Berjis Desai has earned a reputation for writing wry, short stories about the Parsis, often based on saucy gossip from days gone by. He has now moved on to the next level and penned a novel, recounting the whimsical and weird tale of the Bhamgara clan over 140 years, starting from the sleepy town of Navsari in Gujarat and ending in the hustle and bustle of Mumbai’s Colaba. The recurring theme is of the spirit world — of babas, Sufi mystics, clairvoyants, cosmic forces, black magic and a long-standing curse.
It would seem that the author has gained inspiration from the magical realism of Latin-American novels. But making a God-fearing, prosaic Parsi family entangled in supernatural spells does not ring quite true. The Zoroastrian faith does not preach reincarnation and sorcery.
Clearly, Desai’s story is partly autobiographical. Navsari is the hometown of the parents of the hero, Burjor. His father was an upright journalist in Mumbai, innocent of the ways of the world, who rose nevertheless to be the editor of a Gujarati newspaper, helped by the curmudgeonly chief minister, Morarji Desai, putting in a word. Burjor’s struggles against odds and a non-English-speaking background to win a scholarship to Cambridge University is followed by an impressive career in law. The lacuna in the novel is that most of the characters are rather perfunctorily sketched. The author seems more concerned about making pronouncements on their sexuality rather than developing any other dimension of their personalities. The men are generally either lecherous and raunchy or impotent. The novel mentions some suspicious paternities and coupling with non-Parsis, surely highly unusual in families with the strict middle-class Parsi mores of those days.
From a cursed necklace which leads to a series of untimely deaths in the Bhamgara family, to a legal battle with a debauched Parsi Panchayat trustee who colludes with a crooked builder to attempt to grab a parcel of land from the 50-odd forested acres of Mumbai’s Doongerwadi, where the Parsis dispose of their dead, the storyline is confusing and convoluted.
The Towers of Silence (also the book’s title) have always been a source of morbid curiosity for non-Parsis and the author plays on this interest in the Parsi funerary rites, which requires throwing corpses into wells so that the vultures can devour the flesh. Desai uses the opportunity to spill some secrets on this age-old custom as well as take a few sly digs at the hypocrisy of the Parsi orthodoxy.
What with a secret passageway in the Dakhma garden, mantras, protective lockets, psychic energies, good and bad babas and venal villains, Burjor’s fight against the forces of evil working against his family and trying to grab Dakhma land, is the most engaging part of the book. Vignettes into the Parsi way of life are woven into the story, from describing the cloistered world of nassesalars or corpse-bearers to the strict regime prescribed to be ordained a priest, rules which the author claims are broken flagrantly. Indeed, he rather delights in exposing what he considers the double standards of some members of his community.
Coomi Kapoor is contributing editor, The Indian Express