The pallbearer

Berjis Desai

The bodies of two Parsis killed in a car accident on the Western Express Highway were transported to the nearest morgue for a mandatory postmortem. A short, muscular man sporting long grey hair and a flowing grey beard, wearing a white headband and pantaloons, dashed barefoot into the morgue. The cops on duty greeted him warmly. He argued long and hard that no postmortem was necessary and the bodies be permitted to be taken to the Towers of Silence. The man in charge of the morgue was a stickler for rules. He was initially unimpressed by the articulate old man creating a shindy with his large, hypnotic eyes widening on a honest, earnest face. Finally, a compromise was reached. There would be a perfunctory cut with a scalpel. The old man took possession of the bodies and sped away. Grateful relatives tried to remunerate him which caused him affront.
He knew every nook and corner of the 55 acres of the Towers of Silence or Doongerwadi, perhaps the community’s most valuable real estate in India. After Bombay was received as dowry by Charles II from the Portuguese Princess, Catherine Braganza, the British tried to entice people from Surat to migrate to Bombay. The new port city offered more opportunities to the Parsis and others as Surat slowly lost its allure. Parsis constructed the first basic Tower of Silence in 1670. Even then, the hilltop, where the English hunted rabbits, was known as "Malabar Hill.”

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


He was the zealous guardian of the Towers. He fought for the rights of his men and to improve their miserable working conditions. If they committed petty crimes, he bailed them out. He was vociferous before his bosses, the trustees of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. If required, he could be sweet and diplomatic. In private, he called them names unprintable even today. The media, the Municipal Corporation, the police, the coroner’s office, the magistrates all respected this selfless crusader.
Designed by the Prophet to be a venerated calling, the pallbearers were outcastes in an enlightened community. They were inauspicious. They were omens of death. Even he, their born leader, was outwardly respected but inwardly shunned. Of course, he was different. Very different. His men, even one of his sons, sought refuge in alcohol to forget the daily horridness of decaying matter. There were no solar panels or ozone diffusers then. He, however, remained a teetotaler.
He constantly counted kerba (amber) beads and prayed. The Towers were a mini rainforest nestling in the midst of a suffocating city. Somewhere hidden amidst the gnarled trees and wailing peacocks, there was an old stone platform. Before sunrise and after sunset, anyone who attempted to sit or sleep on that platform was flung to the ground, except him. This is not hearsay. Unfortunately, for various reasons, evidence cannot be given. He undoubtedly possessed psychic capabilities. Countless times, he foretold young death. Barking dogs instantly fell silent as soon as he arrived. Darting squirrels stood up and froze momentarily.
He was distressed that this calling had, by default, become hereditary. He endeavored to educate the brighter children of the nassessalars. One of his sons became a medical practitioner and a daughter became a corporate executive. However, this was rare. It was difficult for the young to break out of the cocoon of under privilege.
He did not gloss over the failing system as vultures began to decline due to ingesting the painkiller drug diclofenac from animal carcasses. He was distressed about the conditions inside the dakhmas. He confided in journalists whom he respected. He warned those in authority of the coming crisis. Yet he was supremely confident that the Towers would survive and continue to provide solace in serenity.
He was no diehard fanatic. He believed in preserving time-honored traditions though he occasionally visited Shirdi, the shrine of the Sufi saint, Saibaba, venerated throughout the country. Due to his hectic social service, most of the time, he was starved of cash. Yet he never borrowed or sought help. He was a proud Irani do-gooder.
"Even after so many decades, I too do not know all the intricacies of the Towers,” he told this writer more than four decades ago. "The Towers have many secrets, and they preserve those secrets in silence.”

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.