Towers of Silence

Sounds like the title of a fantasy novel but is actually the place the corpses of members of the Parsi community in Bombay (Mumbai) used to be exposed to the elements and vultures in the Zoroastrian funeral rites (or maybe still are, I’m not sure). I learnt this interesting and new to me fact from the novel Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry that I read last weekend. A very good read that I highly recommend. My review contains spoilers, so it’s under the cut.

The novel is set in Bombay in the years from around 1917 to the late 1980s. It tells the story of Phiroze, who becomes a corpse bearer, someone who, together with colleagues, caries the bodies of deceased Parsis from their homes to their final resting place at the Towers of Silence, where they are left to be consumed by vultures. The corpse bearers perform an important service for their community, but are ostracized and shunned, as they are seen as contaminated by their contact with the dead bodies.

The novel is in three parts: Present Tense, Bombay 1942; Echoes of a Living Past; and Future Imperfect. It is told in the first person by the protagonist/narrator, Phiroze. The first part is the story of his life until 1942. He was born the son of a Zoroastrian head priest and grew up in the temple compound where he had to adhere to strict religious rules against which he rebelled as a teenager. His mother, Hilla, and especially his father, Framoze, had high hopes for him, but Phiroze wasn’t very interested in school and failed his final exams. While he was supposed to study for another try, he instead loitered around Bombay. He met Sepideh (Seppy), the daughter of a corpse bearer, at a Parsi funeral and fell in love with her. But her father insisted that he had to become a corpse bearer (a khandhia) to be allowed to marry Seppy. Although khandhias were ostracized and excluded from society, Phiroze agreed without hesitation:

The choice was thrust on me, and I embraced it with both arms – because that was the condition Seppy’s father stipulated: if I wanted to be with her, I was to marry her first, and be willing to live and work at the Towers of Silence.

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer (2014), by Cyrus Mistry, p. 77

His family was appalled, but Phiroze rather took to his new life and was happy with Seppy and their daughter, Farida. Sadly, Seppy died of a snakebite a few years after the marriage, which took place in 1935, when Phiroze was about 18.

This first part is also about the community of khandhias and the conditions under which they worked and lived. An important plot line is the events that occurred when Phiroze collapsed while carrying a corpse, causing the body to fall off its bier and causing a scandal in the Parsi community. When the corpse bearers were to be punished by the Punchayet, a religious body responsible the khandhias, they raised objections and asked for better working conditions:

We corpse bearers, Coyaji [a member of the Punchayet] said to us, should never behave like ordinary factory workers. Never, he repeated for added emphasis, and paused. For the work we did had tremendous religious and social significance for the entire community, and the Punchayet was like our foster father and mother, who looked after us through bad times and good.
[…]
Not a single concession was granted to us, even just to mollify or appease – except to proclaim that our grievances would definitely be looked into in greater detail.

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer (2014), by Cyrus Mistry, p. 105-107

The corpse bearers therefore went on strike and were successful, because nobody was available to take on their job.

In the middle part of the novel, Echoes of a Living Past, Phiroze tells a lot of his family stories, how it came that Seppy was actually a cousin of his, the daughter of Rudabeh, who was his father’s estranged half-sister. His father had stolen Rudabeh’s inheritance and therefore caused her death, for to make ends meet, she had to take up prostitution and was brutally murdered by one of her clients. His father had also got the job as a corpse bearer for Seppy’s father, Temoorus, so that Temoorus’ insistence that Phiroze had to join the ranks of the khandhia seems like revenge. This part also tells how Phiroze relationship with his family developed after his marriage. His mother relented and occasionally visited him, but his father never did, though they did occasionally meet.

The last part of the novel, Future Imperfect, tells the story of Phiroze’s life until old age. It is episodic, like the entire novel. One of the episodes is about the desire of a non-Zoroastrian character, who was related to one of Phiroze’s school friends, to have Zoroastrian burial rites. His father paid a lot of money to the Punchayet, but the khandhias foiled the plan, because they didn’t think it right. This story illustrated Phiroze’s statement “…much of the time our lives were anything but dull, dreary and repetitious. Despite routine, there was always room for excitement, passion and a frenzied tomfoolery” (p 183).

Near the end of Phiroze’s life, the custom of exposing corpses on the Towers of Silence gradually went into decline in the 1980s and 1990s, because the vulture population of India was greatly decimated (Indian vulture crisis) so that they could no longer dispose of the bodies in a timely way. The living conditions of the corpse bearers had gradually improved. His daughter, Farida, had gone to school and got a normal job. Phiroze miraculously found, after his father’s death, some jewelry that should have gone to Rudabeh and was then given to her granddaughter Farida. Waiting for death, Phiroze, although not particularly religious, is sure that he will be reunited with Sepideh.

The novels give a very sympathetic view of the corpse bearers, with the ups and downs of their lives, and the joy they find despite their exclusion from society. Their personal lives are rich and varied, though shut-off from outside happenings. During the time of the novel, WWII and Indian independence took place, but this hardly came to the notice of the khandhias at all:

The truth was our lives were so closed, so dispossessed, even world wars, riots, our country’s struggle for independence hardly seemed to matter. So far removed were we from these fateful eventualities of history that, except by a complex chain of inferences and deductions, none of them touched our personal lives at all.

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer (2014), by Cyrus Mistry, p. 124

While the khandhias are shown as an interesting sub-society, there is still a lot of criticism of their exclusion and interesting views on how they think about death, the polluting effects contact with corpses is said to have, and their role in society. It’s a very well written, very interesting novel. I liked it a lot and heartily recommend it.

2020_08_12

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