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Book Review: Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer

I use a very simple strategy for liking or disliking books. There are books that make sense or make you learn something. And then there are books like Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry, which transport you to an unknown world. And books like these always leave me stunned and asking for more. A story about a less known cast of Corpse Bearers residing in Mumbai amongst Parsi community, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is a story that will leave you enlightened about a hidden world and at the same time, unsettled.

The story revolves around Corpse Bearers, a marginalized community that picks up the dead and is declared as untouchables by Zoroastrians. And one of them is our protagonist, Phiroze Elchidana, son of a Parsi priest who fell in love with Sepidah, daughter of a corpse bearer. Keeping in mind his tough childhood, Sepidah acts like a balm to his broken soul and dreams. And for her, he gives up everything including his life as a normal person.

To marry Sepidah, Phiroze becomes a Corpse Bearer and starts living in the Tower of Silence with others like him. He is declared as an untouchable and is shunned by the community. But all these things hardly matter to him, he only needs Sepidah. Until one day, even she is gone.

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From that moment onward, the story starts progressing towards chronicling the life of Firoze as a Corpse Bearer. From getting an insight into his regular day of backbreaking work to his inner turmoil when he feels people grimacing and getting away from him, Firoze gives a narration so painful that it makes you sit up in your reading chair and think hard. You also get to visit the Tower of Silence, where Corpse Bearers leave the dead to be eaten by Scavengers, giving them the ultimate farewell from the world.

Shunned from the class structures, the Corpse Bearers don’t get relief even when it comes to compensation and leaves. Whether there is flood or fire, Firoze keeps on collecting and cleaning dead and taking them to the Tower of Silence, remembering Sepidah and his daughter to soothe the pain in his heart and feet. You witness the cold vibes of a union/board which is formed to take up the woes of these people, but hardly they get any solace. Instead, they face flak even when they need to be heard, highlighting the plight of this hidden community.

When I picked up this grey colored book, I wasn’t aware of the power and influence this book might have on a reader. The stories of Phiroze and other corpse bearers leave a mark on your thought process. Though the central plot revolves around the plight of corpse bearers, the horror of contamination that Parsi community is scared of is highlighted more. Mistry’s voice is bold and unflinching, and hardly he restrains himself from sharing information with the reader.

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The sorrows of Corpse Bearer can be defined in a single episode that I came across while reading this book. Phiroze was being molested by his superior, who always made life a living hell for him. And one day he gives in, making Phiroze feel ‘more human’ because the molester saw him as ‘more than some cadaverous unclean thing’. Such is the class difference portrayed in the book.

The obsession of clean-unclean in the Parsi community has been shared deeply in Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer. You also hear stories from other Corpse Bearers, sharing their plight. How even their most talented kids do not stand a chance of surviving in the world, all thanks to their “untouchable” status. It is a life where you cannot afford to be hungry, especially when you fainted on the road itself whilst carrying a corpse, and dropping it on the ground, bringing shame to the community and your work and also suspension.

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is a story that doesn’t have a plot, it only has one narrative voice sharing the plight of a sect that carries dead and is declared as untouchables. A life that promises them escape from the cycle of rebirth and death if they perform their duties, turns out in the end, makes them only into glorified untouchables. Even his fellow men at death, treat a corpse bearer’s every inch like dirt.

All in all, Chronicles of a Corpse Bearer is a masterpiece that you should not miss. There might be no plot or twist, but there is definitely a voice so powerful that will keep on echoing until you replace it with another brilliant chronicle.

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