Book: Chronicle Of A Corpse Bearer
Author: Cyrus Mistry
At the very edge of pre-Independence Bombay, isolated from the world by circumstance, in the lush grounds of the Towers of Silence, a man contemplates his life and death.
Phiroze Elchidana is a khandhia, a Parsi corpse bearer whose job is to collect the dead, perform the final purification rites and rituals before giving the corpses up to the vultures. His is possibly the most noble service a Parsi can perform for another of his own faith, but his job is one that renders him an ‘untouchable’, ostracised by the very people he helps.
The son of a priest who, despite the force of his father’s expectations, proves completely inept at his studies, Phiroze compounds his family’s disappointment by falling in love with Sepideh, the daughter of a khandhia. Not just that, he goes on to defy his family by marrying her and becoming a corpse bearer himself. For Phiroze, there is no return (not that he seeks it), for his love for Sepideh, or Seppy as he calls her, is enough. But Seppy dies soon after, leaving Phiroze with a daughter and a great pool of sorrow.
Cyrus Mistry’s Chronicle Of A Corpse Bearer is as much a story of a marginalised community as it is one about love and death. Even as Phiroze deals with his own grief, as a khandhia he must work to ease the passing of others, often at the cost of his own dignity and health. The novel is said to be based on a true story and there are various historical events woven into Phiroze’s narrative, such as the khandhias’ strike to demand better wages and working terms that he leads. There are also references to real-life events such as the Quit India movement and the 1936 Olympics, but these seem to be more for context than any direct relevance to the plot.
Mistry’s portrayal of the near-invisible community of Parsi corpse bearers is the most engaging aspect of the novel. He describes their drunken nights and easy banter, as well as their fear and loathing of the local contractor, who in the way typical of Indian middleman, is oppressive towards the khandhias, but obsequious with the rich and powerful Parsi Punchayet trustees.
Some moments are particularly poignant, like when Phiroze reflects on his reaction to the contractor’s sexual advances and realises he didn’t find the experience odious, but observes that,
“Strangely, I felt, after a very long time, human again; grateful to Buchia [the contractor] that he saw me as more than just some cadaverous, unclean thing whose very breath it was undesirable to commingle with.”
When Phiroze describes a rare visit to his father’s house years after he was turned out, he stands hesitantly at the door. “In that instant, I saw something in his eyes, or imagined it: a flicker of warmth that made me want to embrace my father — but I’m glad I held myself back; for as I entered he stepped aside, rather deliberately, ensuring no physical contact was made between us.” It’s one of the more moving moments in Chronicle Of A Corpse Bearer.
However, the book falters in one key aspect: Phiroze’s relationship with Seppy. While we are told constantly (even on the book jacket) about this tragic, all-consuming love defining the narrator’s life, Seppy is largely missing from the book. This ends up diluting our understanding of their relationship, especially because she is the reason he becomes a khandhia. In the attempt to intensify Phiroze’s memories, it feels like the writer has held back too much. As a result, Chronicle Of A Corpse Bearer remains an interesting and uncommon account of social discrimination, but is not the stirring, dramatic, intensely personal tale of love and loss that it could have been.