Q & A | Cyrus Mistry
Cyrus Mistry won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 for his latest novel Chronicles of a Corpse Bearer. Mistry’s book is a story of a marginalised community and looks at larger questions about life and death, which makes it a different read. Edited excerpts from an interview with the reticent author at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2014.
What was your reaction on winning the DSC Prize?
Even though it is counter-productive to be expectant, it did feel good on winning it.
How has your background in playwriting influenced your writing?
Playwriting and novel writing are two different things. They don’t overlap so much. My dialogue-writing is strong. That is what attracted me to plays in the first place. I’ve always felt it comes easier for me to write dialogues than hard prose.
What prompted your switch from playwriting to novel-writing?
Plays don’t pay much.
What kind of authors do you like reading?
Authors get into fashion and out of fashion very easily. I prefer reading the classics. Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anton Chekhov are two of my favorites. And another author who is not even in fashion, British author Elizabeth Bowen. Her great economy in style appeals to me.
What are you working on right now?
I have two manuscripts which are ready. There is a book of selected stories which I had written over the year. It is ready for publication. Another one is a collection of my plays.
What do you think will happen to your reputation as a reclusive writer post the DSC Prize?
Post the DSC Prize I will not be allowed to be reclusive. But I hope to soon get back to my writing. I am not reclusive really. I just don’t like to meet people in groups, like in parties. I like to be on my own and meet people one on one.
What do you think of literary festivals like JLF? Do you think they help in promoting reading?
If your book got adapted into a movie would you be comfortable writing the screenplay for that?
It’s not my main line of work. I would do it for the money. But I would prefer to work on my next book.
So what is your next novel going to be on?
I really can’t say much. If I were to know in advance what could be the themes and the content of the novel, then probably it would be a very bad novel. A novel has to grow like an organic thing out of its own centre. You have to literally write one word which leads to the next word and then the next paragraph.
I just have feelings which eventually come into the storyline. And then I work around them.
There is a strong theme of rebellion in your books. How intentional is it?
The protagonists in both my novels have some element of rebellion. The fact that these characters are rebellious doesn’t really mean anything. I think everyone has some amount of rebellion in them.
Your brother Rohinton Mistry is also an acclaimed writer. How are you both different as writers?
My brother and I both write fiction. Though I think we both are different types of fiction writers. I think fiction writing depends a lot on how much you can invent and imagine.
In his writing there are some elements which I, as his brother, can recognize as autobiographical. But nobody else would know that. He is very strong in his own way. The long-lasting success of his books shows that he has some different strengths which I don’t perhaps have. He is a very good storyteller and a good brother.
How strong is the Parsi element in our works?
In my first novel, The Radiance of Ashes, even though the protagonist is a Parsi, he’s not a typical Parsi in anyway. A lot of other elements of social life are brought in. In the Chronicles of a Corpse Bearer the Parsi connection is more evident as it is specifically about the corpse bearers of the Parsi community. Thematically you could say that it is quite universal. It talks about life, death, questions of universal meaning and justice.
What are the two things that make this book special?
One is that the Parsi community itself is very small. And this book is based on a small sub-caste of corpse bearers who used to be fully quarantined and segregated, living inside their quarters in the towers of silence. They were not allowed to mingle and mix with others. This is because of certain ancient beliefs that corpses are pollutant to other people. So I have taken a small area but raised very large universal questions.
The other point is that the form of this novel is very special to me. When the novel begins, the protagonist’s wife is already dead. The whole novel moves between different planes of timetime—the past, the present and the future. At the same time there are references of things from the outside world which would seem very relevant like historical events—the Quit India Movement and the agitation of the time. So even though it is not in linear form, the back and forth in time came out smoothly.
Tell us about some of your past works.
I worked on the screenplay of Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan by Saeed Mirza. I also worked on a film for which I wrote a short script and the dialogues in Gujarati.
How different was your experience of publishing this book as compared to your last?
An unfortunate thing happened with my last book. I had sold Radiance of Ashes to Picador UK and there was a quick turnover of editors. The editor who ended up publishing the book was not quite as pleased with it as the first editor who commissioned it was. After a long argument, when the book was finally published, the editor didn’t promote it as much as she could have. But over the years, the people who read it liked it.
I faced no such trouble getting Chronicles of a Corpse Bearer published.