“Because if the dead are really and truly dead, null and void, snuffed out without a trace – then everything we grow up believing in is a lie. All religion, theology, my father’s life and beliefs and prayers, the pumped-up ‘power of faith’ – everything is simply wishful thinking.”
I first read about the Towers of Silence in the James Patterson-Ashwin Sanghi collab project Private India. Until then I did not know about the Parsi custom of disposing corpses by leaving them for vultures to feed on. The Parsis are a close-knit community and I admit there wasn’t much I knew about them before reading Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer.
According to custom, the Parsis are not allowed to touch dead bodies, even those of their closest family, as they’re considered unclean. It is only the corpse bearers, or the khandias, who carry the corpses to the Towers of Silence, where they are left for the vultures. The khandias are therefore considered untouchables. Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is the story of Phiroze Elchidana, son of a priest, who falls in love with Sepideh and is forced by her father to become a corpse bearer if he wished to marry her. Phiroze loves Sepideh enough to denounce his family and priesthood, and join the ostracized community of khandias. His father breaks all ties with him, and the only news he receives from home is from Vispy, his elder brother. Sepideh, or Seppy as she is fondly called, dies soon after, leaving Phiroze with the responsibility of raising their three year old daughter Farida.
The corpse bearers were forced to work for long hours under harsh conditions. One morning, overcome by fatigue and hunger, Phiroze faints, causing a corpse to fall off its bier. The superiors, convinced that he was drunk, suspend him and later place him on probation. Given the other challenges the corpse bearers were facing, they decided to go on strike. The strike lasted three days, during which no corpses were removed from their houses. The superiors agreed to their demands and also reinstated Phiroze.
This strike, in a way, forms the crux of the story. Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is based on the true story of a corpse bearer who led the only khandia-led strike in Bombay in history.
What I liked about this story: An insight into the guarded Parsi community. Phiroze questions many of the rigid religious customs, and is often admonished by his father, Framroze, who considers it his responsibility to uphold the orthodox traditions. Framroze believes his wife died of cancer because she sometimes refused to follow his religious instructions. Phiroze, though overly fond of his father while growing up, begins to see him in a different light when this revelation is made. His heartbreak over losing Seppy is also a main part of the story – his belief that they will be reunited in the afterlife is quite moving.
What I did not like: The writing! The writing was too verbose for me to be invested in the story. One of the simplest examples of this is the following sentence: “He and I were meeting after the passage of a long time.” Needlessly long. The book is written in first person – Mistry has written it as though Phiroze himself has written it, but at no point does Mistry’s writing voice not conflict with his intended narrator’s voice. If you have read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, you can hear the story being narrated by none other than the geisha in question. This is not the case here. For one, Phiroze is described as a simple man. However, the sophisticated language used is quite out of synch with the kind of character described.
Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is a story in which a lot is written, but very little is said. On the whole, considering the potential of the subject matter at hand, I feel a tad underwhelmed by the book. The title rouses one’s interest, but the title may just be its most interesting part.