Library peon helps a Parsi find mystery novel’s ending

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MUMBAI: This is the bizarre tale about an obsessive historian, a dapper Parsi, and a 1923 newspaper report in London which outraged a small elite community in Mumbai. They all come together in a book that has just been published.

Some years ago, Gyan Prakash, a history professor from Princeton University, was wading through many dry documents in the British Library in London, when he came across an unusual manuscript—a mystery novel, The Tower of Silence, written in 1927 by Phiroshaw Jamsetjee Chevalier (real name: Chaiwala). Happily distracted, Prakash started reading it and was instantly hooked. But he was soon in for a disappointment as the last few pages were missing. The mystery remained unresolved. 

Prakash got obsessed with finding the end, and spent the next few years trawling through Mumbai’s libraries and baugs, looking for the complete manuscript and for clues to the author, who was evidently a well-educated Parsi businessman with a special affinity for Maurice Chevalier. His research revealed that Chaiwala/Chevalier was a Wilson College graduate who had self-published his novel and sent it to some libraries, including the India Office Library in London. Prakash finally found the complete manuscript with the help of an alert peon at the Asiatic Library, edited it down by a third and sent it to a publisher.

“Besides enjoying the twists and turns in the tale, I read this book as a historical document,” says Prakash, who is in Mumbai to launch the novel, published by Harper Collins, at Kitabkhana on Tuesday evening. “I was very interested in the story and very intrigued by the man-how someone sitting in Bombay could conjure up this whole world; where geographical distances were so easily bridged by imagination.” The protagonist, a dapper Parsi, Beram, moves from India to England to Burma, in search of a pilot who photographed something aerially which he deems to be outrageous.

What that pilot photographed is not an element of fiction but based on an incident. In 1923, The Graphic, a London weekly, had published an article on the Tower of Silence in Pune, describing the ritual of leaving the dead to be devoured by vultures. Accompanying it was an aerial photo of dead Parsis in the well of the tower.

The photograph created a stir in Mumbai. Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy, then chairman of the Parsi Punchayet, conveyed the community’s outrage to the Governor of Bombay, Lord George Lloyd, who sent a telegram to the secretary of state for India in London, communicating the indignation and requesting that the magazine’s editor be persuaded to destroy the photographic plate and negative-which he did, and apologised for violating Parsi religious sentiments.

The article was one among many, fuelling the West’s morbid fascination with The Tower of Silence. The Boston Globe had also published a story in which a US senator goes missing in Bombay, and is found as a skeleton in a Parsi Tower of Silence. The New York Times also published a piece about Parsis, with a focus on the Tower of Silence.

While the Parsi community was clamouring for legal action against the magazine, the editor and photographer, Chaiwala/Chevalier, took his revenge through fiction. “As readers, we are often persuaded about certain truths, if they are told as a story,” says Prakash, referring also to the move among academics to write about history not just through statistics and data, but also narrative story-telling. “A story provides a context, a certain movement, a texture. That’s what happened in this book. He takes real-life incidents and gives a literary response. The community’s outrage is expressed, plus we learn about the history of Parsis and their extraordinary contribution to the community.”

Among many things, the novel is a cat-and-mouse game between a British detective and the dapper Parsi gentleman. Says Prakash, “It is a battle between equals where they keep anticipating each other’s moves, but Beram is always slightly one up in the game!”

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