Prasanta Ghosh

Walking through a crematorium could be really tough for a human being. The crematorium air carries a heavy-heart feeling. And, this is the only place where no one will come by choice. But is it true for everyone of us? I don’t think so. There are many such people among us who go there by choice and do all the needful duties in spite of being marginalized from the so called civilized society.

I visited Keoratala crematorium in Kolkata while I was working on my book, Dead People Does not have any Privacy. I wanted to meet people who work there and to explore the place more. But while talking to the people there, I came across many things, that, otherwise would remain ‘unsaid’ . Our conversations revealed several things that were new to me. I was curious to know how these dead bodies affected people at the crematorium. I realized that they were habituated to deal with the bodies on everyday basis and the dead bodies become non-living objects for them. They spoke about history of the place, the work they do, and how their identity distinguishes them from the so-called civilized society. They also shared their daily routine activities and information about their families. What struck me was the complete unawareness about this community working at crematorium in our society. They live their lives on the fringes of the society without any receiving respect in the ‘civilised society’.

Raju Mallick at the crematorium told me that they do not have any emotions left within them and everything has dried out from their soul. After hearing such stories, I realized that they also deserve to live a life with all normal aspects but they are bound by their social duties. For some of them the work is their religious duty that they have to do while for others it has become a curse on their lives. After our conversation, I was struck by the strange reality that people who  would curse them while they were alive would be burnt by them after they are dead!



Can you tell me your name?

My name is Raju mallick.

You stay here?

Yes, nearby.

For how long have you been in this occupation?

I used to come here twice a day since I was 10. Then from age 14.  I started working in the wood pyre area. At that time bodies were not burnt in the electric furnace.

See, right now a body has been brought here, everybody is crying , does this affect you mentally?

No we do not feel anything. They cry but we have no feeling of grief. They bring the body. Once they get it ready we put it inside the furnace. We do not feel sad. No emotion.  I told you. Our eyes and heart have become as hard as a rock because we have been seeing all this for ages. We have no feelings.  We want the procedure to be as fast as it can be. As they get ready we will put it inside. This is our work.

What is your name?

Dilu Mondol.

Do you live here with your family?

No, no. I stay in Vidyarampur, a village near Sonarpur forest office.

How long have you been working here?

Since 2015 March when it was inaugurated. This March it will be three years.

Is this structure completely new?

Yes, totally. It’s made recently. Earlier, it was only of simple wood pyres. All this is old. Almost 100 hundred years.

What’s this area called? What are those people doing there?

This is a part the Ganga Ghats. The burnt navel (umbilicus) is thrown there. 

Who throws remains of the dead?

The people at the electric crematorium.  Also, the remains in the electric furnace is cleaned and washed. The remains are collected in a clay plate and thrown over there.

Does this all affect you as you stay here?

No, I live alone in that small guest room over there at night.

Woman: Now there is electricity and light, earlier it used to be dark…even our children would play around here..

What is your name aunty?

My name is Rita Dey.

He: She sells mud – the mud which is used to cover the earthen container containing the remains of the navel.

How long have you been doing this work?

He: She has been doing this for some time. Doms work here in different cycles. She is doing someone else’s shift.  She stays nearby and gets some money to do this. 

Once we were the Ghatowal Dom over here. You know.  Ghatowal Dom. Once our caste  used to be the owner of the Ghats. Understand? Since French, British, Mughal emperors time, the Harijans (Dalits or Untouchables) owned these property.

Do You work in the wooden furnace section?

Yes, I work over here and there as well.

Have you ever got any psychological problem after burning bodies ?

Why should I have any problem? For generations: my father, grandfather, my forefathers have done this work.

When you put the bodies in fire, don’t you feel sad ?

What is sadness? This is my work by birth.  I have been doing this for years.

Will your next generation, your sons also work here?

Yes, of course. Where else will he get the work? Nowadays, people from outside also get jobs here. It means we are being marginalized from our rights.

People visiting the crematorium don’t touch you. They call you ‘dom’. Do you feel bad? Don’t you get angry?

Angry? What for? If you don’t touch me what is it to me? I will also not touch you. Why should I touch you?  But now people are changing though some of them are still same. They will scorn: Oh a Dom! Some respectfully invite the ‘Dom’ to their house for some rituals. They offer us good food and give us alms before we leave. All this happens mostly in Bengal. Yes. We are Bengal’s original Dom community.

So you belong to the ancient Dom lineage of Kolkata?

Since early days Kolkata city, we have been here. After my grandfather I am here. My grandfather was Raghu-Dom. There is a record of him in Calcutta Corporation.  You will see his name even in British records. Earlier we used to stay in Chittaranjan Das avenue. Then, we came here during my grandfather’s time. We had to leave that space for the freedom fighters of the country. But, now the (Kolkata) Corporation is telling us now that it is their property. Not ours. This is simpliy cheating. We are Bengals original Doms. Earlier there was no Bangladesh only Bengal. The Buriganga crematorium and many more  were under our  control, under the control of my father and grandfather.

For how long you will continue do this work?

I want to retire in 2020. But, by law, there is ‘no retirement’and no transfer for ‘Ghatowal Doms. Unfortunately, the present Government understands things differently and it is taking away many things from us…

Don’t worry, brother we are not taking your pictures..only of these things here…don’t worry.

Conversation with the Purohit

Are you appointed here as Brahmin of the Crematorium?

Yes, I am appointed here.

Is this your regular job?

No, this, this is not really the so called job. We are doing this for generations. Our forefathers also used to do the same. Do anybody want to do a job in the crematorium? Whenever people listen about working in the crematorium they run away. How can a Brahmin work in the crematorium and work for the dead and spirits. A soul only becomes an evil spirit when the it gets detached from the heart.

For how many years you are working over here?

For last 11 years I am working in the crematorium with these dead bodies.

There are many other rituals in the society. As a Brahmin don’t you feel  that you are dejected in doing those ?

Yes , I do feel but there is nothing to do. I have to do the work here.

Do you have any mental problem for this?

At first I used to be very upset and sad for working over here. First day, the feelings that I had experienced, I cannot explain you. I don’t know whether people would understand or not. I think I am assigned by God to do this task. The task, where regularly so many souls, pathetic cries and heartless truth involved. I thought that someday I will leave the work and go from here.

How many bodies do you take to do puja and purify everyday ?

For 11 years around 60 bodies each day. Now there are 365 days in a year. Now you calculate and see how many total bodies it can be.

As a Brahmin Purohit , are you the only one who work over here?

No, there are seven more people. We  work over here in different turns. As today is my turn. I will continue till next 24 hours.

Where do you stay?

I stay near Nalban of Calcutta. Film shooting happens nearby.

Do you want your next generations to work over here?

See, for a Brahmin doing puja is his responsibility. Doing puja is my karma. No work can be looked down as small. Due to this work I can earn living for my family and feed them.

What do you do to the dead bodies before putting them inside the furnace?

The dead body needs to be purified before putting inside the furnace and it can be done only by a Brahmin. When we are alive our souls are pure but as soon as we die it is converted to impure soul. So, it needs to be purified before putting into fire. We do not have any protection or security over here. You can highlight this fact. We do not have any advantage and any facilities. It becomes very tough working over here.  Sometimes, when I am working and then come to know that the body with which I was working with was a septic body. I got very scared. I used to work in bare hands, but I saw others in gloves. Nobody told me that the body was infected. Inside the furnace and nearby there are always fumes and bad smell of the smoke. Sometimes, it chokes us. But would anybody think of it? Have you ever thought of it? These are reason for which I told that I do not want to work over here. But I have to work as 22 lives are depending on me. If I do not come here, there would be no money. If no money, no food to eat.     


Prasanta Ghosh is a visual artist based in Kolkata. He has completed his BFA from Rabindrabharati University, Kolkata and MVA (Painting) from M.S. University Baroda.