KU HATHI, India (AP) – Ramananda Sarkar never wanted to burn bodies for a living, but he was in debt and longed for money.
The 43-year-old fled his remote village in the northeastern Indian state of Assam after failing to repay a loan he started selling cane juice in a wooden cart. But even in the state capital, the government had trouble finding adequate jobs.
Two years ago Sarkar walked into a crematorium in Guwahati and undertook the work of cremating the funeral.
While the belief of Hindus that cremation rights are sacred and frees the soul of the deceased from the cycle of rebirth, those who actually treat corpses are underestimated. It is a stigma exacerbated by the corona virus alone, which has killed more than 100,000 people in India in 6.4 million infections.
Sarkar thought he had come to terms with his reputation and finally told his wife what his job was after hiding for a while. But then in early May, he took part in what he thought was a routine cremation, not knowing that the woman had died due to COVID-19.
When people found out that the woman was infected with the corona virus, Sarkar’s acquaintances began to avoid him. Shame flooded again.
State officials isolated him for a few days, but let him out as no one was available to do his job at the crematorium.
“I don’t understand why people hate me. Only because I burn dead bodies? The government asked. “If I don’t do this, who will?”
Sarkar volunteered and now works at a special crematorium, which was commissioned by local authorities to help those affected by the epidemic.
With a mask on his face and a prayer on his lips, he cremates the bodies brought by a few relatives in security cases, emergency affairs conducted with minimal rites under the guidance of the state government.
More than 181,600 viruses have been reported in Assam since the outbreak killed 711 people. Sarkar said more than 450 COVID-19 victims were cremated alone.
Despite his vital social service, the impact on Sarkar’s own life continues to worsen.
When his landlord heard about Sarkar’s work, he said he had to leave. Luckily a district officer arranged a hotel room for him.
Sarkar was also prevented from returning to his village to visit his family, first by the village headman and then by the villagers after local authorities intervened on his behalf.
After a month and a half of not seeing his wife and three sons, Sarkar entered his village in the middle of a recent downpour. He called his family from the road outside his house and was able to spend 15 minutes with them and leave them some money.
“I don’t want my sons to become incinerators like me,” Sarkar said. “I want them to go to school and become good people and earn respect from the community, not like me who has to meet his family in the dark.”
On the way back to the city, Sarkar decided to stop at a nearby temple to rest, but was soon told to leave by the temple authorities.
Sarkar brought it back to the crematorium, and despite the personal expense – including the risk of infection – he would continue to shed light on the funeral rites of those who lost their lives to the virus, and he would honor them as best he could.
“I could have died because of COVID-19, but I didn’t care,” he said. “I will do my job honestly until the end.”