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Nothing mystical about the process of writing: Cyrus Mistry

Nothing mystical about the process of writing: Cyrus Mistry
All photographs of the author by Judy Misquitta
Cyrus Mistry, 60, is the author of two plays, two novels and a collection of short stories. Brother of Rohinton Mistry, he grew up in Mumbai. The author and playwright says that as a school boy, he wanted to be a musician. “I was playing the piano. I wanted to compose music in the Western classical tradition. I was (attempting) to write string quartets, pieces for piano and violin, etc. I was also actively studying subjects like Harmony and Counterpoint at the Bombay School of Music and under Joachim Buehler at the Max Mueller Bhavan. But it didn’t take me long to acknowledge to myself that I lacked the hard discipline and single-mindedness it requires to forge a true musical virtuoso,” he says.

During his first year at St. Xavier’s as a regular student, exposure to good writing and good teachers put him “squarely on course to becoming a writer”. He says, “I was already a part-time journalist, publishing articles in Debonair magazine, and selecting their monthly short story. I was, however, refused re-admission to college after my Jr. B.A. for my involvement in organising a student strike. That was, undoubtedly, a blessing in disguise. I took a break from academia, and wrote Doongaji House, which won the Sultan Padamsee Award in 1978. Incidentally, this matter of self-confidence as a writer could be viewed in the context that it’s the only thing I can, or know how to do, well.”

It took Mistry 20 years to actually write the novel whose first chapter he began in 1979, immediately after he had completed Doongaji House. It later became The Radiance of Ashes, his first novel, which was shortlisted for the Crossword Prize (2005). Mistry won the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, his second novel, published by Aleph in 2013. The novel also received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2015.

Mistry worked as a freelance journalist for 25 years. He has also written short film scripts and several documentaries. One of his short stories, “Percy”, was made into the Gujarati feature film Percy in 1989 — he wrote its screenplay and dialogue. It won the National Award for Best Gujarati Film in 1989 as well as the Critics’ Award at the Mannheim Film Festival.

The Radiance of Ashes is a coming-of-age story about a young man who gets politicised even as the city he lives in, Bombay (now Mumbai), gets politicised, as it were, in the early 1990s. How does a writer transmute his/her own experience into art? How does one make the intensely personal into the universal, something that unknown readers can identify with and make their own? Mistry says that he doesn’t really know how. He says, “It’s too central to the focus and turbulence of the creative process itself to be able to spell out discursively. What I will say, though, is that like the character Jingo, I too had a deeply romanticised relationship with my city which shattered into pieces in a most disturbing way during and after the riots of 1992-93. Writing the novel helped me come to terms with the fundamental changes that had swept through the city, even though I wrote the novel almost ten years after the riots.”

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, set in the middle of a bustling city, describes, perhaps for the first time, a totally marginalised, outcast segment of the Parsi community — the untouchable khandhias. Mistry says that in 1993, during research for a documentary film that he did for a producer who proposed the idea to a foreign TV channel, (incidentally, no film was ever made on the subject), he was told about a khandhia strike in 1941 that fizzled out almost before it could start. Twenty years later, when Mistry was thinking of a subject for his new novel, he remembered this bit of information, and it became the germ of his story, “developing later in a very different direction”.

Passion Flower (Aleph, 2014), Mistry’s first collection of short fiction, brings together seven tales of derangement. The derangement of characters plays out within the confines of family. “Families are a fertile breeding ground for every form of derangement and disorder, wouldn’t you say? Perhaps it’s something in the very nature of this social unit of organisation,” says Mistry.

The author, who now lives in Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, is currently working on his third novel. Set in Kerala, it doesn’t have a single Parsi character, says the author about his novel-in-progress. Excerpts from an interview:


ARSHIA SATTAR: I want to get this awards thing out of the way, so let me start with that as a question. You’ve written in so many genres — novels, short stories, screenplays and plays. Your work in each of those has not only been critically acclaimed, but individual works have won awards. And now, the Sahitya Akademi award for your entire oeuvre. What do you enjoy writing most? Which award has meant the most to you?

CYRUS MISTRY: Incidentally, the Sahitya Akademi Award was not for my entire oeuvre, but for the best novel in English of 2015, i.e., Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer. Since I haven’t written any new play in a while, you may be surprised to hear this: the genre I find most exciting to pursue is writing for the theatre. It’s a form that’s concentrated, double-distilled, as it were, and I see it as closer to lyric poetry than to prose. It also happens to be perhaps the least remunerative form of writing, which is what probably compelled me to start writing novels. 

The award that meant most to me was undoubtedly the DSC prize (for South Asian Literature, 2014) primarily because of the sheer corpus of its cash component, which helped clear a backlog of outstanding debts: an enormous weight off my back. If that sounds cynical or hard-headed, believe me, it’s not. It’s simply a wonderfully tangible relief when talent is acknowledged, and financial difficulties recede.

ARSHIA SATTAR: Since we’ve had a chance to spend time together, I have been struck by your confidence, how sure you are in your writing and your work. It’s remarkable and has nothing to do with winning awards and being recognised. Where does that come from? Did you always want to be a writer? What does that mean as a young person? How does one “prepare” to be a writer? Does it have anything to do with having another acclaimed writer in the family?

CYRUS MISTRY: In fact, as a school boy, I wanted to be a musician. I was playing the piano. I wanted to compose music in the Western classical tradition. I was (attempting) to write string quartets, pieces for piano and violin, etc. I was also actively studying subjects like Harmony and Counterpoint at the Bombay School of Music and under Joachim Buehler at the Max Mueller Bhavan.

But it didn’t take me long to acknowledge to myself that I lacked the hard discipline and single-mindedness it requires to forge a true musical virtuoso.

During my very first year at St. Xavier’s as a regular student, exposure to good writing and good teachers, had already put me squarely on course to becoming a writer. I was already a part-time journalist, publishing articles in Debonair magazine, and selecting their monthly short story. I was, however, refused re-admission to college after my Jr. B.A. for my involvement in organising a student strike. That was, undoubtedly, a blessing in disguise. I took a break from academia, and wrote Doongaji House, which won the Sultan Padamsee Award in 1978. Incidentally, this matter of self-confidence as a writer could be viewed in the context that it’s the only thing I can, or know how to do, well.

At the risk of sounding niggardly, I should set the record straight on my celebrated elder brother, Rohinton. Ironically, Rohinton too had wanted to be a musician to begin with. He strummed guitar, wore a contraption round his neck designed from the family Meccano set that clamped in place a harmonica, and sang Bob Dylan, James Taylor as well as more traditional American folk songs. He was enormously popular at college functions and had even cut an E.P. record for Polydor, India, before he decided to emigrate to Canada. I still think he was a really fine singer.

When he went to Canada, he gave up the idea of finding success in the field of music and took evening classes in literature to relieve the drudgery of working at a bank during the day. It was only after he had read Doongaji House (in manuscript form) and my first short stories, published in Indian magazines, that Rohinton felt inspired to begin writing the stories that comprise his first book, Tales From Firozsha Baag (1987). The double irony is that both Rohinton and I were failed musicians to begin with, before we became relatively more successful writers. 

Although I must add that the incredible fan following Rohinton’s books still have even 15 years after his last novel came out indicates there must be something quite remarkable about his work.

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