Fifty-five-year-old Selina S bonds with her four grandchildren in a rather unusual place: a public crematorium in Kerala.
For the last decade, she has worked at Thrikkakara, the public crematorium in Ernakulam where her duties are to cremate the bodies, collect the remains and hand them over to the relatives of the deceased. People ask her if she has been scared to work in a cemetery, dealing with dead bodies. but she says she isn't. "Everybody asks me if I am scared, I say no. When I cremate the bodies I'm alone here in this whole compound, but I have never been scared," Selina says.
When she first approached the local municipality for the job in 2005, everyone advised her against it. She pursued it nonetheless. "Officers asked me whether I was confident. I was. Neighbours discouraged me, but I had a strong feeling that god had opened me a door for me to survive," Selina says. When her husband abandoned her 22 years ago, she had her two daughters to take care of. "Then, my only aim was to give my kids the best, give them food, good education and get them married." she says. Now her daughters are married, Selina is more relaxed and manages to spend time with her four grandchildren.
Although she is supposed to receive Rs 1500 for each cremation, Selina gets only Rs 1200, after deducting the municipality commission. But she says it is enough: "I am satisfied and I can live with this. But sometimes there are no cremations for days, then it is difficult to manage. If they are really poor I reduce the rate from my remuneration."
She said that she treats all the dead bodies with respect, "Before cremating a body, I pray for their soul. I don't remember how many cremations I have done."
While Selina cremates bodies, Baby V digs graves for the dead. A native of Pallipuram village in Ernakulam district, grave digging has been Baby's livelihood for far longer than for Selina. Baby and her elder sister were orphaned when they were very young. A job was necessary for them to survive.
When the vicar of Manju Matha Church asked Baby if she was willing to take up the job 42 years ago, she readily accepted it. "I was 17 years old then. When the priest asked me to join as the church cemetery keeper and gravedigger, I did not hesitate because an income was necessary," she says.
Technically, she did not get paid money for the work she did. She was paid in kind, and it was only some years later that she was paid Rs 50 per grave. Now, with Rs 1,500 per grave, she earns slightly more than Selina does per cremation. Although she took up the job as a teenager over 40 years ago, she says it never struck her as something a woman should not be doing. "I don't think that I am doing something extra ordinary, any woman can do this. I am happy to do this job for next 40 years too if I have good health," she says. After losing her husband two years ago, Baby has been living with her nephew's family, but she still continues to do the job that enabled her to survive. " "This job gave me a new life without poverty. Even though I don't have savings, I don't starve, so I am thankful to god".
(This is an updated copy)