April 23, 2021 3:18:00 am
On Wednesday, Kanhaiya Shirke (44), who has been serving as an undertaker at Vadodara’s Vasna crematorium since April last year, cremated a body as per Covid-19 protocol in one of the two gas furnaces. Shirke did not find anything unusual until the deceased man’s 13-year-old son charged at him and slapped him in rage, asking why he had consigned his father’s body to fire.
“For the first time since last year, I saw anguish and love in the eyes of this little boy… For one year, I have been mechanically cremating bodies of unknown persons because family members do not even want to step inside the premises for the fear of contracting Covid-19,” says Shirke.
“When the boy attacked me, I felt some kind of joy. It might sound inappropriate but at that moment, I realised that not all love was over in this world. For all these days, I kept wondering how sons and relatives of deceased people would allow their loved ones to make the final journey all alone and be cremated at the hands of an unknown person,” he adds.
Shirke, his wife Anita and their three children — aged 11, 8, and 7 years — have been living in the crematorium since October 2020.
“I used to work as a painter and lost my job during lockdown. Sustaining became difficult and I decided to come to the place where everyone has to come one day. They needed manpower and the trust that runs crematoriums for the Vadodara Municipal Corporation hired me at a pay of Rs 12,000 per month. I had nowhere to go and decided to live on the premises itself. By October, my wife Anita lost her job at a label printing press in Mulund in Mumbai and joined me with our children. We sleep inside the hall on the premises,” says Shirke.
The family, Shirke says, feels it was “God’s calling” that they were chosen to serve people in the time of the pandemic. Anita says, “Initially, it was difficult as so many negative notions are attached to a crematorium. But we see this as a service. It has come as a blessing for us… At a time when children are refusing to touch and cremate bodies of parents who raised them, we are getting the chance to do so. We intend to stay here for as long as this pandemic lasts.”
The family says they failed to find a rented accommodation during the pandemic and staying on the premises helps in cremating bodies as they arrive. The crematorium is not as crowded as the Khaswadi crematorium in the city but has witnessed close to 2000 cremations in the gas furnace and open pyres since April last year, Shirke says.
“Initially, I found it odd. The cries of loved ones from the gates or over video calls were frightening. I would not be able to sleep all night. But gradually I got used to the work,” Shirke adds.
The family says that once the pandemic declines, they will look for options to admit their children to the nearby schools. “I would want to move on once my children join schools. I would want to send them to Mumbai and perhaps, I will eventually join them.”
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