Reading Mistry’s ‘Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer’ I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was getting a glimpse into something secret, almost like Hogwarts, so small and unobtrusive is the Parsi community in the subcontinent. The book is about this community, or to be more exact about an even tinier sect within that community the Khandhias as the Parsi corpse bearers are called.
The Khandias live in the shadow of the Towers of Silence, which they serve quite literally by bringing bodies of the dead from the community and leaving them in the towers where they lie as per the Parsi ritual of defiling neither the earth by burial nor the air by cremation. Exposed to carrion vultures the bones are soon stripped clean of the dead flesh and are then disposed of by the priests. No one is allowed into the heart of these towers except the designated priests therefore not even the general Parsi community is aware of their complete layout. For any inaccuracies therefore Mistry asks the reader to remember that this is after all a novel and a work of fiction.
In fact no one is allowed near a corpse shortly after the person dies because once the priests arrive in the bereaved home, they draw a line in chalk on the ground around the body which only the corpse bearers, the priests and a dog are allowed to cross. It is unknown how the custom of a dog at the funeral started but Mistry says the tradition is probably as old as Persia itself and started because dogs are said to have the ability to pick up the slightest sign of life; a dog is therefore allowed to sniff at a corpse three times during the funeral ceremonies.
Mistry stumbled on the inspiration for this story while researching a documentary for Channel 4 about corpse bearers in Bombay’s Parsi community. The documentary was never made but the essentially true tale was shaped into the story of Phiroz Elchidana, the son of a priest who is forced to leave home when he falls in love with and marries the daughter of a corpse bearer. Phiroz becomes a corpse bearer himself and joins the desperately poor community of Khandias around the Towers of Silence. The Khandias are a marginalised people, almost if not as untouchable as the untouchable caste amongst the Hindus, and at the time this story begins in the early 1940s they were extremely oppressed with no rights at all. Phiroz’s story spans a period of some sixty years during which the people of India strove to throw off the British yoke and gain independence. In 1947 the British left India and the subcontinent was partitioned. These greater events are reflected in the tiny pool of the Khandias’ own struggle for rights. In the 1940s they worked seven days a week and could be called upon to work without break for food or rest. Phiroz and his friends were involved in the movement to gain rights for their community even while Gandhi started his passive resistance and marches for freedom, and the Quit India movement ‘on the outside’. The Khandias eventually gained their rest days and rest periods, annual leave and right to education for their children just as the British left India, and India and Pakistan became independent of them and each other.
This is a simply written and touching love story but at least for me the most interesting thing was the fascinating glimpse into the life and workings of the Parsi community. If I had a complaint it was that somewhere in the middle of the book we find the characters quipping about ‘the sugar plum fairy’. What would people of this community living as they do so remote and unexposed to the world know about the sugar plum fairy? But this is always a problem for those who write in English about people who speak another language, to render their speech and idioms into English in a way that preserves the meaning.
Cyrus Mistry received the Disc Prize for South Asian Literature for this book, first published by Aleph Book Company in 2012. His other books are ‘The Radiance of Ashes’ and ‘The Passion Flower: Stories’.
In a world where lives are conducted through text messages and e-mails, why is our language still stuck on black boards and slates?
If literacy is the ability of persons fifteen years of age and over to read and write then here are some sobering facts for Pakistan: In 2009 according to an estimate just 54.9% percent of the population of Pakistan was literate; broken down by gender only 68.6 % of Pakistani men and 40.3% of women could read and write in 2009. By July 2014 Pakistan’s total estimated population is likely to be 196,174,380. If those same percentages for literacy hold true (and little appears to have changed) there will probably be 88,278,471 persons unable to read or write in this country by the middle of this year.
Of course, Pakistan is host to a plethora of other problems too, terrorism, corruption, poverty, the oppression of women, the population explosion, poor public health and the devastating power shortage; but illiteracy has an impact on each and every one of them. A nation as illiterate as Pakistan is prone to social unrest; its illiterate women are more likely to be oppressed by illiterate men, themselves oppressed by poverty; its population is likely to be large and unhealthy, and one that is unable to provide for oneself, fewer employment opportunities existing for those who can’t read or write; social development is slower with an illiterate population and more resources have to be spent tending to their needs, resources that could otherwise be spent on power projects.
Most people working in the education and development sectors acknowledge the above, so what’s stopping us from improving the situation? To be sure some of the problems are logistical, there seems to be a dearth of infrastructure and teaching staff, some are political, education has never been a priority in our corridors of power, and some are financial, making people literate takes money, sizable investments.
But there is another kind of problem too: the problem of language. The above mentioned statistics on literacy are based on the criteria that the person is able to read a newspaper or write a letter in any language. Pakistan has two official languages in which state business can be conducted and legal matters settled; Urdu and English. It also has many provincial and regional languages with a multitude of local dialects.
Many of these dialects are yet to be formally categorized, most of these languages don’t have a suitable alphabet or script to write in. They try to use some generic form of the Arabic alphabet and Nastaliq script that Urdu is written in. Urdu itself is historically an independent language to both the alphabet and the script, having existed in oral form under different names for much longer. Urdu is mother tongue to only 8% of the population, English is mother tongue to almost none of the population; the fight of literacy then is also the fight of script, alphabet and language. It is the fight of learning things that don’t come naturally to our native population.
This lack of natural progression from speaking to reading and writing in this country, became apparent to me when I first started teaching adult literacy classes. A fifty year old student of mine, a woman called Naseem Bibi, felt the desire to empower herself at middle-age, she wanted to read and write.
In a few weeks, her desire was turning into frustration. The different alphabets that can make similar sounds were confusing her. The shapes and forms of the letters were alien to her. She had never heard of or used some of the words that were necessary to learn the rules of the language. The lack of an organic progress from her mother tongue to the written word was seriously impeding her learning.
The experience isn’t too different at the primary school level. Children come from all sorts of linguistic and ethnic backgrounds and often have no rooting in the written languages they’re about to study. Most don’t manage to learn properly before they drop out due to financial pressures.
My own students are frequently unable to differentiate between the ‘tay’ and ‘toay’ sounds, conflating and confusing the alphabets; nor do they think it important to do so, since they don’t need to in their practical lives, it’s only in reading and writing that discerning every alphabet’s sound becomes important.
They have similar problems with ‘qaaf’ and ‘kaaf’, ‘duad’ and ‘daal,’ they don’t understand which ‘hay’ goes where, or what the difference between one ‘yay’ and the other is. The Urdu alphabet and script seem dense and inaccessible to them. Even those who do become proficient struggle to decipher the calligraphic jumbles that are Urdu newspapers.
So perhaps what’s needed along with a bigger emphasis on education is language reform.
In a world that is migrating online we don’t even have a word for the virtual world in our native languages. Nastaliq was notoriously difficult to typeset, it was meant to be calligraphic, hand written.
Because of the problems of font and typeset the presence of Nastaliq online does not match the number of people who can read and write Urdu. Similarly, text messages, e-mails, social media, online chats are all inundated with local language communication in Roman English alphabet, because one script is readily available and the other isn’t.
When both the alphabet and script are facing unpopularity and disuse it’s time, I believe, to sit down and reassess them. Many languages have undergone deliberate reform, Indonesian, Malay, Chinese, Dutch, German, French; the case we are most familiar with however is the language reform in Turkey, when in 1928 a new alphabet was introduced by a Turkish Language Commission at the instigation of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Although the introduction of a new alphabet had more to do with other social reform and less with literacy, the Romanization of the language brought discernable practical benefits, ease of learning, easier integration with modern teaching method, modern ideas, easier to print, read and publish. The result bears out this argument since following its language reform the literacy rate in Turkey rose from a low 9% to 33% in just ten years.
Imagine what we could accomplish with a 20% rise in literacy rates and ease of teaching and communicating modern ideas. Imagine the benefit to our local languages if they could all be written in a suitable script and easily printed or put online. Imagine the benefit to children who could learn to read English by learning to read Urdu, and vice versa. Imagine the benefit to children of just studying a non-confusing, easier alphabet.
Not to say, of course, that Romanizing our national language is the one and only way forward, this is just an example, out of many possible reforms. Languages that don’t adapt tend to die out and become things of archaic interest only for linguists and anthropologists; Urdu has always been an adaptive language, all it needs right now is to be pointed in the right direction.