Graveyard shift

Almost a decade ago, when her husband Ibert died, Krishnaveni found her income too meagre for the family. She realised that the Rs 900 her employer at the hotel paid her as a dishwasher was woefully insufficient to feed herself and her three little sons.

That was when the Dalit woman approached Pondicherry municipality for a job. They did offer her a job, but it was the one her husband’s death had left vacant: burying dead bodies.

“I had no option whatsoever. I just accepted it,” she recalls.Initially, the sight of a dead body would make her queasy. Krishnaveni vomited, and couldn’t eat. But she didn’t give up. A strong urge to carry on with life led her to adjust to the job. She grew strong mentally. Today,  at 40, Krishnaveni even attends calls at odd hours.

“You know, in cases where the bodies are of accident victims, I would be called for immediate removal from the mortuary,” she notes.Along with her eldest son Shankar, now 20, Krishnaveni goes with policemen, takes charge of the body and brings it to the Sanyasithope burial ground near her house.

Her own pushcart is the hearse. It’s not just accident victims, but lepers, AIDS patients, organ-harvested bodies…

Krishnaveni has accompanied them all on  their last journey. Sometimes, the stench from the body would prompt passersby to scold her; some have even manhandled her.

“I’ve learnt the necessity to pour fenyl after wrapping the body,” she says, stoically.The burial job cost Krishnaveni her hotel job. But Krishnaveni doesn’t harbour any regrets. “News about an unclaimed body would make me happy,” says Krishnaveni.

“On some days no unclaimed bodies are handed over by the muni­cipality, and therefore no income.”Anyhow, political parties and social organisations began sympathising with her, and pleaded with the government for a better job.

Finally, in September 2004, Krishnaveni was appointed as a daily-rated worker in the post of multipurpose graveyard worker in Pondicherry Municipality at the rate of Rs 110 per day. In addition, for every body cleared she would get Rs 100.These days, Krishnaveni lives in a thatched hut near the graveyard on a monthly rental of Rs 500. As the salary payment is erratic, Krishna­veni has taken up burial and cremation of other bodies, when the relatives of the deceased appr­oach her. She has also started rearing two goats and the hens she got in return for a funeral.Today, a confident Krishnaveni heads the Ambedkar Thondarpadai women’s wing and participates in meetings and agitations for social causes. If anything, Krishnaveni, has only one regret. “ I couldn’t educate my elder son; he had to give up schooling in class 5, and now work with me.” The mother’s ambition now is to educate the two other sons Mathilingam (18) and Vinoth Prashanth (16) so that they can find better jobs.