Winner of the DSC Prize, 2014 for South Asian Literature, Cyrus Mistry’s latest novel, The Prospect of Miracles begins with the death of Pastor Pius Philipose. Remembered as a charismatic priest, fine orator and a noble soul who was ‘morally unblemished, upright, drenched – in – the – milk – of – human – kindness’ by his adoring small town parishioners, the Pastor is mourned, even regarded as a latter day saint. He is survived by his wife, Mary Agnes who has a starkly contrasting view of the not so dearly beloved departed. She is mostly relieved to be free of his overbearing, tyrannical and abusive presence though she has a dark suspicion that it would not be a simple matter to be well and truly rid of his toxic influence which has infected her life so deeply.
Mary Agnes reconstructs excruciating details for the benefit of the reader about her husband whose private persona was far removed from his carefully constructed public façade of a hardworking, dedicated, benevolent and beloved pastor who led by example and practised what he preached. Pius is not your typical, clichéd drunken, foul – mouthed, wife – beating spouse but he is definitely an abuser of the worst sort simply because he is crafty enough to conceal his villainy beneath a veneer of benevolence, misleading all around him. Even his wife who is at the receiving end of his behaviour doubts her very senses often feeling compelled to give him the benefit of doubt and exonerate her husband for his numerous misdeeds.
Carefully committed to using his wife to better his lot in life, determinedly chipping away at her sense of self – worth with a constant barrage of callous words and deeds, giving her regular glimpses of a vicious temper without ever using his fists, betraying her at every turn, the man is a monster with nary a redeeming quality. Worst of all he is a hypocrite with a gift for delivering fire and brimstone sermons warning his worshipful flock of the dangers inherent in indulging in the sins of alcoholism, fornication as well as assorted prurient pleasures of the flesh while forcing maids half his age into bed and imbibing freely of intoxicants, far away from prying eyes, taking care not to leave behind any damaging evidence.
Like Mary Agnes, the reader begins to feel lacerated under the onslaught of this disturbing account of dark deeds which the Pastor seems to have gotten away with. Except perhaps he hasn’t. Feminine fury and righteous indignation can be powerful weapons that often lead to deadly consequences. Having had a hand in his come-uppance even if it was mostly on a subconscious level, his wife struggles to come to terms with the damage that has been done to her spirit and very soul.
Their only son, Mark was one of the casualties of their dysfunctional marriage and has run away from home. Left utterly alone with only her dismal memories, guilt, and hopelessness for company, Mary is more vulnerable than ever and slowly starts to unravel as she suffers further betrayal with the spectre of madness looming threateningly from the abyss that stretches ahead of her. Soon, she begins to question herself. Perhaps Pius was right all along and she is not quite right in the head the way he always insisted.
Mistry’s skilled pen brings to life, not only the sights, smells and very essence of beautiful Kerala with its scenic beauty and aromatic spice plantations but the less savoury underbelly of Naxalite activity, oppression of scheduled castes and tribes by the landowning classes, plus conflicting religious ideologies. Mercilessly revealing the ugliest side of a marriage gone hopelessly wrong with a trapped wife, unable to extricate herself from the tentacles of her tormentor even after he is long gone, this is a dark tale that weaves a disturbing spell which clings to the reader long after the last page has been turned.
This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.