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In a Mumbai cemetery, a caretaker and a tomb engraver help families search for lost graves

Since 1927, all those buried at the Jewish cemetery have their names entered into the record book, but the increasing difference between the records and the actual location of the grave prompted Bamnolkar, who took over as the caretaker in 2002, to compile the situation book.

Mohammad Abdul Yaseen  looks over some of the tombstones he has engraved at the Mahalaxmi Jewish Cemetery.  (Source: Amit Chakravarty) Mohammad Abdul Yaseen looks over some of the tombstones he has engraved at the Mahalaxmi Jewish Cemetery. (Source: Amit Chakravarty)

A childhood memory, a chit of paper with his grandfather’s name and “a lot of hope” brought Nathan Aston, 75, to the Mahalaxmi Jewish Cemetery. The former principal of Nowrosjee Wadia College, Pune, was searching for his maternal grandfather’s grave for nearly seven years with little success.

The Mahalaxmi cemetery (established in 1927) is the final resting place for many prominent Jews from the city, such as former mayor E Moses, educator Rebecca Reuben, Padmashree award-winning poet Nissim Ezekiel, and many others. But often, it is difficult to locate the right grave at the cemetery. “Searching for long-lost relatives is tough, but looking for them six feet under the ground is tougher,” says Aston, who belongs to Mumbai’s 2,000-strong Marathi-speaking Bene Israel Jewish community.

His search began nearly four months ago, when he came along with a friend to pray over the recently renovated graves of his friend’s relatives. After the ceremony, Aston paid a visit to his relatives who had passed away. Walking through the 4,140 square feet cemetery that morning, and after “meeting” his aunt, another uncle, and half a dozen other relatives, Aston realised that he could not locate his grandfather’s grave. Only two people could help him with the task — caretaker Daniel Bamnolkar and engraver Mohammad Abdul Yaseen.

Bamnolkar is in charge of the “record book” as well as the “situation book”. Since 1927, all those buried at the Jewish cemetery have their names entered into the record book, but the increasing difference between the records and the actual location of the grave prompted Bamnolkar, who took over as the caretaker in 2002, to compile the situation book.

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Row by row, grave by sunken grave, he went around surveying and numbering the graves he could find on the premises — all 6,566 of them. “This was in 2003 and since then, I have found at least 200 ‘lost’ graves each year,” he says.

Years of neglect have led to the erosion of some of the tombstones. “These ‘unclaimed’ tombs have been reused,” explains Aran Benjamin, secretary of the Tifereth Synagogue, Jacob Circle, which has a membership of 771 Jews. “Reusing graves was done before my time,” says Bamnolkar. “I don’t do this. Upar jaake muh dikhana hai (I have to show my face to my Maker).”

It is not only Aston who sought Bamnolkar out to hunt for a relative’s grave. For the past 10 years, Jews from all over India and the US, Israel, and the UK have contacted him with just a name and year of death. But if there is one person who knows the cemetery like the back of his hand, as much as Bamnolkar, if not more, it is Yaseen.

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Yaseen, 75, actually knew most of the people recently buried here; he has no use of the situation book. One of the few non-Jewish people who work at the cemetery, Yaseen has engraved more than 2,000 tombstones in English, Marathi, Hebrew and Gujarati over the past 45 years.

A walk with Yaseen in the cemetery is a window into the lives of the people buried there. “Here lies the father of a famous architect. Look at his tombstone, it is so high because his son did not want anyone to sit on his father’s grave! Sharpurkar, buried here, worked with BEST,” he says.

Yaseen learned his craft from Aaron Menashe, his mentor and former tombstone engraver of the cemetery. “He taught me Hebrew in 1971, I was passionate to learn the language. Now, with computers, you make a stencil and simply copy it on to the marble tombstone,” he says. His sons use stencils but Yaseen prefers to do it by hand. “Marathi is tougher to etch because it has round letters but Hebrew is the easiest because of the straight letters,” he says.

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Previously, most people preferred thick marble, which was tough to work with. Now, there is a greater demand for thin marble or the “costlier, harder to engrave but easier to maintain” granite, says Mohammad Islam, Yaseen’s son. “You can tell the affluence of the family just by looking at the graves. The richest families opt for the brown granite (where each letter costs Rs 15 to engrave as compared to Rs 5 with marble), followed by the granite and then the marble,” he adds.

Yaseen is Bamnolkar’s partner whenever a request to locate a grave is made. First, they look for the name in the record book to see if the person was buried here. This is followed with a thorough check of the situation book to know if the grave is still present in the cemetery. Once the name is found, Bamnolkar and Yaseen track the grave down and then make the phone call to the relative.

But not everyone is lucky. Benjamin has been visiting the cemetery for the past 40 years, but has not managed to find the grave of his sister Reuben. “Although his sister’s name is in the record book, the situation book does not show the name and so, the grave is lost,” says Bamnolkar.

But this hasn’t stopped Benjamin from helping others. Four years ago, Joe Samuel, residing in the US, got in touch with Benjamin. Samuel wanted to find the grave of his grandmother, mother and sisters.

“The sisters’ graves were almost merged and it was hard to identify them,” says Bamnolkar. The sisters had passed away in 1943, four weeks apart, from typhoid. A few weeks later, thanks to Bamnolkar and Yaseen’s efforts, Samuel was finally able to renovate the graves.

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While the Mahalaxmi and Thane Jewish cemeteries are among the better preserved ones in and around Mumbai, the Panvel cemetery has been encroached upon over the years. At Panvel, you will find graves insides the shanties even, says Aston. “Thankfully, my paternal grandfather’s gravel in Panvel was closer to the gate, we found it in half a day. There was no situation book to help us, just perseverance and an earnest prayer,” he says.

Last month, after receiving a call from Bamnolkar, Aston went back to the Mahalaxmi cemetery. He nervously followed the caretaker and Yaseen for about 300 metres, when he was drawn to a tree he seemed to recognise. As his faint memory of the spot became stronger, Aston’s eyes fell on a broken marble headstone — In Loving Memory of Mr Isaiah Bhorupkar Elizer. His search had come to an end.

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The story appeared in print with the headline In Loving Memory

First published on: 31-05-2015 at 01:00:51 am
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