence era who married the daughter of a khandhia. The person who narrated the story was the son to this improbable marriage.

The book essentially is an inspiration from that tale. Except, there isn’t a dock worker here. There’s Elchi (Phiroze Elchidana), son of a revered Parsi priest, narrating the story of his life – growing up in deeply religious Parsi household, being a non-achiever at school, falling in love with Seppy (Sepideh), the daughter of a khandhia, giving up his family to marry her, losing her soon after their daughter is born, and eventually his complete dignity amongst the Parsi community.

Being a group of a humiliated outcasts who have no rights, unreasonable working hours and very little money, the book also places an equally arresting story of a revolt by Elchi and his co-workers against the Parsi Panchayat demanding more humane treatment. This narrative runs parallel to events unfolding in the run up to India’s independence. The metaphor is well-placed, and Mistry’s storytelling blends a well-measured dose of black humour, irony and tragedy.

The second half of the book weaves in an even more amusing and heartbreaking incident concerning the funeral of a cancer patient Joseph, born to a Parsi father and a Christian mother, who upon realizing that his end is near, seeks release through a Zoroastrian funeral. The ensuing turbulence that this creates amongst the Parsi community, the Panchayat, press and the khandhias is the highlight of the book, and it’s eventual outcome finds neoralistic resonance even in today’s times.

Mistry shows a very mature and empathetic approach in telling the story, developing conflict, a sense of longing and loss, and brings a fair closure to each relationship in Phiroze’s life. The characters stay with the reader beyond the pages of the book and personally, it created a sense of urge in me to go visit Doongerwadi and live the story once more.

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is an important book. Not only does it mourn the rift created amongst individuals thanks to society’s desire to cling on to tradition, it also tells an unsettling story of those on the fringes of an alarmingly shrinking community.

-

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, published by Aleph Book Company, is available on uRead.com at 31% discount for Rs 342 / $6.16. Click here to buy / gift a copy. Free shipping, cash on delivery in India. Low cost shipping fees worldwide.

You may want to read Cyrus Mistry’s previous work, The Radiance of the Ashes. Available on uRead.com for Rs 220. Click here to buy.

  • Noshir M. Khambatta

    Let this novel be an eye-opener at the very least to the Parsis of Mumbai, and to every other Zarathushtrain the world over, to petition to the current Chaiperson and the Trustess of the Bombay Parsi Panchayet to provide decent housing quarters and a competitive salary to those that serve our community in our hours of sorrow and berevement. A separate trust fund should be set up by philanthropic Parsis to serve thier just needs as well as those of their children.
    A must read for every concerned Zarathushtrian.

  • Noshir M. Khambatta

    Let this novel be an eye-opener at the very least to the Parsis of Mumbai, and to every other Zarathushtrain the world over, to petition to the current Chaiperson and the Trustess of the Bombay Parsi Panchayet to provide decent housing quarters and a competitive salary to those that serve our community in our hours of sorrow and berevement. A separate trust fund should be set up by philanthropic Parsis to serve thier just needs as well as those of their children.
    A must read for every concerned Zarathushtrian.

  • Phiroze

    The recently started disrespectful and non zoroastrian practice of putting currency notes near the corpse should be stopped at once. The khandias have a fund in which contributions can be made discretely.

  • Phiroze

    The recently started disrespectful and non zoroastrian practice of putting currency notes near the corpse should be stopped at once. The khandias have a fund in which contributions can be made discretely.

  • Barak Aga

    Which is the fund in which we may make contributions for you discretely?

  • Barak Aga

    Which is the fund in which we may make contributions for you discretely?

  • Viraf

    Mr. Khambatta, During 2008 BPP Elections, the same Chairman promised to convert all Leave License accomodations to Rental/Tenancies. But has he even touched this topic during last over 3 years? Mumbai Parsees who fell for the false propaganda of religion in peril, are now at last convinced about the intentions of the Trustees. They are indifferent to the aspirations of the large sections of the community and are divorced from realities. They feel that lies fed to audiences with Palav Daar anf Chicken Farcha’s and pegs of Scotch will once again ensure them Trusteeship in 2915, if not to them then to their children. They now stand badly exposed and need to be taken to task, before appropriate forums for squandering money on futile Court Cases like the ‘renegade priests’ case. They must be made to cough up the loss that BPP has suffered due to excess hot air under their heads

  • Viraf

    Mr. Khambatta, During 2008 BPP Elections, the same Chairman promised to convert all Leave License accomodations to Rental/Tenancies. But has he even touched this topic during last over 3 years? Mumbai Parsees who fell for the false propaganda of religion in peril, are now at last convinced about the intentions of the Trustees. They are indifferent to the aspirations of the large sections of the community and are divorced from realities. They feel that lies fed to audiences with Palav Daar anf Chicken Farcha’s and pegs of Scotch will once again ensure them Trusteeship in 2915, if not to them then to their children. They now stand badly exposed and need to be taken to task, before appropriate forums for squandering money on futile Court Cases like the ‘renegade priests’ case. They must be made to cough up the loss that BPP has suffered due to excess hot air under their heads

  • RATHESTAR

    Why is it mandatory to avail services of corpse bearers. Is it also a “TENET”? Why are there Boards displayed prominently and locks placed on Gates at the periphery of Towers. Secondly, are all corpse bearers Parsees i.e. both parents being Parsees.?

  • RATHESTAR

    Why is it mandatory to avail services of corpse bearers. Is it also a “TENET”? Why are there Boards displayed prominently and locks placed on Gates at the periphery of Towers. Secondly, are all corpse bearers Parsees i.e. both parents being Parsees.?

  • Noshir M. Khambatta

    Greetings Phiroze,
    I cannot agree more with you that this practice of putting currency notes near corpses be stopped in toto, but would you be kind enough to inform us all via “Parsi Khabar” where is this “Khandias Fund” located?, who administers it?, and how we may be able to contribute toward it in which format?
    Please anticipate my deepest thanks for your time and efforts to my query.

  • Noshir M. Khambatta

    Greetings Phiroze,
    I cannot agree more with you that this practice of putting currency notes near corpses be stopped in toto, but would you be kind enough to inform us all via “Parsi Khabar” where is this “Khandias Fund” located?, who administers it?, and how we may be able to contribute toward it in which format?
    Please anticipate my deepest thanks for your time and efforts to my query.

  • gb

    Bpp has still not come out with Election Code of Conduct. They hardly allot houses. They have given false promises at the time of canvassing and nothing has been fulfilled. Community has already lost faith in them. There will be hardly and parsees who will vote in the next elections. Don’t wait till october 2015, it will be much before that date.

  • gb

    Bpp has still not come out with Election Code of Conduct. They hardly allot houses. They have given false promises at the time of canvassing and nothing has been fulfilled. Community has already lost faith in them. There will be hardly and parsees who will vote in the next elections. Don’t wait till october 2015, it will be much before that date.

  • Phiroze

    By the same token is barak aga a Parsi? Are you willing to offer your services as a corpse bearer? If yes we shall dismiss all the present ones

  • Phiroze

    By the same token is barak aga a Parsi? Are you willing to offer your services as a corpse bearer? If yes we shall dismiss all the present ones

  • Phiroze

    Greetings to you to Noshir M Khambatta,
    Sorry for the delay in reply but the moderator must have been busy and hence I just read your querry. There is a register maintained by the Khandias themselves at the doongerwadi which they circulate amongst the family of the deceased on the last day. So you can enquire with any of them alternatively there is one with the Mehtaji also where we settle our bills. You are always welcome. To answer your first post the BPP and other Parsi Trust are doing a good job looking after their needs.

  • Phiroze

    Greetings to you to Noshir M Khambatta,
    Sorry for the delay in reply but the moderator must have been busy and hence I just read your querry. There is a register maintained by the Khandias themselves at the doongerwadi which they circulate amongst the family of the deceased on the last day. So you can enquire with any of them alternatively there is one with the Mehtaji also where we settle our bills. You are always welcome. To answer your first post the BPP and other Parsi Trust are doing a good job looking after their needs.