Rising from the Ashes

Cyrus Mistry, winner of the 2014 DSC prize for South Asian Literature, is one of the most interesting but least celebrated Indians writing in English.

Updated: January 27, 2014 3:00 pm

EyeThat’s Cyrus Mistry?” asked a prosperous-looking gentleman, pointing an incredulous finger at the frail, rather ascetic figure holding court in the Durbar Hall at the Jaipur Literature Festival. “That’s not the Tata Group guy! Sorry, not interested.” He turned and left grandly, as if spurning a charlatan.

But he was probably kicking himself just hours later last Saturday when Cyrus Mistry won the DSC prize for South Asian Literature, worth about Rs 30 lakh, for his novel Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer.

Neither did Google think much of Cyrus Mistry until Saturday. The world’s leading valuer of human capital took little notice of one of the most interesting but least celebrated Indians writing in English. Searching for his name used to return results for the more famous Cyrus Pallonji Mistry, chairman of the Tata Group. But within hours of the award, the business leader had been shouldered aside by the frail and retiring writer. What will he do with the prize money? “Pay off my debts, which are substantial,” he says. “Stop working for a living in Mumbai and move back to Kodaikanal, where there’s more mental space. In fact, without this prize, my next book would have been impossible to write.”

Mistry is four years younger than his celebrated bother Rohinton, but began to write 10 years before him. This was after he had abandoned his childhood dream of being a pianist and composer as impractical. In fact, he says, the success of his 1977 play Doongaji House, had urged his older brother to consider a literary career. Nissim Ezekiel, who was on the jury of the Sultan Padamsee Award, was impressed by the play. It won the prize when Mistry was only 21 and its trajectory anticipated, in a way, his career graph as a novelist.

The winning play was supposed to be staged, but the producers demurred. They wanted changes. They hemmed and hawed. Finally, a whole decade later, they pronounced that Doongaji House should be abandoned as “it had no commercial value,” says Mistry. But in 1991, the play was staged by the noted theatre director Toni Patel, wife of the artist and painter Gieve Patel. A popular Mahesh Dattani production followed, as did a Marathi translation that travelled as far as Jammu.

In his career as a novelist, Mistry has reprised that hard-luck story. His first book, The Radiance of Ashes, was published by Picador in 2005 and sank faster than the Titanic.
Mistry attributes the disaster to a change of commissioning editors at Picador UK. The new incumbent did not share her predecessor’s faith in the book and apparently did nothing to promote it. “The cover bore just the title and my name,” recalls Mistry. “Not a word about who I was.”

In a manner of speaking, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, the second novel which has catapulted Mistry into the big league, precedes The Radiance of Ashes. The book developed from a story that he heard in 1991, when he was commissioned to write a proposal for a Channel 4 documentary on Parsi corpse-bearers, who used to pick up the dead of the community from their homes and carry them on foot across Mumbai to the Towers of Silence. Though not maltreated quite as badly as Hindu untouchables, they were nevertheless excluded from society and confined to the estate of the Towers of Silence by similar ideas of ritual purity and pollution.

The book is a revenge tragedy loosely based on the life of Mehli Cooper, a dock worker who married below his station into the community of corpse-bearers and, in 1942, “led an unprecedented and never-to-be-repeated strike.” A corpse-down strike which raised a very unique stink across Mumbai. The annals of the Parsi Punchayet do not record the strike, but Mistry believes that it is historical fact, one of those unpleasant details of subaltern life that elite history is quite happy to forget.

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is painted on a minimalist canvas, against which the biggest questions of the human race are projected — is justice possible, is faith for real, does the universe have a moral compass? The stage is largely restricted to the world of the corpse-bearers and does not venture at all beyond the pale of the Parsi community. The protagonist, Phiroze Elchidana, is the son of a priest, a keeper of the holy fire, and he falls much harder than Cooper when he marries the daughter of a corpse-bearer. Even his mother can meet him only if she performs excruciatingly complicated ritual ablutions before returning home to the fire temple.

The Radiance of Ashes — which ought to be reissued now that its author is famous — was the exact opposite of Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer. It was set in the brawling multiracial heart of the metropolis, in a slum being razed to make way for a park. It was about the cruelty of life in the big city, which its natives become inured to. “The protagonist is a tapori,” laughs Mistry. “He drinks heavily, smokes pot, wants to be a writer.” Portrait of the writer as a young man? Mistry laughs some more.

“I was writing for decades, but I didn’t work seriously as a writer until I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis,” he says. “My life changed utterly. I realised that chaos and the clutter of life are not necessarily sources of art. That doesn’t work for everybody. I had wasted a lot of time. Writing is best done stark sober and early in the morning.”
Before he turned to writing, Mistry had already spurned the dream career of his childhood for want of seriousness. He had started playing the piano in order to be a composer, “but it called for too much discipline.” His wife, the documentary filmmaker Jill Misquitta, confirms that dealing with disease has changed Mistry: “Up at 6.30 am and writing. No smoking, no drinking, lots of meditation.” Scarcely the regimen that Hemingway would have recommended but thanks to it, at the slightly advanced age of 57, Mistry has a literary career.

What next? The usual collection of short stories written over the years which suddenly finds favour with publishers when a writer gains fame, and is rejected at all other times as of no commercial value. A similar collection of plays is also in the offing, which would be a valuable addition to the small body of English theatre scripts in India. There’s another novel, too, but Mistry can only describe it as “seething emotions… I can’t really verbalise it yet. I have to make sense of it and then think of a story to fit.”

In the relentlessly promotional and cruelly bitchy world of publishing, Mistry is an exotic cocktail, equal parts polite reticence and blistering honesty, garnished with good-humoured disregard for festivals and book launches steeped in wine and spirits. He is a fine reminder of what writers used to be like before publishers turned them into circus performers. While poetry and drama are naturally performative, writers of other schools used to sit alone at tormented desks, gazing into the terrifying void of an empty page. And then, like magic, they would fill that page. The long-delayed success of Cyrus Mistry suggests that this lonely, godlike act of creation is not totally out of fashion.

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