This Navroze I didn't actually go down to Calangute to sample the famed Parsi fare at Zuperb restaurant at Gauravaddo run by Zubin, Porus and Bryan -- all lads who came down from Mumbai and set up the restaurant -- but I did nudge a colleague to lend me her copy of Corpse Bearer. The title of the book somewhat repelled me at first but after reading it I realize it is actually a way of life. Sensitively portrayed Cyrus Mistry rises above his station and make Phiroze Elchidana a victim of the human condition -- not just a khandia (corpse bearer) condemned to live beside the Towers of Silence for his love for Sepideh, daughter of a khandia. It shows to what extent a man can go to be able to cherish the company of the woman he loves.
Corpse Bearer (2012) is a reflection on death. The writer has misgivings about the hereafter and whether these elaborate rituals really signify in the afterlife. His scepticism comes through particularly in his dialogues with his father, the high priest and preserver of the faith:
Personally Papa, do you really believe it matters how we go out of this world? I mean, whether one is a Hindu or Muslim or Parsi, after we die in what manner our corpse is disposed of? I mean does it make a difference to the soul that survives the body's destruction? (204)It is only in the final pages that Phiroze can stand up and question the beliefs of his father. Soon after, his father dies and it is his son himself who is his corpse bearer.
Father was eighty-six when he died, still in good health, and able to manage his personal needs and chores without assistance. . . As a child, I had been very close to Father. Later the rift between us widened, and for a while I felt we had become adversaries. (234)It is curious that after this deferential allusion to his Father in the quote above, in the next paragraph Phiroze refers to his father by his impersonal first name: 'Vispy [his brother] had been speaking to Rutnagar notifying him about Framroze's death.' (234)
The book is a chronicle which condones the leeway the writer enjoys in not keeping to a taut narrative. This would be historical fiction in a sense --a window to a very private community yet not without pathos. It is loosely an autobiography and has the quality of a personal memoir.
Like Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day, Corpse Bearer is also set at a time in Mumbai when India is wresting Independence for herself from the British. Section One is titled 'Present Tense, Bombay,1942.' Gandhiji's Salt March of 1930 is referred to (122). The line 'Appeasement of legitimate national aspirations was flatly denied to us Indians,'(123) seems to be almost the words of the nationalist Tobias in Lambert Mascarenhas' Sorrowing Lies My Land set in Goa chaffing under the yoke of the Portuguese. The machinations of the colonial powers and their deployment of Indian forces willy nilly also rumbles through the pages of Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh in the South East Asian theatre at the time of India's freedom struggle.
Sepideh's death through snake-bite seems contrived. When the mourners gather and simply stare helplessly, it reminds one of Nissim Ezekiel's 'Night of the Scorpion.' The frantic 'faqueer' fails to invite the cobra again to suck the poison out of Sepideh and the writer simply adds as a coda 'So much for the miracles of faith.' (153)
The hilarious romp in the Sewree cemetery presided over by the dubious yet avaricious Gomes questions our beliefs of internment. In a gnawing way it recalls the scene in the movie Simone where the fake Simone is sought to be buried -- for appearances sake -- as people will not believe this digitized creation does not exist!
All references from Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry, Aleph Publishing, New Delhi, 2012.