So yes, we had finally managed to land right in front of the doorstep of our much hunted undertaker. Like pilgrims who undertake perilous journeys to their destination, well ok yes yes, our journey was not perilous, but it had its share amount of disappointments and apprehensions. So finally reaching our destination was like nirvana for all of us. We simply could not stop smiling.
Before we could ring the bell, a man approached the door, and he was carrying a bag full of groceries. We asked him if we could meet the undertaker and he gave us a benign smile and invited us in. We found ourselves in a cozy courtyard dotted with wild plants and pots. To the left was the kitchen, to the right were rooms and the bathroom and right ahead in front of us was the living room. Judging from the facade, architecture and materials of the house, one could discern the house was extremely old. The chaotic mess of the outside became a distant lull within the cool, pleasant environs of the house. Despite its oldness, mustiness and the disarrayed objects lying around, the house felt warm and welcoming.
The man led us to the living room, during which we happened to spot two stray dogs sleeping in a corner and a parrot sleeping inside his cage! We were intrigued and fascinated, eager to learn more about this undertaker. She soon entered, dressed in plain house clothes, hair tied in a neat bun. She appeared simple, yet a closer look into her face, the lines and the wrinkles, the greying strands of her hair; indicated a hardened life. Yet when she smiled and her eyes crinkled up, you could not help but just listen to her. She recounted how her father had never wanted her to carry on the undertaking business. She explained that her father’s family had been involved in this since many generations and they had overtime built a good reputation. Consequently they had generations of families approaching their family when someone died. She had developed intimate relationships with most families. Her eyes lit up when she told us how she would accompany her father to many of his undertakings, observing how embalming is done, learning, questioning, and building a rapport with the workers who would dig the graves and build coffins.
There was a point I felt in the company of us young girls she felt enlivened, happy to share her thoughts, reminisce her younger days. Perhaps for a few hours with us, she was able to isolate her family problems (which turned out to be really messy and making things worse for us, but that’s for a later post!). You know when someone is passionate about their work from the way they talk about it with a smile, or the lengths they might have gone to get some task completed. She gleefully told us about a man who loved his wife so much, he wanted her grave to be designed in the form of a chocolate bar! since the wife had loved chocolates. And the undertaker decided that she would build a chocolate grave as an ode the husband’s love for his wife. Later for our field research we did visit the cemetery where the chocolate grave is still there. There was just one inscription on the grave, ‘I hate you.’ The husband had hated the fact that his wife had left him so early in their marital bliss together. The story touched our hearts, but importantly what touched us was how the undertaker had not dismissed the husband’s desire for a chocolate grave as juvenile. Perhaps as an undertaker she had been able to mediate between the dead and the living. More so as a spiritual medium, able to channel the desires of both the death and the living’s relationship to the death.
Perhaps this innate understanding of spirits also explained her relationship with the animals and birds around us. She recounted how once she had a pet cock. A cock who would get supremely jealous when any man hugged the undertaker!! The symbolism and literalism of the cock had us in splits. Not only that, apparently someone had even filed a case against the cock since the cock had attacked that particular person. I am forgetting the name of the cock that the undertaker had given, but since the complaint was filed on the cock’s name, the policemen assumed it was a person. On arriving and discovering that the complaint was actually against a cock, well it is no surprise they were not at all pleased. They were pleased at the cock’s antics though and returned all hail and hearty! Stray dogs and cats were regular visitors in the undertaker’s house. Sometimes staying a few days, sometimes disappearing for days before reappearing. In addition to the animals and birds, there was a constant flow of people in and out of her house. They would come and sit, talk, chatter or gossip. She never said no to anyone. Everyone was welcome, and maybe that’s why it was so easy for us to enter her home, talk to her. She not only allowed us to glimpse into her home and work, she let us enter into her life. Let us become a part of her life. Maybe in retrospect we became too intrinsically involved in her life….
As much as I tried containing myself, I could not help but ask her if she had ever had any paranormal experience during the course of her work in so many years. She burst out laughing. She said the dead are dead. They are neither vulnerable or dangerous. They become just flesh and blood. And no she had never encountered any paranormal activities. Though one time she mentioned there was a plane crash and the dead were brought to her to immediately embalm and build coffins for them. What scared her were the conditions of the body, mangled, bloody and beyond recognition, it was to her equally sad and fearful. That was perhaps the only time she felt any fear. I still remember something that she had said. She said that ‘the coffin is like the home for the person, it needs to be built with love, faith and care.’ At that moment when she said that line, she had completely turned around the idea of death and funerals for me.
It had been quite a few hours since we had been talking to the undertaker when we decided it was time to leave. Weaving our way across the quagmire of the Karol Bagh market and then boarding the metro, her statement on how the ‘coffin is like a home’ kept resonating in my mind. what a beautiful thought. What an enlightening way of looking at the same thing, and all of us were looking forward to this exciting prospect of being able to shoot such a dynamic woman.
To be continued…..