My grandmother was 88. And I was glad her suffering had finally come to an end. But little did I know that the aftermath of death could not only be demeaning but an insult to the dead too.
Keoratolla, Kolkata's biggest crematorium where legends like Uttam Kumar and Satyajit Ray had been cremated, plays silent victim to an unholy nexus of crematorium caretakers, priests, civic staff, police and even local political leaders, who join hands to fleece people, shaken by the death of a close one, by the hour.
While the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, which owns the crematoriums in the city, has a fixed rate of Rs 150 for a cremation, the doms, who collect and handover the ashes of the deceased to the family, demand exorbitant amounts of money. They ask for anything between Rs 2,000 to Rs 10,000 depending on what they assume is the financial status of the person - even the poor are not spared.
The priests, who perform a 5-10 minute ritual before the body is finally consigned to the electric chulli, are no less. They also demand anything between Rs 1,000 to Rs 5,000.
On paper, there is a system, whereby you can book a slot for cremation. We did too. However, while we had asked for a 12 noon slot, we only got to cremate my grandmother's mortal remains at 5 pm.
If the truant priests and doms were not enough, there is the crematorium management who seems to have turned a deliberate blind eye to all that is wrong in the place.
Of the four furnaces that are there in the Keoratolla crematorium in south Kolkata, only three work. According to reports, there are usually 95-100 bodies that arrive there everyday and it takes at least 50 mins for the remains to burn. Given the pressing need for more furnaces, the civic body has done nothing to make amendments. In fact, they are so complacent that when a Rs 21-lakh pollution control device stopped functioning, nothing was done to fix it, leading to widespread pollution in the area.
The same story reverberates in all other crematoriums in the city.
Unlike Delhi, where crematoriums are not only clean but well-organised and the dead are cremated in a traditional pyre within minutes, nobody cares in Kolkata. We stood at the dingy, dark and smelly crematorium for five hours while my grandmother’s lifeless body lay cold on a wooden plank, waiting to be pushed into the electric crematorium. Several bereaved families, like us, stood in a queue the amid several other bodies and scarred families, while the doms surveyed the crowd, probably wondering how to make a quick buck out of our predicament.
“Keoratolla is still in a better shape than the rest. The other four grounds are even more dirty and most of the time only one furnace functions. Kolkata crematoriums have now become the breeding ground of gangsters with doms and priests enjoying political patronage and underworld connections... It is a nightmare for the grieving family,” said Rishi Prasad, a 27-year-old entrepreneur who had come to perform the last rites for his father but managed to avoid the queue by arranging the VIP funeral ceremony.
A couple of years back, the Municpal Corporation had introduced the VIP funeral ceremony since getting bookings had become very difficult. Keoratolla is flooded with calls from VIPs - mostly politicians and bureaucrats - to reserve an electric furnace for the bodies that they recommend. The fee here is higher than the ordinary furnaces. But here too, the doms and petty criminals call the shots and have turned it into a money-making machine.
If the queue at the ordinary chulli gets longer, they spot potential victims and lure them off the VIP chulli by charging no less than Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 just for the cremation. The ashes are held ransom. And only released once they have fleeced the bereaved families. Had the Corporation and the police kept a strong vigil, this racket wouldn't have existed.
According to this Times of India story, a helpline number displayed inside all prime crematoriums in the city, was meant to help people get in touch with civic officials in case of emergency. The article also points out that the civic top brass has decided to deploy additional manpower at the major crematoriums. Yet I did not see a single emergency number nor any civic officers anywhere except for the five doms who refused to let go of my grandmother's ashes unless they were given a handsome amount as "chai, pani."