For their dead, Parsis practise a 3,000-year-old system where corpses are excarnated in the Tower of Silence, a building located on the eastern-most edge of Malabar Hill in the steamy, smelly heart of Mumbai city. The ossuary sits atop a green ridge, surrounded by the apartments of the shamelessly rich. There, the dead are exposed to the elements — a flock of vultures can pick a corpse white in under a half hour. The practice is squeamishly tolerated by the city’s pious (and vociferous) vegetarians. In the 8th century, when Parsis arrived at the port of Sanjan, the rulers sent to their ship a tumbler of milk filled to the brim, to signify that they were full up. The Parsis, legend says, mixed sugar into the milk and sent it back.
At a Parsi funeral, a sandalwood fire throws out fat, fragrant smoke while priests dressed in white muslin robes hum prayers that, like bees, circle the mourners in a swarm. There are offerings to the fire of flowers, sweets, and fresh fruit. The priests hum for hours. At the end they stand up and join hands. Then like surgeons after a long operation they take off their robes and dump them in a cloudy pile. They slip plain clothes over their shoulders and turn back into ordinary men. For the duration of the prayers a brass urn sits in a corner, filled with water, a temporary home for the departed soul. At the end of the prayers, the urn is toppled over, the water spilt, and the soul coaxed to join its ancestors. The corpse is brought to the Tower of Silence and given a sky burial. Feeding vultures is its final act of charity; the soul passes through the vulture’s cosmic eye on its way to eternity.
Sometimes, the vulture’s cosmic eye may alight on things considerably more alive and interesting than Parsi corpses. On a rainy afternoon, into the French windows of a flat on Peddar Road, a woman’s thin scream climbs and gets tangled up in the gauzy curtains. In the car park, a monsoon drizzle tickles the back of a dozing watchman’s neck, as he rests his forearms on a bamboo lathi. The cottony breeze smells faintly of dead fish. The next scream jerks him awake. He snorts, blinks his eyelids. At the other end of the driveway, by a line of Asoka trees, a pretty ayah who works for the family in flat number 5d, with white flowers in her oil-shiny hair, is struggling to upright a fallen pram. On her hip, encircled with one smooth arm, is an oddly placid baby whose thighs are like fat bread rolls tied with twine.
The baby is the son of a Parsi businessman whose family’s enormous wealth was a result of good business relations with the British during the Raj. They built that apartment building on Peddar Road. The businessman’s whey-faced, rosebud-lipped wife is a Petit from Petit Hall. They married at the Colaba Agiary, in a bower of orchids and frangipani. The wife wore a Chantilly lace sari embroidered with seed pearls. In their duplex flat, there’s an upstairs world of sahibs and memsahibs, and a downstairs world of ayahs and chauffeurs. The businessman takes lunch every day at the Ripon Club. Their son is already on the list at The Cathedral & John Connon School as well as the impossible-to-get-into Willingdon Club, where portraits of former colonial masters loom large and bright in the hallways, tut-tutting at the natives, clearing their oil-on-canvas throats, where a world famous artist was once told to tuck in his shirt before entering the formal dining room, and where samosas are served with a sprig of mint.
The ayah likes to pretend this baby is the son she left behind in her village. During their afternoon stroll, a vulture, flying back from the Tower of Silence with leftovers in his beak, spied the child wriggling provocatively in his perambulator. Terrified, the ayah had let out screams that awoke the dozing chowkidar. On the tar driveway, only steps away from the ayah-baby pair, lies a severed hand. The vulture stands beside it, craning its snake-like neck, mantling its gloomy feathers, quiescent as a shadow. The ayah kicks the pram over towards the bird, and yells, “Bachao!” The vulture lollops towards her like a barrister flapping his black robes. The baby gurgles and flaps his own podgy arms.
The watchman runs up, huffing, raising his lathi in the air. He leaps in front of the petrified ayah, only to step right on the soft, decayed hand. He skates forward as one would slip on a banana peel, arms and lathi flailing above his head. An unmanly squeal escapes his mustachioed lips. The ayah presses the child’s face, like a lover, into the dip between her shoulder and neck. She runs off back home. In the umbra of her shrieks, the afternoon turns as quiet as marble. Her employers will of course never hear of this whole episode.
The watchman and vulture face each other. Car horns blast from Peddar Road. A breeze ruffles the vulture’s grey feathers. The vulture tips its head, as if enquiring whether the watchman would like his corpse-hand, if so, please, there’s plenty more where that came from. As long as Parsis die the vulture has no shortage of appendages for his dinner. But the watchman is not interested in the vulture’s meal. He is turning his head towards the building, smoothing down his hair and tucking in his shirt. Because after months of trying, the lonely watchman, who sees his wife and children once or twice a year, finally has an excuse to chat up the ayah, and steal glances at the small round mole above her left collarbone.
“Shoo, shoo, phurrrr,” the watchman says, and twirls his lathi at the vulture. Then, whistling a tune, he heads back down the driveway, jauntily stepping over the hand, which, with its cracked, blackened nails, has painted a comma of gore on the tar road. As the watchman becomes smaller and smaller in the distance, the vulture grabs the hand with his talons and takes off. He rises, and his wings blot the sun. Their feather tips touch the edge of the sky.
Naheed Patel lives in New York, and her debut novel ‘A Mirror Made of Rain’ will be published by HarperCollins India in April