Crafting a novel

Crafting a novel

Author Cyrus Mistry, winner of the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, was in Bangalore recently as part of the DSC Prize Winner’s Tour. His second book and the award-winning novel, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, is the tale of a priest’s son, his life, and his marriage to the daughter of a corpse bearer.


Loosely based on a real-life event and set during the turbulent times of pre-Independence India, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is a tale of romance and rebellion, along with insights into the experiences of two Parsi families at the time.

Explains the author, “When I heard what was no more than a fragment of a story about a dock worker who was compelled to marry a khandhia’s daughter — a young woman he was in love with — as a form of vendetta against a family member (the dock worker’s father) — it made me wonder just how demeaning and degraded the living conditions of corpse bearers must have been in those days, more than 60 years ago.”

On the historical elements in the book, he adds, “I do not pretend any authority as to its historical veracity, but do know from my numerous conversations with khandhias — long before I thought I could use this material in a novel — that there is substantial truth in it. However, the reader should remember that it is essentially a work of fiction.”


There is also an undercurrent of revenge, where long-time frustrations and the seething anger of a past event leads to interesting alterations in the plot. “That such an enforced ‘decasteification’ should have given the man seeking vengeance a sense of satisfaction became the starting point for what is essentially a moving love story that takes place in the face of tremendous social dissension and family intrigue and dispute,” says Mistry.

Prose perfect

Asked about his background as a script-writer and its possible influence on novel and prose writing, Mistry avers, “Writing dialogues had always come more easily to me than writings chunks of prose. For years, I believed I would never be able to write a novel. I had written short stories, stage plays and screenplays, but felt completely stumped by the novel form. Until, somehow, propelled by a sense of desperation, I finally finished The Radiance of Ashes, my first novel, which I had begun writing as a young man. On the other hand, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, more recent, has given me more formal and artistic satisfaction than anything else I’ve ever written — it flowed in a curiously effortless manner.”

Writing for the stage is also rather different from writing a novel. “Now that I don’t feel so overawed by its mysterious form, I suspect I will write a few more novels,” he elaborates. “However, since I began my writing career with the stage, and it is my ‘first love’, so to speak, I also know I will come back to that. The two forms are quite distinct.”


While Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer does feature the Parsi community and its intricacies, the author concurs, “Much of my work to date has involved Parsi characters or situations — not all of it, certainly — and nothing is more disappointing to me than to be seen as a ‘Parsi’ writer. I hope my work has enough depth and meaning to have universal resonance with Parsi as well as non-Parsi readers.”


Real-life inspirations


Asked whether the novel has autobiographical elements, he says, “Not a bit. It’s pure fiction. Though real life figures, as you probably would agree, do enter the process of creating fiction, impinging on it in unexpected ways, influencing and moulding it in its final form…it is purely a work of the imagination, albeit sparked off by a story I had heard 20 years before I started writing the novel.”

“The DSC is one prize in this part of the world which carries a substantial cash reward with it,” he replies, when asked about how the award and other awards in general encourage writers. “But apart from that, all awards are good for writers in that they give them confirmation and self-belief to be able to continue doing a difficult and often unrewarding job.”

Storytelling in a novel is distinct from propagating a cause, as the novel has its modes of development. Mistry believes that when a writer decides to write a novel to propagate a cause, “…or even just a point of view, it’s more than likely to be a rather bad novel. The writing of fiction has its own dynamic, its own unique process. It can never be subservient to an idea or ideology.”

The flavour of an Indian region or community can be effectively captured in the English language as well, “…otherwise, translations from Indian languages into English would be impossible, and translators are a frustrated lot.” As for the use of ‘Indianisms’ in writing, he says, “Finally, I would say, it all depends on the context: on the consistency such Indianisms have with the make-up of the character using them, as also with the context of the entire work.”

As for writing being a solitary profession, Mistry admits, “Writing is undoubtedly a lonely and gruelling business. Yet, when it’s happening — coming out right — it gives great joy and satisfaction for the writer.” On his future projects and upcoming novels, he says, “The next one will be a novel, too. But I try never to talk about a forthcoming book until a substantial part of it is done. The risk is that one could talk it out of existence.”

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