Among the sparse crowd near the Basilica of Our Lady of Snow Church at Palliport in Kochi, Baby’s stride is hard to miss. She walks in a hurry, without stopping to exchange pleasantries with passersby, her eyes and heart fixed on her destination. She is back after a hard day; a newborn had died the previous night and she was called to the church. This 74-year-old woman has been serving as the grave digger at the church cemetery for over 50 years now.
Reading the surprise on your face, Baby says, “Before me, it was my mom and before her, my uncle.” Baby has been burying the dead since the age of 17. The young girl who used to accompany her mother to the cemetery and help her with menial jobs had to take her mother’s place after she fell ill.
“I had no choice. With no brother or father to take care of us, I had to take up this job to look after my mother and my elder sister’s orphaned daughter,” she says. Since then, Baby has witnessed so many lives being celebrated and finally ending in six feet of the earth. “I have conducted over 15,000 burials,” her voice is stern; there’s no hint of bluff.
Admitting that it was tough at first, she recalls how she used to break down in the beginning. Her first job was to bury two bodies, one was a child. “Burying people you know, kids who have grown up before your eyes... it has been painful. But slowly, you get accustomed. Death too will become normal. Yes, there’s pain even now, but there are no more tears. My heart has toughened, like a stone,” her voice and face are blank alike.
Baby grew up through hardships. Those were the days where death was a daily affair in the coastal village that lacked proper medical facilities. “There was this one day in 1977 where I had to bury four youngsters who drowned at the sea; it was agonising. In those days, the parish was very big, covering Cherai and Maliankara and there was no space for fresh graves. Every time a death happened, I had to dig up three-month-old to six-month-old graves. Half decomposed bodies had to be pushed to one side of the grave to pave way for the latest. For days, I couldn’t even eat anything.” That phase too, passed as life went on.
In her early 40s, she found love – a worker in the harbour. He was from another religion, but he converted to Baby’s beliefs and the Church remained part of their life. The church donated two cents of land where they built a home. “But I am always here in the church – cleaning the premises or doing little chores,” says Baby, who lost her husband to cancer six years ago.
Death, she says, is a part of life. “When the graves can no longer hold them, the remains are transferred to one huge pit. No matter how much we earn, spend or behave, we all end up there,” she points to the cemetery. Summer has been hard. There were 13 deaths, two suicides included, in the past week alone.
Digging a grave is never considered a decent job, but she has never felt otherwise. “This is a noble service. Yes, there’s pay. Earlier, it used to be `7.50 per grave; now it is `1,200. The vicar ensures that I get paid without fail. After all, I too need to live, don’t I?”
Ask if she faced ostracisation, a faint smile appears. “Earlier, we weren’t invited to any weddings or auspicious ceremonies. The cringe on their faces was evident. I stopped going to places I wasn’t supposed to. But now, things are better. People do interact with me; only the kids are frightened. That’s because their mothers feed them with scary stories that I would come and take them away if they don’t eat,” she laughs, gulping down the faint traces of pain.
She had once been to an ailing relative’s house where she was told that she would be informed if her services were required there. Baby has no complaints, “Since that incident, I never visit the ailing. I don’t blame the relatives. It’s natural to be afraid.”
With no one to take over from her, Baby says, “I will be the last one in my family to do this. The duty ends with me.” Behind her, the sea echoes....