I, probably like you, have walked down Bandra’s Hill Road in Mumbai a million times, either with shopping bags filled with cheap street buys, or a lemon tart from the nearby American Express Bakery, or with a loverboy for some seaside romancing. But until last week, I had no idea that at the St. Andrews’s Church that lies at the tip of this road, a pit full of human bones and skulls exists just 20 feet away from my favourite clothing store. And the unfairness of life that allows certain people to buy first-class train tickets while the masses have to settle for the regular ones, gets carried forward to death too. Money buys you the supposedly more respectable and roomier ‘niches’ for your mortal remains, while the lack of it means you end up with the unnamed majority—in the overcrowded pit. Trust capitalism to become bedfellows with even fatalism.
The graveyard at St. Andrew’s consists of around 2,000 graves, of which 1,500 are permanent ones, while approximately 500 are temporary. The church stopped allocating permanent ones decades ago. Most of the existing ones belong to older families—many generations of which might be buried in one grave. In a city with a perennial space crunch even for the living, the temporary graves hold bodies for around two to three years, after which the bodies are exhumed. If the relatives of the deceased can afford the marble-slabbed rectangular niches (containers to hold cremated remains are available on a rental basis) that line the periphery of the cemetary, the remains are banked there. Else, they are deposited into the ‘bone well’. Doing this cyclical work of laying the dead to rest, and then exhuming their bodies some years later is 34-year-old Manohar Wakode. The grave digger or khodnewala as others working on the grounds call him, is a shy, sweet, soft-spoken fellow who showed me around the ‘bone well’. VICE spoke with the guy who works the graveyard shift, to find out what made a Maharashtrian boy from a village near Bhusawal take up work at a Christian cemetery, and what happens once the ‘bone well’ fills up.
VICE: Do you remember your first day on the job?
Manohar Wakode: I worked with a (funeral) contractor from 2004 to 2012 before a friend recommended my name here. I started work here three years ago. I was a little scared while digging for exhuming on the first day of the job. I hesitated touching the bones, but after a minute, there was no fear. Now, if I ever end up working alone at night too, there is no thought about anything strange or any fear at all.
Is exhuming a body a challenge?
It was scary only the first time I did it, but now I just wear the gloves, keep the clothes that the body was wearing by the side, and then place the remains either in the well or the niche. Sometimes though, the bodies don’t decompose within two years. The relatives sometimes want to see the bodies even then but I tell them not to. That is your family member and you don’t want to remember them by that sight. It’s also doubly difficult to dig during the monsoons. But we have no choice; I was digging even during the Mumbai floods.
What will happen once the ‘bone well’ is full?
It’s very big and deep, and the bones will ultimately decompose. It won’t become full.
How do relatives feel about the remains of their loved ones going here?
Some feel bad because they feel it’s because of their inability to earn money that this is happening. But I tell them there is no disrespect in it, and they are gone now. Their remains are still here, and close to you. But these relatives usually never come back because they feel they have nothing left here to pay respect to. That is sad—that you don’t have anything to remember them by. I feel bad about it though I know that when my time comes, my body will be burnt and nothing will remain.
What is the hardest part of your job?
It is definitely digging a grave for a child or a baby. I feel like crying then. You are conscious that you are digging a much smaller grave, and I usually step aside and give the family time and space they need.
Has anything weird happened to you on the job?
This didn’t happen to me but with a boy from MP (Madhya Pradesh) who used to work here. We had gone to Bhabha hospital to make the body wear clothes and put him in the box to bring here. When we got here and were preparing the grave, I told him to get some flowers for the grave, and at that time, he started looking at me angrily. He then started talking in Bhojpuri. He asked me what I was called when I was a kid, and started talking rudely which was very unlike him. After 10 minutes, he became like himself. He had no recollection of what had happened but I knew at that time that something strange had happened. I told him to go to his village and consult with someone. He hasn’t come back in months.
Do you believe in ghosts or spirits?
When I was 17, I was working a construction job in the jungle near a dam. At that time, I had an encounter (with a spirit). I was very scared then. But nothing has happened after that. I do say they exist because this happened to me. But nothing has happened in this cemetery to me. I think it’s because whenever you are here—morning, afternoon, evening—people are praying and lighting candles. We go to the temple only when there is time and even then, we don’t even light an agarbatti.
Has your job affected your view on mortality and death?
I am not scared of death at all now. When my brother-in-law died in an accident, I didn’t feel anything. Everyone was crying but I didn’t even have a tear in my eye. I just got overwhelmed at the end when they were taking the body away. As a child, I had never seen death. Our mother would never allow us to see a dead body. I only saw one when I came to Mumbai. I don’t know whether what I am doing is good or bad, though I look at it as just any other job. I don't steal or resort to wrong ways of making money so I have nothing to be ashamed of. But the job does make me wonder that after doing this for so many people, how it is going to be when my time comes. But it’s just a passing thought.
*The interview is translated from Hindi.