Cyrus Mistry’s New Short Stories Reveal the Cruelty of Ordinary People


July 4, 2014

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Best known for his book about the marginalized community that deals with the dead, award-winning author Cyrus Mistry released his long-awaited collection of short stories this week.

Article by Shanoor Seervai | Wall Street Journal

BN-DN095_ipass0_DV_20140702072144 “Passion Flower: Seven Stories of Derangement” tells the tales of dark, often tragic characters who grapple with their dysfunctional families and lives in modern India.

Much of Mr. Mistry’s work is about the Parsi community, a tiny but influential group of Zoroastrians who emigrated from Persia to India more than a thousand years ago.

Known for their eccentricity and adulation of India’s British colonial rulers, the once-thriving Parsis are now rapidly dwindling, not least because their orthodox priests prohibit conversion and strongly discourage inter-marriage.

Born into the community, Mr. Mistry has married a Christian and raised his son according to Buddhist philosophy, but says he remains in many ways “a true-blooded Parsi.”

“One can write best about what one knows best,” said Mr. Mistry, who won the DSC prize for South Asian literature in January for his 2012 novel “Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer.” The book is about a segregated community of Parsis whose job it is to collect dead bodies and perform the last rites before the corpses decay or are eaten by vultures.

Mr. Mistry continues to shed light on the lives of the Parsis. One of his stories in the new collection titled “Percy” tells the tale of an awkward 34-year-old Parsi man who lives with his overbearing, widowed mother and relies on her for everything, including sewing a missing button on his pants.

Percy’s life changes when he discovers an old gramophone player and a quirky group of Parsi music enthusiasts who listen to Beethoven and Brahms.

Dressed in his father’s moth-eaten suits, Percy starts to attend their weekly meetings, and in the process encounters a ghost who predicts his mother’s death.

Mr. Mistry’s stories also capture Mumbai in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was a college student in the city. “There was a sense of freedom in Bombay in those years. Now that has changed,” said Mr. Mistry, who moved to the southern city of Kodaikanal 10 years ago.

The story “Passion Flower (A Fantasy)” is set at a boarding school in Kodaikanal, where Anand, a self-centered botanist, is in search of a rare, healing flower.

Anand suffers a near-fatal motorcycle accident on a rainy night. A local family rescues him, but when he regains consciousness he learns that they used every passion flower they found in the forest to heal him, leaving his quest for the elusive flower unfulfilled.

The other five stories in the collection convey the cruelty of ordinary people towards even those they love. Written over the past four decades, Mr. Mistry’s searing portrayal of human frailty is timeless, even though the Mumbai he writes about has dramatically changed.

BN-DN090_icyrus_D_20140702071052 The 58-year-old writer says life has been busy — “not always in a pleasant way” — since he won the DSC prize earlier this year for his book on the Parsi corpse bearers.

“I’m very grateful for the prize, but I’m not looking out for that sort of success,” said Mr. Mistry, adding, “I still have to struggle as hard to write my next book. I just wish I had the time.”

Writing is a therapeutic process for Mr. Mistry, who says he feels most focused after he spends the early hours of the morning, starting around 5.30 a.m., at work.

“I never thought I could write a novel,” said the writer, who published his first novel “The Radiance of Ashes” in 2005 after spending more than two decades writing plays and short stories, and working as a freelance journalist.

After he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis — a neurological disease — in 1997, he decided to take the plunge and work on the novel. “Writing it helped me to recover,” said Mr. Mistry.

Follow Shanoor on Twitter @shanoorseervai.