Chronicle of a Corpse-Bearer : Life Beyond the Tower of Silence

I came across this book on the Kindle Store on Amazon. I picked it up as the name of the author really compelled me to buy it. Chronicle of a corpse-bearer is the story of Phiroze, a son of a respected Parsi priest from Mumbai who falls in love with Sepidah, daughter of an old ageing corpse-bearer.

This novel has given me an insight into the Parsi community in India. Their migration from greater Iran to Gujarat, India. I read about how they revere and worship fire, and I absolutely loved reading about their rituals, traditions and customs, especially the one in which requires the disposing of the dead on the towers of silence. It is a really intriguing custom.

Towers of silence are the buildings which are circular in shape where Zoroastrians perform the funeral customs for the deceased. In Zoroastrianism the body of the deceased is considered impure and hence not to violate the sacredness of land, they refuse to bury or cremate the body. Instead of this, they place the body on top of towers of silence wherein the vultures come and eat the meat.

As of today, the last tower of silence is located in Mumbai, India. But the lack of vultures and urbanisation makes it difficult to maintain and continue operation. Tower of Silence is mentioned a couple of times in the book and the cremation place has been the central area around which  Chronicle of a corpse-bearer 

One aspect of the book I absolutely come to have loved is the way in which parts of Bombay has been described beautifully. Especially the South Bombay area which has the maximum number of Parsi’s staying.

This novel has been written by an Indian Author and a playwright, Cyrus Mistry. He has been involved with playwrighting and worked with short film scripts as well as documentaries. A Zoroastrian himself,  he has recently been awarded the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for his novel ‘Chronicle of a Corpse-Bearer’. Cyrus Mistry has written a couple of other books like The radiance of Ashes, and , Passion Flower : Seven Stories of Derangement of which The Chronicles of the corpse has been widely read and acknowledged.

The book rather starts on a very dull note and the writing is very monotonous. But a few pages later the story becomes gripping and interesting and Cyrus’s style improves here dramatically. The story becomes a little fast paced in the middle and again towards the end the writing style deteriorates. His writing is very complex, though vivid but very confusing at times. There were parts which were not required and the inclusion of too many characters was not necessary.  They didn’t fit in the plot  and hence were just brought in to increase the length of the novel. The novel was a bit of a drag but I kept on reading until then end, just to complete it.

The book is inspired by a true story as mentioned by the author. But the author could have done justice and written it in a better way. On the other hand, I loved the characters especially the protagonist Phiroze. This novel talks about selfless love and the undying spirit of commitment.

This novel by Cyrus Mistry is a long and arduous read but still I thought of giving it a shot. The author has written a lot about the Parsi Community in this book. Parsi’s are a small but a well-known community in India. Since I have been writing about India based on the books I read, I think this one community is absolutely worth a mention here.

One can read this book at their own discretion. Not a highly recommended read, but one should get it if fiction interests them.


Sources & References:

Chronicles of a Corpse-Bearer by Cyrus Mistry
Read more about Tower of Silence,  here.

Godan : Munshi’s Last Masterpiece

I have been hearing about this book, Godan, right from my school days. We had a couple of short stories by Munshi Premchand in our curriculum. But I never picked up any of his novels, until last week when I came across Godan on the Amazon Kindle store and thought of giving it a shot.

‘Godan’ literally translates to ‘Donation of a cow’. In Hindu culture, a cow is supposed to be the most sacred animal and one who is worshipped daily. Godan means gifting a cow to a brahmin and a certain set of prayers need to be performed along with it.This is a very sacred ritual in the Hindu subcontinent.

Mythologically it has been mentioned in Shastras that the performance of the Godan ritual facilitates one’s route or journey across the Vaitarani River and it becomes very easy for the dead. This gift serves as a relief to the deceased along their journey.

So the book revolves around a villager, ‘Hori’ and his life as a peasant in India. Suppressed by landlords or Zamindars and being pushed into a vicious cycle of debts , this book clearly identifies the plight of the poor and still doesn’t fail to identify the  small joys they experience each day.

This is a book about the rich as well as much it is about the poor. Godan provides a large canvas of various interwoven stories set Uttar Pradesh short of Lucknow. A long and arduous read. What I thought was not necessary was too many secondary characters which do not have a major role in the novel which could have been avoided. A highly recommended read.

The book which is a translation in English by Jai Ratan & P. Lal,  fails to capture the emotions by Premchand. The writing is downright mediocre but the story makes up for the pathetic translation. One should go for reading it in Hindi only if the language is not a barrier.

Munshi Premchand’s words ring true even today, with great reverence that always leave their mark. Premchand’s original name was Dhanpat Rai, but he shifted to his pen name ‘Nawab’ Rai and changing it to Premchand short while thereafter.

 Munshi was a great laureate in both Hindi and Urdu. A lot of people say that he has been an unparalleled author in Hindi Literature, one of the first and he definitely struck a chord with the rich and poor alike.

This is my way to pay tribute to someone who has coloured true and vivid pictures of real India through his writings and it cannot get real than this. I think I selected this book because unless the heart of India is not read about, its villages not experienced vicariously, reading India seems incomplete.

Today I post this as a tribute to Munshi Prem Chand on his Birthday and I believe that more people should go ahead get a copy and read this brilliant masterpiece.

Yayati: A Poetic Masterpiece!

For a long time I have been wanting to explore some Marathi literature. But how does one select from a vast ocean of amazing literary pieces. Its difficult to pick one ,and I was very much tempted to read all of them at once.

This land of Maratha has experienced countless stories; right from Shivaji to the very contemporary ones, and they have been beautifully illustrated in countless written forms. Eventually I started asking around a couple of friends who are really into Marathi literature and drew up a list of quite some interesting books which have been recommended in the past.

From this list, I short listed close to about thirty books to choose from and finally set my heart on Yayati by Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar.

This I did for particularly two reasons. Firstly I knew that Yayati was a character in the Mahabharata. I read about him first when I came across a chapter bearing his name in Devdutt Pattanaik’s Jaya, and hence was intrigued to read more about him. Secondly for the love of mythology I simply went for this novel. As much as I would want to read the original edition of Yayati my insufficiency in reading and comprehending the language compelled me to stick to the English translation.

I have always loved how complex Mahabharata is. That is why they call it an epic. Every characters perspective is different on the tale. What may be good for one might not be good for the other.I guess in true sense nothing is good or evil but our thinking makes it so, and hence Mahabharata never fails to fascinate me with its different aspects.

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Yayati is often regarded as selfish, self-centered and a very materialistic person. So much so that he started neglecting his own Kingdom and daily affairs and indulged in wine and women. But this was so contradictory to what Sage Kanva once had to say about him. Sage Kanva blessed his daughter Shakuntala, mother of King Bharata on her marriage that: ‘May you be as dear to your husband as Sharmishtha was to Yayati’.

This was indeed puzzling.These scattered pieces of the puzzle were put together by VS Khandekar beautifully in his novel Yayati.

Yayati existed approximately thirty five generations before the actual war of Mahabharata took place. Son of the great Puru king Nahusha and his wife Viraja, Yayati was the crown prince of Hastinapur,being from the Puru Dynasty. Nahusha was himself carrying a curse, that his children will never be happy, and that pretty much shaped Yayati’s life.

Yayati was tricked into marrying Devayani, daughter of Guru Shukracharya, in spite of Devayani being a Brahman. As he was smitten by her beauty Yayati didn’t protest much, but as it turned out the marriage was a unsuccessful one.

But eventually Yayati set his heart on Devyani’s maid, Sharmishtha, or dearly called as Shama by Yayati. They married behind Devyani’s back and even had a son called Puru.

The interesting part is later after many years; Yayati was still so immersed in himself that he asked to exchange his old age with his youngest son Puru. This is quite fascinating by many aspects. Puru’s love and affection for his father knew no bounds and he readily accepted this fate upon himself.

They say sometimes what you’re most afraid of doing is the very thing that will set you free. Yayati realised this very late in life. Its not the material possession or the beauty which you are going to carry with you in your grave, but the number of lives you touch.

I love the concluding lines of the book which actually sets the theme for the entire novel:

Oh man, desire is never satisfied by indulgence. Like the sacrificial fire, it ever grows with every offering.

A truly beautiful and an immersive story. Yayati was  originally written in Marathi, which went on to win the Jnanpith and Sahitya Akademi Awards and hence subsequently got translated to English. This novel is a masterpiece by VS Khandekar.

A highly recommended read to everyone, especially those who are interested in mythology. The translation by YP Kulkarni does justice to the original version but the original version in Marathi is supposed to be more vivid, and one can enjoy the mythical past vicariously.

The Palace of Illusions :An artistic marvel

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“Through the long, lonely years of my childhood, when my father’s palace seemed to tighten its grip around me until I couldn’t breathe, I would go to my nurse and ask for a story.  And though she knew many wondrous and edifying tales, the one that I made her tell me over and over was the story of my birth. I think I liked it so much because it made me feel special, and in those days there was little else in my life that did. Perhaps Dhai Ma realized this. Perhaps that was why she agreed to my demands even though we both knew I should be using my time more gainfully, in ways more befitting the daughter of King Drupad, ruler of Panchaal, one of the richest kingdoms in the continent of Bharat.”

And thus begins the story of Princess Panchaali, born out of fire , as it was prophesied, she would be responsible to change the course of history, and oh man how excited was she to hear all about it over and over again. This beautiful dark skinned princess was none other than Draupadi. As we all know her as the wife of the legendary Pandava brothers, the only women to have five husbands all at the same time.

I have read the Mahabharata a couple of times, and a couple of versions of the epic have surfaced before my eyes and through these very hands. Each time I have added something new to my existing knowledge , and each time I have read a new version by a different author, it keeps on getting better. From my early childhood days I have wondered that how ever all the Pandava characters have been given much importance in the epic, but not much has been talked about Draupadi, apart from the very fact being that she was responsible for the downfall of the Kauravas.

A story becomes powerful with every retelling, and so has been the case with The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. An enchanting retelling of an epic that is truly powerful. This book while painting a vivid picture of events leading up to the war at Kurukshetra also sinks in the realization of the imperfections of human nature.

The palace of illusions is a very different approach to the Mahabharata. It is narrated by Panchaali. It is Mahabharata through the eyes of Draupadi. From the time she was born until the end, its her take on the entire situation, and on the journey she mentions about her thoughts, her insecurities , her desires, her anger, lust, love, responsibility and her portrayal of courage.

Courage of-course. Courage to have five husbands. Courage to face shame in an assembly full of her husbands and their brothers. Courage to have Krishna as her best friend and comrade and courage to let go of her love, the person she admired the most, with whom she always wanted to be. As the author rightly mentions –

“Love comes like lightning, and disappears the same way. If you are lucky, it strikes you right. If not, you’ll spend your life yearning for a man you can’t have.”

The highlight for me has been the conversations between Draupadi and Krishna. How subtly Krishna explains Panchaali about things beyond her understanding. The way Krishna always talks in riddles, and how behind every conversation there is a deep meaning to the entire context.

One of my favourite quotes from the book, again a conversation between the duo, wherein Krishna says –

“Just as we cast off worn clothes and wear new ones, when the time arrives, the soul cast of the body and finds a new one to work out its karma. Therefore the wise never grieve for the living or the dead”

Draupadi’s character has been discussed in depth.To what lengths she can go to have her way, how she often dreams of living in huge palaces, and get adorned with the finest jewelry and be pampered at all times. Her character is buoyant, expansive and uncontainable, a side of hers which lot of people are not aware of.

The book is written in a very gripping way. Its simple yet beautiful. Its vivid and colourful. The details are very picturesque and the whole saga has been depicted in a very quaint style. I loved the book, and was hooked to it completely. It definitely features in my ‘Top 5 picks of all time’.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has done complete justice to the concept of this half mythical half fictional tale, which has turned out to be completely magical.

 

 

Shantaram : Of love, fear and hope!

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Four years ago I came to Mumbai for my higher studies and I felt like a tiny needle in this huge haystack. Little did I know it then that I would fall in love with this beautiful city,it’s by lanes, the buildings, the wonderful promenades, beaches and mostly the warm loving people.

It’s blue skin smell of the sea, no matter where you are in the island curry and the blood metal smell of the machines. Mumbai smells of stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats.  It smells of heartbreak and the struggle to live and of crucial failures and loves that produce out courage.

It smells of ten thousand restaurants five thousand temples and of a hundred bazaars. And there are more smiles in the eyes on those crowded streets than in any other place I have ever known.

Mumbai has taught me a lot, and helped me live independently on my own terms as and when I have liked it. This eventually led to publishing a blog on Mumbai in the successive years, which ran for the next two years until I stopped it. I had read it earlier somewhere that Mumbai is a city and Bombay is an emotion. And Shantaram doesn’t fail to express this emotion.

Bombay has been described beautifully in each chapter, and I have come to love Mumbai more after it. It makes you fall in love with Mumbai all over again. That’s the beauty of this book. With its detailed descriptions on each and every nook and corner of the city right from the Léopold Café, to the queen’s necklace and the slums of Dharavi  which gives the reader a sense of belonging to the city.

The highlight of the book is of-course how Gregory David Roberts manages to capture the emotions and the psyche of Mumbaikars and has portrayed it effectively though different characters in his novel. The author has definitely put in a lot of thought process in each and every characters soul, especially the protagonist Lindsay aka Shantaram.

It took the author thirteen years to finish Shantaram this explains the sheer size of the novel. This 900 odd paged mammoth book is rather an experience, more of a memoir of the protagonist, something sort of a diary which is ineffable and just too magical. What I particularly like about the authors style of writing is his use of metaphors. Every moment in this book has been something really gripping. It says in India sometimes you have to surrender, before you win, and from there begins the tales of Shantaram’s surrender to the people of India.

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This novel is about the rise and fall of Shantaram in the Mumbai mafia, his escape from the prison back in Australia and his spiritual transformation to a man he always wanted to be and loving the women he adored the most. Shantaram is about love and the courage to embrace that love.

One of the central characters Karla has some really profound dialogues.  She’s someone like Dominique Francon from fountain head. Karla is dark and shady yet charming and lovable. “Love is opposite of power. That’s why we fear it so much”- that’s what Karla used to say. Her dialogues are sharp and witty. I would rather read her dialogues twice to appreciate the sheer beauty of it.

Apart from Karla my favourite characters were Prabhakar, Abdullah and Abdel Khader Khan. Shantaram found a friend in his guide, Prabhakar, a brother in Abdullah and in Abdel Khader Khan, a father.  It revolves around these relationships and how they weave eventually. I somehow could connect to this novel deeply. As they say it’s more about the journey than the destination itself, and with this book it’s similar. It has been more about the conversations and whole bunch of valuable advice which profoundly gripped me rather than the story on the whole.

Shantaram is a highly recommended read for anyone who loves fiction and philosophy and dreams of hope and love. Sometimes we love with nothing more than hope. Sometimes we cry with everything except tears. In the end that’s all there is: love and its duty, sorrow and its truth. In the end that’s all we have- to hold on tight until the dawn. For so long as fate keeps us waiting, we live on.


 

Sources
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts