IT’S a chilly Wednesday night in Mumbai, and a fog has settled on the crematorium. The vast Worli Shamshan Bhoomi, housing a crematorium as well as cemetery, is cloaked in darkness but for the incandescent street lamps throwing long shadows at the entrance. It’s spooky, but does not scare Pappu Kamble, 38, who works the night shift at this central Mumbai crematorium.
He’s not afraid of ghosts, given he’s never seen one. What does unnerve him, though, are snakes, “big ones, several of them” that sometimes slither out of holes at night.
For Rs 3,000 a month, Kamble’s job is to provide firewood for the funeral pyre and to make arrangements whenever the dead are brought for cremation at night, not a customary practice but not rare either.
His is a 11 pm to 7 am job, one Kamble has been doing for 22 years now. Before him, his father Shreebhau Kamble held the same position, as did his grandfather.
Early in their marriage, Kamble’s wife coaxed him to look for other employment, but the Std IX dropout knew only how to cut and stack wood. “I never applied anywhere else,” he says. And so he continues to work at the crematorium. “It is peaceful inside here. Outside the gates, the city is full of noise and traffic.”
As night progresses, the silence is eerie. The cemetery section is unkempt with wild shrubbery spilling over graves. But Kamble has learnt a trick with reptiles. “Once I saw a large snake four steps away from me. I froze for a long time. It slithered around me for a while and then went away. That was the first time I saw a snake,” he says. He makes sure not to run if he spots one now.
At night, he sits on a cemented seat, away from the bushes and next to a tiny temple in the premises. A tiny bulb overhead makes him feel safe. The nights are rarely busy, a dead body is brought once a week or fortnight.
When there is a night-time cremation, he helps the family place the body on the funeral pyre, collect wood, arrange it on the pyre and clean up the space.
But on most nights, he just sits on his seat by the temple, occasionally venturing outside to sit by a fire that local watchmen lights nowadays.
There are no ghosts, he emphasizes. “If there were ghosts, no one would have worked here,” he says. Snakes are his first worry, drunk slum-dwellers the second.
The Worli crematorium’s rear end is lined with shanties. Earlier men would use the crematorium as a short-cut to reach the road and Kamble would have to remain on vigil, guarding his wood. Six years ago, security was beefed up at the premises and walls built to fortify the place. “But even now, drunk boys climb the walls and throw beer bottles around,” he says.
The occasional group of gamblers are an irritant too, hiding in the grounds to play cards. “I caught them a few times. But they are so many and I am alone. So I never enter into a fight,” he says. In the morning, he sometimes finds packs of playing cards lying around, and empty bottles near his godown.
By 8 am, he makes his way to his chawl, a ten-minute walk. His sons, aged four and seven, cycle from the crematorium gates till home to give him company. But there are days when he’s doing double shifts, which means they see him more when they stop by the crematorium than they do at home.
He doesn’t mind the long stays in the crematorium, insisting there’s nothing morbid about the place. “There are more drunkards here than dead,” he says.