Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is a novel derived from a true story. When the whole community of the corpse bearers is eschewed and isolated from society, Phiroze Elchidana, son of a highly respected Parsi priest, falls in love with Sepideh, daughter of an old corpse bearer. Corpse bearers, pretty much an invisible community in Bombay, are those whose job is to carry dead bodies to the Towers of Silence. This book is an intense tale of tragic love, which also delicately brings out the subtle tinges of the humiliation experienced by the corpse bearers and the ever-rampant existence of untouchability. Corpse Bearer is narrated by Phiroze Elchidana, the son of a respected priest who makes the shocking decision to live as a khandhia, knowing that he would be a part of a sub-community treated poorly and with disdain. They are considered the untouchables of the Parsi community because of their contact with the dead — dead flesh being considered unclean within the Zoroastrian faith. As the son of a priest, Phiroze is able to train as a nussesalar, a “strange word from the ancient Avestan [meaning] Lord of the Unclean”, but he is still very much a corpse bearer, living in the designated compound of the grounds surrounding the Towers of Silence with other members of the khandhia community who spend long hours travelling by foot to collect corpses from various parts of the city and prepare them for funeral and their final journey into the Towers. Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is not a perfect book, but it is an important one. Mistry uses Phiroze to tell the stories of Parsi priests in their fire temples, of the khandhias living near the Towers of Silence, of the impact of the Parsi community on pre-Partition Bombay; of family, love, loss and prejudice strong enough to ruin lives. Perhaps there is a little too much telling and not enough showing in Mistry’s narrative, but when the telling is about a community so richly, rhythmically imbedded in South Asia’s culture, and so under-represented in literature, it is, nonetheless, desperately needed.
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