I prefer to sit quietly and write

nandini nair | Updated on August 27, 2014 Published on August 22, 2014

Passion FlowerSeven Stories of DerangementCyrus MistryAlephFiction

Go away closer: Cyrus Mistry chooses the solitude of Kodaikanal for his writing

Author Cyrus Mistry on second choices, the travails of publicity and the simple joy of writing

Authors often protest that they do not enjoy talking about their books, which must speak for themselves. Yet, they most often make for the best interviews as they have thought hard and they articulate well. But there are those who do belong to the Salinger School of Reticence — whose personas arise from being removed from the mob. In our publicity-struck world, where authors’ faces sell books, to shun the limelight is a stand and not merely a preference. Cyrus Mistry is one of those rare authors who has remained out of sight. Not that he does not like talking to people one-on-one, he makes clear, it is just that crowds he cannot handle and publicity he hopes to be excused from. “I hope I can dissociate myself from the compulsion to market and publicise myself. Once I have a body of work, I hope people will feel ‘he is too famous to be disturbed’,” he says, sneaking in a smile. He speaks with care, measuring each word, his gaze intent.

It has been a good year for the frail 58-year-old author. He won the $50,000 DSC South Asian Literature Prize for Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, has just completed a three-city tour, and is out with a remarkable collection of short stories — Passion Flower: Seven Stories of Derangement. Even for those who don’t like being ‘out there’, prize money makes the difference between hustling to write and being allowed to write. And these are choices, Mistry, recovering from a long illness, has known all too well. “It has solved a lot of financial problems,” he says, “it has stopped creditors breathing down my neck... I can now get back to writing.”

Writing fiction has always been a second choice for him. His first love has been and remains playwriting. Fiction is a more independent world requiring only a writer and a reader. A play, on the other hand, mandates a director, actors, crew and an audience to blow life into it. Mistry had to wait 10 years to bring to stage his award-winning play, Doongaji House, written when he was 21. He encountered the usual excuses of “no commercial potential”. In 1991, theatre director Toni Patel brought it to stage. A popular Mahesh Dattani production followed, as did a Marathi translation that travelled across the country. In Delhi on the DSC prize tour, he says, “Unless you are an active theatre person, which I am not, it is tough to produce plays. The exigencies of earning a living forced me to write a novel. I wrote one play, then 10 years later I wrote another. In the interim, I wrote short stories and did journalism... for me that was a squandering... I was compelled to take up the form of the novel.”

It is a second choice that has reaped profits. He says, “For years, I felt I did not know how to write a novel. Then I realised — it is the only thing that will earn you money.” A novel he remains proud of, Radiance of Ashes — a coming-of-age story set in the Bombay of the early ’90s — was first published in the UK and got him substantial royalty but minimal mileage. He felt short-changed by the publisher, who seemed to have little time for an Indian author. Mistry’s second novel, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer took the reader into the cloistered world of the khandhias (Parsi corpse-bearers) — their practices and their rituals. While telling the story of the son of a fire temple priest who falls in love with the daughter of a corpse bearer, it also delves deep into the worlds of pollution and purity, and the processes of death and faith. For an author who says “I did not know how to write a novel... the form itself was a big stumbling block”, Corpse Bearer is a finely wrought work, where the plot skips along at a steady pace.

Passion Flower, a collection of short stories spanning 30 years, is an even more assured work, for the characters spring out from the pages and shake you by the collar in a way that only madness — or everydayness — can. Unexpected Grace, about a young mother’s struggles with her newborn child and her suspicions about her husband, achieves just what Mistry sets out to do with his writing.

“Writing is a dry, gruelling, lonely pastime. When you are emotionally stirred, then you want to write. You want to move your reader, they should get a lump in the throat... otherwise, there is no point,” says the author, who admits to the foibles of emotional excesses. It is impossible to not be moved by Preeti’s doings and undoing in Unexpected Grace. Staring at her infant daughter, she wonders, “How unsuspecting, how utterly helpless and vulnerable she is. How easy to smother, to snuff out this little morsel of life. There have been times when, pacing the living-room floor with her senselessly yowling in my arms — indigestion, colic, the doctor said — when I have considered, no that’s not correct, the thought has crossed my mind of its own volition, how simple it would be to grip her by the legs and smash her soft skull against the wall...” While the subtitle of the book clearly hints at madness, for Mistry the characters that breathe in these pages are “lonely” and “quirky”, those with frequent “disturbances” in their lives.

His pauses stretch long, only the flutter of his hands distracts from the thought-filled silences. As the author of two novels, two plays and currently working on a collection of plays and a novel, Mistry grew up in a home filled with books and music. His father’s father owned a bookshop. His brother is the much-acclaimed author Rohinton Mistry. He had read the Russians, such as Dostoevsky and Chekov, by 11. He admits that he devoured the Greats to make a favourable impression with the adults. His childhood was filled with music — he learned the piano, and is certain that the rhythms of music infuse his writing. He never listens to music while writing. “But there is a connection between music and writing,” he says, “it is very hard to explain...”

Preferring to sit quietly and write, and easily distracted by people, Mistry is impatient for the day when he can return to the solitude of Kodaikanal, his adopted home for the last 10 years. Far from Mumbai, he loves the gentle hill-station, for it is the one place that allows the author to be a writer.

Published on August 22, 2014
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