A grave story

A grave story

Chronicle of a corpse bearer
Cyrus Mistry
Aleph
2012, pp 247
495

This book is as much a love story as it is a look at the underbelly of Parsi society in the form of the Khandias or corpse-bearers. Their lives and the treatment meted out to them would easily make them the “untouchables” of this community. Cyrus Mistry’s narrative is based on the story told to him by one Aspi Cooper, who was a product of the union between a middle-class dock worker and a Khandia’s daughter.

Aspi’s father, who fell in love with his mother, was compelled to forsake his earlier life and take up the job of a Khandia, which involved carrying the bodies of dead Parsis to the Tower of Silence, where they were left to the vultures. Mistry dedicates this novel to the memory of Mehli Cooper, a man he never met, but whose story moved him enough to write this novel.

It is interesting to learn that Mehli leads the Khandias on a strike against the Parsi Punchayet (which Mistry fictionalises in great detail in the book), though the author is not able to find any recorded evidence of this uprising. It makes one wonder about how much of subaltern history might be given the go by in the narratives that come down the ages.

The story is written in the first person by the protagonist, Phiroze. It starts in the present with Phiroze recalling Sepideh, the love of his life, for whom he has accepted the life of a Khandia. Tragedy strikes early enough in their marriage and Phiroze is left with the task of caring for their little daughter, Farida, with some help from Sepideh’s father, Temoorus, who lives next door.

The story moves back and forth between the past and the present, and, interestingly, has in the backdrop, constant references to Gandhi and the Quit India movement. Mistry weaves an interesting tale as he traces the reasons for Temoorus’ desire for vengeance and his demand that Phiroze take up the life of a Khandia, if he wants to marry Sepideh.

That the protagonist goes against the wishes of his father, a temple priest, and leaves behind a comfortable life for his true love is the romantic part of this narrative. Never once in the story can one sense regret from Phiroze who is asked this question also by his beloved, Seppy.

But what one does pick up on is that a Khandia’s job “takes courage and strength,” and the exhaustion that comes from it can only find relief in the occasional drink to handle this “carrion work, this constant consanguinity with corpses.”

The pollution theory that is part of Hindu and Brahminical practice seems to surface in the Parsis too. Though the tale is one of corpse-bearers, Mistry’s dark humour makes it immensely readable and nowhere near being as morbid as the title seems to imply.

In one incident, Phiroze’s leg accidentally brushes past a mourner’s shoe at a funeral, inviting from him a volley of abuse for the defilement. Phiroze confesses then to a desire to embrace the man and tell him that when his “blood turns to ice…will your near and dear ones wash and clothe you for the final goodbye? No, sweet man, you’ll have to depend on one of us.”

One can speculate on the author’s intent in drawing attention to Gandhi’s “do or die” message and the courage of Phiroze and his fellow Khandias to stand united in the face of a suspension order, which forces the Parsi Punchayet to back down and give them their dues.

Mistry clearly brings out the inequities when he writes about how “centuries of oppression and indoctrination” had brainwashed the Khandias into acceptance of their lot without questioning “a creed according to which the Almighty Creator had relegated them to such a lowly, depraved existence, while hypocritically promising them liberation from rebirth for faithfully carrying out their laborious duties in this lifetime.”

Cyrus Mistry’s literary style, sense of humour and compassionate look at the lives of the Khandias, makes this book a ‘must read’ for lovers of good fiction, whilst providing sociological insights into the life and esoteric practices of the Parsi community.

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