Passing the body on

A Muslim undertaker Muhammad Yaseen Dar performed the last rites for Pandits at Batamloo crematory for almost a decade. Dar died in 2008 and a Nepali family has taken over. Shazia Yousuf reports
In a tin shed erected in the backyard, Ram Bahadur hurriedly chops logs of wood. With a small axe in hands his son Raju chops another log of his own size. “Make small bits. We will need them,” Bahadur tells his son.  Kanchi, his wife and their daughter Maya cleans the crematory. “Keep kerosene ready,” Bahadur shouts towards his wife. This is going to be a busy day for the family. It is already 1:00 pm. A body will arrive at 2.
The family usually takes dinner at 2 pm. Like death, however, the timing is not certain. Today they had it two hours earlier.
From the last eight months, this Nepali family of 10 has been undertaking the lone functional crematorium at Batamaloo Srinagar.
After the migration of Kashmiri Pandits in 1990, crematories around Valley were left without undertakers, locally called Kawij. For the 5000 odd Pandits who stayed back, the going got tough especially at the time of rituals.
The Batamaloo crematory could sense the unordinary situation. Pyres were lit crudely and in haste. Bodies left half burnt and, at times, fed stray dogs. The plight prompted a Kashmiri Pandit leader to take over the job for some time but things turned better only after a Muslim, Mohammad Yaseen Dar, took over the job in 1998.
Adjoining the crematorium is a Shiva temple, partially damaged in early 90s. Dar has the credit of renovating it as well.
Nine months back, 57 year old Dar died. After him, nobody from the Muslim community came forward to do the job. The issue is much social and less political or communal. Many grave diggers, Dar’s counterparts among Muslims, dissuade their children from taking over this job, apparently because it hinders their prospects in the tight marriage market in Kashmir.
For now the Nepali family has filled the vacuum at the crematory.
At 2:10 pm, the body arrives. Kanchi takes her eight children inside. “Make sure you don’t go there until it is properly burnt.” Kanchi never lets her children move out after dusk. She believes the place is haunted and the dead are possessed. “We earn enough to feed our children but if something happens to them we can’t arrange money for saints and doctors,” she confides.
There is a corner in the crematorium where children are buried. There are no epitaphs. The clothes of the dead lie scattered all over the place. If a child dies before his first milk teeth fall, his body is not burned. Kanchi believes the place to be most haunted. There is no particular event she remembers but she says that every night following the cremation, three dogs bang at her door and bark. She says the feeling is terrible.
While Kanchi talks, her 7-year-old son Budhibal escapes her grip and rolls a tyre with a stick in the courtyard along the cremation place. “I am not afraid,” he says in a stammering yet confident voice.
It starts raining when Ram Bahadur mounds wood logs into pyre and the two sons of the deceased place the body on pyre. The elder one sets it on fire. Flames and fumes rise high swallowing a clean piece of sky above it.
“I do it for those who have no one to do,” Bahadur says, the blazing pyre visible in his eyes.
How much time it takes for a body to burn completely?  Ram Bahadur chuckles, “Noble soul burns easily. However, if it is unclean, even the fire is reluctant to accept him.”
As the ashes of pyre portray the end, at an opposite corner a new beginning is taking shape in the form of a mobile transmission tower. Abdullah, a labourer working at the site is not scared of the place.
“Human being is the most terrible ghost Almighty has created,” he says with a giggle. But he doesn’t watch cremation, “I will have to confirm it from our priest whether Muslims are permitted to see the cremation of any non-Muslim.”
All the rites are completed within an hour. The smoke still creeps through the dense Chinar branches while the family of the deceased leaves. “We will collect ashes tomorrow evening, take care of it and keep the dogs away,” a relative orders Bahadur while getting into his vehicle.
An exhausted Bahadur wipes his face with a rough worn out cloth. He closes the main gate of the crematorium and sits beneath a Chinar. “This was just the first of this month,” he utters.


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