If initiation into the Zoroastrian faith of children born to Parsi girls who have married outside the community is the most hotly debated issue in the minuscule Parsi community, then dakhmenashini (the consigning of the dead to the dakhma or Towers of Silence) ranks a close second. In Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, Cyrus Mistry delves into the relatively unknown world of the khandhias and nussesalars, the workforce which mans these dakhmas. Nussesalars are corpse-bearers invested with priest-like duties and are responsible for protecting the living from contamination by the corpse. In Zoroastrian theology, all dead matter is considered unhygienic and polluting.
This novel draws inspiration from the true story of a Parsi dock worker who married a khandhia’s daughter. Mistry, sibling of the novelist Rohinton Mistry, came across this story while working on a proposal for a documentary on corpse-bearers for Channel 4. While the documentary proved to be stillborn, that story provided the germ of an idea which eventually found expression in this touching book. The tale is set in pre-independence India and the narrator is Elchi (Phiroze Elchidana), son of a revered priest who falls in love with Seppy (Sepideh), the daughter of a khandhia. Elchi agrees to become a khandhia (his father-in-law Temoorus’s condition for marrying his daughter), but loses his beloved Seppy to snakebite soon after the birth of their daughter, Farida. Mistry describes poignantly, and with wry, grey humour, the travails of a khandhia and his inherently low position in Parsi society. Lest readers think khandhias are untouchables, a word of clarification is in order.
Khandhias owe their low position (from a ritual standpoint) to the fact that they deal with corpses, which are considered ritually impure. However, this pollution can be removed by the performance of purificatory rituals. The Parsis do not have castes and sub-castes and Mistry’s use of the latter term for the khandhias must be seen as a loose usage. The closest thing to a caste among the Parsis is the division into athornan and behdin, with the priests being drawn from the former, and the latter comprising the laity. Khandhias today are hardly on the ‘unforgiving margins’ of Parsi society, and there are no interdictions regarding commensality (or anything else). Mistry’s story is set in a time of greater orthodoxy, but the khandhias’ low position today is less about ritual pollution and more about poverty and anonymity. In Mumbai today, khandhias are employed by the Bombay Parsi Panchayat and earn about Rs 20,000 a month. If they live segregated lives on the doongerwadi estate it is because they have quarters there.
Part social commentary, part rumination on the meaning of life (and death), Chronicle is above all a tale of tragic love. There is conflict, a sense of belonging and loss, and the question of how one holds on to faith given the reality of death. Mistry’s pellucid prose, with many a memorable metaphor, makes for delightful reading. What lifts this narrative to greater heights is Mistry’s insight into Elchi’s milieu and mind. Peppered with grey humour, irony and tragedy, this well-crafted book is a winner.
(Bakhtiar K. Dadabhoy is a civil servant and author based in Mumbai)