At a time when India was caught up in the whirlwind of the Independence struggle, there lived a community completely cut off from the world. In the bustling south Bombay of pre-Independence era, the Khandhiahs, or the corpse bearers of the Parsi community, were forbidden to come out of the Tower of Silence. In 1991, playwright and author Cyrus Mistry trudged into their land to tell their story. As a part of his research for a documentary for Channel 4, he met many people, until a story within this story caught his attention. “Someone told me a story of his father who was, by caste, not a Khandhiah but forced to become one,” says the 57-year-old. The documentary film never came out, but it became the foundation for his new novel titled Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer (Aleph Book Company, Rs 495). The book won the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asia on Saturday at Jaipur Literature Festival.
It is about a priest’s son, Phiroze Elchidana, who forsakes his chance of becoming a Khandhiah because he falls in love with the daughter of one. “The book doesn’t have much to do with facts and figures. The novel shows life, death and personal suffering,” says the author. Moreover, the book weaves in the pre-Independence narrative, a significant area since the Khandhiahs’ isolation meant that their involvement in history is almost nil. “In a way, I’m conveying that life was very difficult for these people. The ’40s was a bad time for them because of their isolation. I’ve showed how they saw the outside world,” says Mistry, “In the book, they have a small radio. They heard about things like Quit India Movement and the rise of Hitler. These elements flow in the narrative very smoothly. It goes back and forth, making the novel more time based.”
Mistry is now working on a new play and novel. Known for only two productions, The Legacy of Rage and Doongaji House, Mistry admits he is not very prolific in theatre. Reticent about the play, he says it’s based on “a family situation”.“Once this play is done, I’ll bring out all three plays together for performances,” he says.