Awoken from his beloved Sepideh’s dream, Phiroze Elchidana, youngest son of the revered high priest of the Fire Temple, now Lord of the Unclean, a nussesalar, a ‘glorified untouchable’, or simply a corpse bearer, takes us along with him through his journey of life from his unforgettable experience of trying to fly a kite till the near extinction of vultures in India, as he writes it all down in his ageold mildewed notebooks.
‘Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer’ , the second novel of Cyrus Mistry, author and playwright, was published in 2012 by Aleph Book Company. This novel has won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2014 and the Sahitya Akademi Award for English in 2015.
Phiroze, born nine years apart from his older brother Vispy, was believed to be a blessing upon Framroze and his wife. But as he grew up with his uncontrollable urge to giggle at serious situations, his failure at the matrix examination, his unauthorised wanderings throughout the city, of finding religious texts outrageously funny gradually crushed all of Framroze’s dreams and widened the gap between father and son.
Framroze finally barred Phiroze from entering the Fire Temple when he announced his love for the daughter of a corpse bearer and his decision to become one of them to marry her.
Thus ensued his life as a nussesalar in the land of the Towers of Silence with Sepideh, her father Temoo and fellow corpse bearers Rusi, Bujji, Fali, Jungoo, and a few others. When Farida, Phiroze’s little daughter is 3 years old, Sepideh passes away leaving them all alone.
Phiroze’s narration of his life as a Zoroastrian corpse bearer is so captivating that we, readers ourselves become one with him – voluntarily choosing a life of untouchability- carrying an 8 kilo iron bier across the city with swelled corpses, burnt corpses, bloody corpses with limbs askew; washing and rubbing them and finally inviting the vultures to their meals; his duty of “shielding the community, from all that evil and putrefaction by absorbing it into his own being.”
Such a life through the narration feels so horrid and unable to live through at times. But never for once demands sympathy; instead being surrounded by death could never convince the corpse bearers that death will someday strike them.
Phiroze himself writes in his notebook “I must point out: rubbing shoulders with the dead at of hours of day and night doesn’t necessarily make us more gloomy, dour or over serious about life”, “Despite routine there was always room for excitement, passion and a frenzied tomfoolery. “
The Parsi community, in today’s date is extremely narrow and is only known for the manner of disposal of their dead. But there is so much unknown even about this – believing the dead of their own to be so Unclean as soon as life leaves them and treating their fellow Zoroastrians who carry their dead as literal muck is so strange and yet believable.
Apart from Phiroze’s life, the intricate details of the Fire Temple, and especially the repeated and meaningful mention of the forest within which the Towers of Silence reside, where there is the parallel existence of life and death, or rather where ‘death is the very reason of the existence of life in the forest’ is extremely engrossing.
Strikes, suspensions, sudden outbreaks of engulfing white light, the mystery of Sepideh’s mother, Rudabeh’s death, and the dream where Seppy says “the dead are not dead at all, but still alive” makes the novel all the more interesting and increases the urge to consume and to be consumed by the novel at once.
The incidents in the novel are not chronologically written, but the nussesalar life is set roughly from 1930-1990, where a major portion of the present tense is in the wake of the country’s freedom.
Though a work of fiction, Mistry has actually depicted a true story that he came across while gathering information while writing a documentary on Parsi corpse bearers of Bombay. Perhaps that is why, the novel feels so real and we are completely portalled into Phiroze Elchidana’s life.