This particular book is very uncommon literature, which rather feels common. Set in pre-independence, when vultures were still around. Phiroze Elchidana, is a corpse bearer, or ‘khandhias’ in the Parsi community. They are responsible for collecting the dead, and later serving them to the vultures after last rites, as per the Zoroastrian tradition. Phiroze wasn’t always a ‘khandhias’, rather his father was a well-respected priest. But, he fell in love with a woman from ‘khandhias’. Hence, he had become a corpse bearer himself in order to get married to her.
With the life of a ‘khandhia’ aka corpse bearer at the centre, Mistry tells a story of social discrimination, love, grief, pain, and more. Discrimination is part of job of corpse bearer. It is a matter of fact.
The book is a journal written by Phiroze, our protagonist. Somehow, the narrative choice by the author fails to make the story personal. The story enough times digresses into a history lesson. In addition, the history lesson doesn’t impact the plot or even enhance our reading insight. The choice of writing and narrative style don’t go well at all, for me. The story just does enough to keep you engaged, not interested. Consistency is not the forte of the book. There is a love story, a protest, and a family conflict. Some character trajectories fail to make sense.
With all the inconsistencies, the book comes out to be important to read. This is a book which documents people who perform purification rites for the dead but are rendered ‘untouchables’ from their own community. The book points out that discrimination is barely about religion or what is written in the text. There are aspects of money, power, pride, and even lust. Corpse bearers are invisible to the rest of the community, living in a state of destitution.
“See, said Buchia. 'Just look at the scoundrel! Paid to stay awake, but already adrift in the land of Nod. Anyone who had a mind to could easily enter, steal a corpse, and walk away with it. It was meant to be a sort of self-deprecating joke, for that's exactly what he and his cronies were up to. But nobody laughed. Instead, Fali asked in all seriousness:Advertisement
'Now who would want to steal a corpse? Death has already robbed him of everything he ever owned. Why pillage a pauper?”Advertisement
The book great insight into the Parsi community or Zoroastrianism. Unlike others, Parsi community doesn't bury, or create their dead. They leave them in the Tower of Silence, to decay or being eaten by the vultures. They worship fire. The makes you curious enough to read up more about the community, and their practices.
The author mentions in the acknowledgement, towards the end of the book, that he was researching for a documentary on the corpse bearer community for Channel 4. The documentary never got made. So, he thought to weave the research into a narrative i.e. a book.
More in Book Review
- Book Review: TALES OF HAZARIBAGH by Mihir Vatsa
- Read the ‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth, don’t watch the Netflix series!
- The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
- ‘The Missionary Position: When Hitchens investigated Mother Teresa
- Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup
- Book Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
- Estuary by Perumal Murugan, Translated by Nandini Krishnan
- Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand
- Book Review: Qabar by K.R. Meera, Translated from Malayalam by Nisha Susan
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
- Girl, Woman, Other By Bernardine Evaristo