Echoes of a Living Past
Legend has it that sometime in the 10th century, shiploads of Zoroastrians, fleeing persecution in their native Iran, landed on the coast of Saurashtra in Western India. They met the local king and sought asylum. The king, Jadi Rana, pointed to a tumbler full of milk, indicating thereby that his empire was full to the brim and he had no place for more people. The leader of the strange new people took a pinch of sugar and mixed it with the milk, telling the king that his people would add sweetness to the milk but never let it overflow. And so they stayed, putting down roots, in Sanjan, Variav, Thane, Broach and cities as further afield as Bombay and Karachi. Their women wore saris and spoke Gujarati, the men excelled in trade and commerce with many occupying high posts in government – from Mughal times to colonial to present day. Called Parsi (having come from Persia), they are India’s smallest minority constituting less than 0.02 % of the population. However, being a distinctive community due to their dress, speech, culture, food as well as their visible presence in fields as diverse as law and medicine, politics and industry, arts and cinema, they have a hold on the Indian imagination disproportionate to their actual numbers. Possibly this is to do with the largely stock characters that the Indian film industry has propagated of the Parsi bawa.
Cinematic representations continue to be unfair in some ways, showing the Parsis as colourful and privileged but also dysfunctional, antsy, idiosyncratic, miserly and querulous; Being Cyrus, Pestonjee and Earth, being recent examples of this brand of cinema verite. On the other hand, a slew of books has provided a corrective and portrayed members of this community in a more realistic manner. Rohinton Mistry, Thrity Umrigar, Sooni Taraporewla, Farrukh Dhondy, Firdaus Kanga and Cyrus Mistry have, in different ways, explored the Parsi psyche but also located them firmly within the mainstream of Indian life. Cyrus Mistry’s latest offering, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, shows how the story of a small, marginalised community of untouchables – the khandhias who bathe and carry corpses to the Towers of Silence – can rise above its time and circumstance and speak of larger, universal concerns.
In speaking of the Khandhias and the terrible humiliation, isolation and segregation they suffer, Mistry not only throws light on this almost invisible sub-group but also weaves a compelling story of love and loss. Phiroze Alchidana, son of a revered priest, falls in love with Sepideh, the daughter of a corpse bearer who lives in the Doongarwaadi atop Malabar Hill. To have Sepideh, he must leave his father’s home, become a khandhia and live the life of a pariah for such is the fear of contamination from the dead and those who handle dead bodies. Sepideh, a fey child-woman who has lived her entire life in the deeply-forested Doongerwaadi, dies a few years after their marriage leaving Alchi to weather the rigidly-enforced isolation as well as take on the might of the powerful Parsi Punchayet.
Running through the warp of Alchi’s benighted love story is the woof of India’s struggle for Independence. Gandhi’s call for Satyagraha finds an echo deep in the khandhias’ disaffected, disgruntled hearts, inspiring them to launch their own peaceful non-cooperation movement, to go on hartal to down tools or, to be precise, not lift corpses, till their demands for more humane working conditions are met. When Gandhi urges the nation in a radio address – ‘The chains of a slave are broken the moment he considers himself a free man’ – his words become a catalyst for change. Part-fiction, part-truth, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is a story of courage and hope, a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story of one man and a nation on the high road of history.
(Rakhshanda Jalil blogs at www.hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com)
1. The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie dealing with the rise of a world famous Indian rock star named Ormus Cama, has shades of Freddie Mercury aka Farrokh Bulsara.
2. Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry, details the travails of a Parsi family living in Bombay in the 1970s.
3. The Space between Us by Thrity Umrigar outlines the lives of two women: a privileged Parsi lady and her maid
This review first appeared in the Herald, Karachi, August 2012