This blogpost will be in parts. Why? Because the incident that I am going to narrate has a lot happening and occurred over days. The incident perhaps now that I look back was one of those that leave an impregnable mark on you, and in order to illustrate that, one blogpost won’t suffice. So let us begin…
Once upon a time….
Yes, you read that right, once upon a time, actually to be precise in 2013. It was the last leg of the masters in communication in Delhi that I was pursuing. In ten groups of five we had to pitch our story ideas for a video, TV or film. The five of us in the group, which consisted of my ghost sister and editor in crime (both of whom have been mentioned in an earlier blogpost), decided our first preference was video. Now the pressing question was, what should we pitch? Our classmates were equally competitive and brilliant. We had to have something meaty, something unique, something which would make the faculty automatically give us video.
We tossed around many ideas. We would sit in the lawns, mostly munching samosas and the editor in crime consuming Parle G biscuits with her tea, noting down the usual, unusual, mundane or the bizarre and the most grotesque of ideas! When the ghost sister recalled reading about the existence of the only female undertaker in Delhi. Now most of us were perplexed, my only association with the word ‘undertaker’ is that of the WWF wrestler! But she explained that undertaker is the term used for people who are responsible for the embalming of dead bodies amongst the Christians. They also build coffins as per the family’s wishes and arrange the requisite funeral paraphernalia in addition to giving advise to the family on the funerary aspects. As the sole girls only group in the class and being feminists, this idea of the only female undertaker in Delhi immediately clicked with us. Not to mention it faired well with mine and the ghost sister’s affinity towards anything related to cemeteries and spirits!
The good thing about the ghost sister is that she is highly organised and extremely meticulous. She had saved the article from around 3-4 years ago. All of us read it and also tried googling about the undertaker. There were a few more feature based articles on the undertaker, but none mentioned where she lived or operated from. In one of the articles, a church in Delhi was mentioned from where she often got commissioned for coffins. We decided that our first step in trying to hunt down the undertaker was to make a pit stop at the church mentioned in the article. In retrospect I realise now what a foolhardy quest that was. To search for something or someone in such a vast city like Delhi, with no proper signpost or even some address, was a Herculean task. Had it not been for our collective excitement, in other time or world I would not have even bothered.
On arriving at the hallows of the church, hallows because it was so empty and such a deathly silence pervaded the entire premises, that a bunch of youngsters blabbering away appeared sacrilegious. Since the ghost sister had studied in a convent school, she knew more of the Christian ways and propriety, so we pushed her forward to hunt for whoever is the person we can ask questions to in a Church. We managed to find a lady, though now I do not remember her designation within the church. She gave complete blank looks to our questions on the undertaker. We mentioned her name and her work, yet she was completely clueless. She then said maybe she was only making coffins for Protestant Christians. That church was apparently Catholic or Protestant (must ask ghost sister about this, since my memory about whether the church was a Catholic or Protestant one is vague).
Disappointed we walked out of the church, now discussing on our next step. As I had mentioned in my earlier blogpost, the ghost sister and I would often like to explore the cemeteries in Delhi, and there was a big one nearby. It was one of the cemeteries we had visited earlier. And we also remembered there was a fresh grave being dug out, and we thought to ourselves, why not go there? The cemetery was bound to be in touch with many undertakers, and the one we were hunting could be one of those that the cemetery regularly dealt with. We then trudged towards the cemetery amidst the chaotic traffic.
We were in for some luck!! On entering the cemetery we could spot some workers digging the earth. Hurriedly we made our way to the spot. A man who seemed to oversee the digging looked at us, puzzled. Cautiously we mentioned the name of the undertaker, and voila! He said yes, he knew her and many of the graves and coffins in the cemetery had been overseen by her. We then asked him if he could offer us a contact number or address for her. At that instant he then looked at us again, thought a bit and asked us WHY? and WHO are we people? From his vantage point I can imagine he must be suspicious, a bunch of girls asking around for an undertaker! We were careful to mention that we were just students and it was for a research project. Realising that the man was being doubtful, we thought it wise not to say we also wanted to shoot a short documentary about her. Sometimes people run away from the media and journalists alike. But I do not think he was satisfied, and in an incoherent manner told us he has lost her number or that the number is not working. We requested a few more times yet he did not budge. So then we asked ok maybe you can tell us where she lives? Though I was not too confident that he will give her address if he could not give us her number. All he murmured was that she lived in the Christian Colony in Karol Bagh. And that was it. There was a finality in his tone and we knew we could not probe further.
Disappointed again we converged to discuss what should be our next course of action. We realised now how we were trying to hunt for a needle in a haystack. Striking at every twig or lay branch that came our way. This was not going to be easy. As a last resort we made our way to the Christian Colony in Karol Bagh. Boarding the Delhi metro we reached Karol Bagh and finally reached the colony after stopping at various points to ask multiple people ranging from the police, hawker, men on scooters etc. for the directions. A narrow lane next to a church led towards the Christian Colony. Because of our previous experience with the man in the cemetery, we were unsure if we could just barge into the Church asking for an undertaker. The next best idea was to go inside the colony and perhaps search for a nameplate with the undertaker’s name. And if this search did not result in anything, then we would have no choice but to go the church.
Now to give you a picture of how colonies can grow and evolve and become a nebulous space in Delhi. With complete disregard for rules or sometimes because there are no rules, many colonies in Delhi have dilapidated, narrow roads. Often jutting balconies are vying for space, so much so that the blue sky gets consumed. Lanes are crowded with vehicles, everyone jostling for space, rather you jostle and push around to make your own space. Wires hanging dangerously low from electricity towers. Perhaps one word to describe it would be ‘mayhem’. But also such colonies grow organically, moving in whichever direction they get space in. Moving, growing, convoluting. To someone unused to this, such a colony can be a maze, a labyrinth one can easily get lost into.
When we entered the labyrinth of Christian Colony we quickly realised this was not the most wisest of ideas, to hunt for the name plate of the undertaker! Simply because we could enter further and further into the deep reaches of the colony and come up with nothing. It would take us some time to figure out the labyrinth to move in a systematic method. After a few seconds, we looked at each other’s tired faces, and then I spotted an old ragpicker lady! And a sudden brainwave seized me. Now the ragpickers go from house to house picking up trash, they go from house to house, year by year, so much so they know who lives in which house. I stopped her and asked her about the undertaker. She was caught off guard and responded she knew no such person. We tried explaining more but to no avail. Tired from the exhaustion of the day, we decided it was time to turn back and perhaps think of a different way to search for the undertaker or even a new idea. But before we could turn back, the ragpicker called out to us. She asked us if we were looking for the lady who digs graves!! All of us echoed YES YES!! And would you believe it? Just the spot from where we were about to turn our backs, just a house away was the door with the undertaker’s nameplate!!
We had finally found our undertaker!! 😀 😀
To be continued….
Image: Nicholson Cemetery of Delhi