Mumbai novelist Cyrus Mistry wins South Asian Literature Prize for “Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer”

Jaipur Jan 2014 

Playwright and short story writer Cyrus Mistry has won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for his book, “Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer” — a novel based on a marginal community of Parsi corpse bearers in Mumbai. Mistry was announced the winner from among a shortlist of six books from the region that included Anand’s “Book of Destruction” (translated by Chetana Sachidanandan), Goat Days by Benyamin (translated by Joseph Koyipalli), “How to Get Filthy Rich in a Rising Asia”, “The Blind Man’s Garden” by Nadeem Aslam and “Island of a Thousand Mirror” by Nayomi Munaweera. 

Mistry, who has overcome physical disabilities to pen a triumphant social drama about a little known rite of one of India’s fastest dwindling Parsi community, carried home a kitty of 50,000 USD – that he wants to send to his ailing sister Firoza in US for medical treatment. 

Published by Aleph Book Company in India, the novel narrates the social angst of the community of corpse bearers, who carry the dead to the towers of silence in Mumbai — the funerary shrine of the community. The community which lives at the very edge of the inter locking worlds of Mumbai is segregated from the mainstream because of its traditional livelihood. The community, which barely has 60 existing members, is often hounded by penury with no one to take up their cause.

In his novel, Mistry lends the community a new voice by bringing together two unlikely protagonists— a son of a Parsi priest Phiroze Elchidana and Sepideh, daughter of an ageing corpse bearer, who fall in love. Inspired by a true life saga, Mistry spins a story of star-crossed love that brings out the degradation faced by the community. 

“It just happened that 23 years ago in 1991 I was asked by a film producer to prepare a paper on corpse bearers for television documentary. I had met several people in course of my documentation. Twenty years – this made a novel,” Mistry said.

Mistry said “he deliberately wrote a liberal novel because the community was not allowed to mingle outside their clan”. The members of the community could not attend weddings or family occasions and were subject to curbs on “nail-filing  and hair-cutting,” the writer said. 

Mistry brings several layers into his novel  — the “isolation of the community, the walls between inside and outside life, a love story and simultaneously the social movements like the Quit India agitation and the rise of Hitler- in a smooth blend of social history and story-telling “. “It took me four years but I did not have to do much research,” Mistry said. 

The book reflects the general tide of South Asian literature —a genre of story-telling and narrative bound by threads of social extremism, poverty, politics, linguistic and cultural diversity, shared values and marginalisation of smaller cultures”, the jury chair of the prize Antara Dev Sen said.

“Curiously all the six books are about violence, migration, poverty, alienation, a sense of history and a sense of love,” Sen said. The jury had received close to 70 entries this year with nearly “30 per cent participation from UK, US, Canada and Australia” — on themes involving South Asian narratives and casts.             

The jury, an pan-Asian representation, included the founder-editor of Little Magazine Antara Dev Sen, writer-translator Arshia Sattar, managing director of the Oxford University Press (Pakistan) Ameena Saiyid, journalist-editor Rosie Boycott and veteran bookseller Paul Yamazaki. 

The prize was earlier conferred on novelists H.M. Naqvi from Pakistan and Shehan Karunatilaka from Sri Lanka.

-Staff Writer

        

                               

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