For someone who has been writing for over 40 years, Cyrus Mistry was relatively unknown until he won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 for his novel Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer. But the critically acclaimed playwright and author hopes all the media attention “will subside soon.”
Thanks to the US $50,000 that accompanies the prize, Mistry can now “get back to serious writing.”
“I had been taking up odd jobs and projects all these years to make money,” says the 57-year-old.
“Writing in India does not pay well.”
When he was 21, Mistry wrote his first play Doongaji House (1977), which won the Sultan Padamsee Award and has since become an Indian English theatre classic.
The Mumbai native who wanted to be a pianist as a child worked as a freelance journalist for several years, and even wrote film scripts – for Saeed Mirza’s Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978) and Parvez Merwanji’s Gujarati film, Percy (1989), based on one of Mistry’s short stories.
But scriptwriting did not satisfy the writer in Mistry.
“When a film is made, scriptwriters are placed at the lowest rung of the hierarchy. A writer’s imagination is not respected enough,” he says.
“I enjoy writing dialogues, but I did scriptwriting mostly for the money.”
Financial respite came in 2005, when his first novel The Radiance of Ashes was published by Picador in the UK and he was paid a handsome advance.
His second novel, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, is set amid an ‘untouchable’ segment of the Parsi community – the khandhias or corpse bearers, who carry the deceased to the Towers of Silence.
Based partly on a real life story, Mistry’s novel has the son of a priest marrying the daughter of a corpse bearer, becoming “declassified, demoted in society” in the process.
Mistry heard the story over 20 years ago while researching for a documentary, which was never made, on Bombay’s Parsi corpse bearers for UK’s Channel 4.
Using the theme of love, Mistry examines social justice and marginalisation in the novel.
“I wanted to use a small stage of this tiny, nearly invisible section of people to raise universal questions of social and moral justice in the world,” says Mistry, who shares a “close” relationship with his older brother and Indian Canadian author Rohinton Mistry.
“He used to visit often, but hasn’t been to India since the controversy over his book,” he says, referring to the Shiv Sena protests that led to the withdrawal of his brother’s novel Such a Long Journey from the Mumbai University’s syllabus.
With his 22-year-old son studying in Canada, the author and his filmmaker wife Jill moved to Kodaikanal a few years ago because he was “getting sick of Bombay, which was overcrowded, overpolluted.”
The move was also because of his health – Mistry recovered from Multiple Sclerosis around five years ago.
He did not let his ill-health interrupt his writing, though. “Writing helped me get over the illness."