Torch Bearer

Torch Bearer

Everyone knows Lalita in Dehradun,and will easily give you her address

An elderly widow cremates corpses every day in Dehradun

Everyone knows Lalita in Dehradun,and will easily give you her address: “Lalita,Lakhibagh Cremation Ground”. This is no ordinary address,even if it’s just a thatched roof at a cremation ground. And Lalita,a frail,60-something widow,is no ordinary woman. Defying the unwritten rule and rigorously followed custom that bars women from entry to cremation grounds,Lalita not just lives there,she also oversees the cremation process. She arranges wood for the pyre,and after a male relative of the dead has lit the pyre,she keeps it alight from all sides with a bamboo stick till the body is completely burnt — which takes about four to five hours. The burnt corpse remains at the ghat for three days,during which Lalita,on instructions from the kin of the deceased,ensures “tantriks don’t steal body parts”. When the relatives finally come to collect the ashes and immerse them in river Ganga,Lalita’s job is done,for which she is paid “between Rs 40 and Rs 60,whatever they wish”.

Circumstance,not choice,landed Lalita in this unusual occupation a decade ago. “One day,my husband,a mason,asked for my help to burn bodies here. He used to do this task,and through assisting him,I learnt it too. After his death,it became my sole responsibility to burn corpses,” she says.

But why was her husband cremating bodies when he was a mason? Lalita ignores this question several times when we ask her,and finally relents,“My husband,Sewa,and I are from Pokhara,Nepal. We migrated to Dehradun 25 years ago. Since Sewa was not an Indian citizen,he was supposed to be under police watch. Then,the police started asking him to cremate unclaimed bodies that they would recover. I have no idea why they made him do that,even though we are sonars (goldsmiths) by caste,” she says.


He even built a house here,Lalita recalls. But locals say the house was built on government land,so they had to vacate it. “Her husband had received Rs 30,000 as compensation,” says Vijay Gupta,who is here for the cremation of his neighbour,and helps unlettered Lalita narrate her story,adding that “because he was not an Indian,he was conveniently chosen by the police to do the job.”

After vacating the house,Sewa brought Lalita and their two children to live at the cremation ground six years ago. When Sewa died,Lalita cremated his body the way he had taught her to cremate others’ corpses. Later,she cremated her son’s body too. Today,she cremates around eight bodies a day,and is assisted in the task by her 35-year-old daughter Anita,and her twin five-year-old grandchildren,Ragini and Ranjit — all of whom reside at the cremation ground. She cooks her meals in a tin-shed that accommodates relatives who are part of a funeral procession. “Aadat ho gayi hai (It has become a habit). We live a normal life even at the cremation ghat,” she says.

Her tireless service of cremating the dead has earned Lalita respect about town. “Everyone knows her in the Dehradun market. If she visits the market,traders offer her everything she needs. Some give clothes for her family members also,” says Gupta.

Lalita is happy that she sees the last destination in people’s lives. “I have cremated my husband and young son here. I will be cremated at this ghat. My daughter knows how to cremate bodies. So,I have nothing to expect from the rest of my life,” she says.