Sunday, September 02, 2007

The end of the road

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express

At the Ravipuram crematorium, a son comes to terms with his father’s departure, while caretakers struggle to cope in the presence of constant death

By Shevlin Sebastian

Caretaker N.K. Mohandas, 51, and his cousin, Ajit N.N., 35, hurriedly put the sand on the floor beneath the pyre. Then coconut husks are put on top of it. The wooden logs are pulled out from a room and put in neat rows on one side. Soon, the pyre, actually two sawed-off rails placed on two bricks each at the four corners, is ready.

At 4.40 p.m. on a sunny Thursday afternoon, the ambulance arrives. The body, covered by a cream sheet, is taken on a black metal stretcher and placed on the floor before the pyre. The pujari, Narayana Vadyar, who has come all the way from Tripunithara, intones the prayers and the son, bare-bodied and in a white dhoti, repeats the prayers in a low voice.

After half an hour, the body is placed on the pyre and the face and chest are uncovered. The man is a broad-shouldered, muscular man with a thick white moustache, thick grey eyebrows and straggly silver hair. Even in death, he exudes confidence and strength. His name is R.Venkateshwaran, 72, a former senior official of Indian Rare Earths Limited. Cause of death: cerebral haemorrhage.

When the final rituals are over, it is now Mohandas’s turn. He places the wooden logs on all sides of the body, till a tiny hillock is made. Then, deftly, with a small piece of wood, he lights the pyre and the son, Jayachandran Venkateshswaran, 38, looks on unblinkingly as the logs catches fire. Later, he would say, “It was very sad to realize that my father had come to this state. He was a very conscientious, dutiful religious, sincere, good natured and humorous man.”

As the body begins to disintegrate, the breeze blows and the rustle of leaves from the nearby trees can be heard. Crows are cawing and there is a sudden screech of a parrot. Up above, the sky is a translucent blue and small white clouds drift lazily along. Life goes on as an individual--a professional, a husband, a father, a brother, a cousin, a friend and a grandfather--slowly turns into ashes.

Every day, at least one body is burnt at the Ravipuram crematorium and Mohandas is one the one who handles all the responsibilities.

"My father did this job for 30 years as a salaried worker of the Cochin Corporation," he says. "When he died in July, 1994, I decided to take up the job."
Mohandas is soft-spoken, with slightly reddish eyes and has a sense of dignity about him.

"I treat this as a job," he continues, "but since I am a human being, I am affected by all what I see. So, I need to drink regularly to face death constantly."
This father of four says that sometimes when he is sitting down for a meal, the image of a dead child will come to his mind and then he feels very sad and is unable to eat. "Then I take a 'small' and after that, I can eat," he says, with a wry smile.

When old people die, he says, the relatives are not that demonstrative in their sadness. But when children or young parents die, the sorrow expressed is so heart-rending, he finds it difficult to sleep.

“You will be surprised to know that most of the deaths take place during the Karakaddam month,” he says. “I don’t know why this happens. This is happening year after year. The average works out to 30 deaths a month or one a day.”

As to the type of people who are brought for burial, Mohandas’ cousin, Ajit, who is completely bald, even though he is only 35, says, “Brahmins, Nairs, Pulayiris, a few Ezhavas and the Kudumbis come. Except for the Kudumbis who sometimes come drunk and behave badly, all the rest treat us well.”

Astonishingly, Mohandas does not get a salary from the Cochin Corporation even though the crematorium is under its jurisdiction. "Once the electric crematorium stopped functioning, they stopped giving paying me."

He charges Rs 1100 for a cremation. If it is in the night, or if the body is coming directly from the mortuary, he takes Rs 100 extra. "We need more wood to burn a cold body, since it is full of water," he says. "After deducting all the expenses, we earn Rs 365. This I share with Ajit and another worker."

The facilities are poor. For example, there is no bathroom, just a broken white bucket at one corner near a tap. However, the Corporation is constructing a new building, where two more pyres will be set up, which will bring the total number of pyres to seven.

Mohandas talks about the recent cremation of Dominic Joseph of Casino Hotel fame (“lots of VIPs came”) and then mentions the astonishing fact that the family did a complete refurbishing of the crematorium. “At the back, there was a lot of wild growth, which was cleaned up,” he says, “the walls, the doors and the gate was painted and the place looks clean and spacious now.”

Jose Dominic, the son of Dominic Joseph and the managing director of CGH Earth, says, “The crematorium was in bad shape. So, we felt we needed to clean it up.”
After this first experience for his family, he says, “All communities should resort to cremation. It is a wise way of addressing the issues of social equality and ecological concerns.”

Standing near the entrance is P.K. Ramachandran, 50, vice president of the Kochi unit of the Kerala Brahmana Sabha. Whenever anybody in the community dies, like in the case of Venkateshswaran, he rushes to help the family with the funeral arrangements.

“I am very happy to do this service for mankind, because in certain families, when death happens, nobody knows what to do,” he says. “They are in shock and that is when I step in, to make all the arrangements.”

As he watches Venkateshswaran’s body being reduced to ashes, Ramachandran says, “I have burnt crorepatis and poor people and the end destination is the same for everybody. When we are living, we are fighting with each other, who is bigger, who is richer, who is stronger. But see, what happens to each one of us at the end.”

Adds P. Veeraraghavan, 77, the president of the Ernakulam Grama Jana Samooham: “Birth and death are unchangeable. It is not in your hands. Look at this gentleman (he points at Venkateshswaran), he had such a strong body. But he suddenly got a brain haemorrhage and died. By my estimate, he should have lived for another ten years.”

He pauses and says, “Death can come at any time.”

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