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A child that became a public undertaker.

Mahadeva could've ended in bitterness and crime; but he walked into Bangalore's soul. 

People with great love for India often sigh with exasperation: Is it ever going to be possible to bring basic humanising comforts to this vast land soaked in poverty, chaos and callousness? They sigh because they ignore the way of lives in India: Indians are industrious in carving a place for themselves and they are content and grateful soon as some minimal societal space is allowed to them. Within it, they raise families and point their children in a direction of promise. In other words Indians, despite all adversity that they face, are hopeful beings without too much cynicism, bitterness or violence. They have faith that things will work out if they peg away. Long before the state may deliver the basics to all, Indians will have done so by themselves.

The story that follows is an example of this phenomenon. It has its own specific details, but in the broad sense it is a story -- with recurring emphasis on perseverance, hope and gratefulness -- repeatedly being played out everywhere in India. It is best narrated in the words of its hero, Mahadeva:

A proud woman:

"Sir, I was born in a village near Nanjangud in Mysore district. I remember little of that village. My mother seldom talked about it. When I was about 3 or 4 she left the village in a pique vowing never to return. She took me away with her leaving behind her husband -- my father, a modestly well to do farmer -- and her other children. "They insulted me," was all she would say. "and I was not going to take that."

"Yes Sir, she was strong willed. Not your typical docile village wife. I tagged along for I had little option. I remember constantly moving without settling down. She may have been an adventuress but I suspect, she was mostly a victim of deceits and traps that society arranges for a single woman who is adrift. In about 3 years she was seriously ill. I remember we were in Chamrajnagar. I was about seven I think. Her body began to bloat and soon she could scarcely walk. I scrounged around for food and gave her something to eat from time to time. Then with some strangers' help I took her to a hospital in Mysore. After a few weeks, the doctors there advised that she was quite seriously unwell and that I should take her to Bangalore.

"She walked holding on to me. I asked and found my way around. We kept selling bits of what remained of her jewellery to pay our way. In 1970, about 4 years after we had left home we were at the gates of Victoria Hospital. I was eight.

"We stagnated for some days outside the hospital, not knowing how to cope with the rigours of getting my mother admitted. Then we found a ward orderly. My mother gave him all that was left of her jewellery and begged him to have her taken in. He came back the next and took her; but he left me behind on the pavement.

"Sir, I'll be honest: days passed and I did not miss my mother. I made friends with the children in the little bazaar at the hospital gates. We played the whole day and I got enough to eat from the vendors selling coconuts, bananas and peanuts.

An undertaker is born:

"After about 2 weeks, the orderly who had taken my mother into the hospital stopped me. "Hey kid, where have you been? Don't you know you mother is dead?" he asked. He took me to what had been her ward and slowly the enormity of the circumstance dawned on me. I began to cry in confusion.

"Krishnappa had buried her after the hospital had waited the statutory 3 days for someone to claim her body. He was a gentle 80 year old man who had lived in the hospital's verandahs for as long as he could remember, running errands for patients and cleaning the area for odd eats and occasional tips. Soon the ward subscribed and raised about Rs.12 to send me to my village. I said no, I didn't want to go there. In fact I didn't know what I wanted. I just sobbed.

"Krishnappa led me away. He said softly to me: "Mahadeva, why don't you stay with me here. We will live in this hospital. I have no family, no children. I'll look after you and you can look after me. I think we will do well. What do you say?"

"So, I stayed. I ran errands, got used to the life in the hospital and grew very close to Krishnappa. We lived on the campus and were very happy. I called him Thatha, or grand pa. Then one day, the hospital morgue gave him a body to bury. It was a destitute corpse that the police had found. I went along. We were paid Rs.3 for the job. That was my debut.

"By the time I was 12 I was an adept courier of unclaimed bodies that the hospital morgue would assign to us. Some days I'd push a pile of 3 or 4 bodies on a cart down to the Mysore Road burial ground. I was quite mindless and matter of fact about it all. It was a job and I had grown into a life where there was no room for reflection and emotion.

Love among corpses:

"When I was 20, Thatha was way into his 90s. I was now the bread-winner. We still lived in a corner of the hospital. But my manhood had begun to stir. I asked Thatha if I should marry. "Forget it," he said. "Who would give a bride to a polluted fellow like you? No one ever even looked at me as a groom."

"And yet, soon I saw a glimmer of hope. On the road to the burial grounds lived a large family, in which I observed several girls. One of them was untidy, snot nosed and about 17 years old. It occurred to me that this girl might be a problem for her father to dispose off in marriage. I took to waving in the direction of the household.

"When eventually I made bold and approached her father, he perked up and demanded Rs.2000 as bride money, quite certain I'd be unable to raise it. That was indeed a large sum. I shared the proposal with Thatha. First he was incredulous. Then he quickened and warmed to the deal. We began to save furiously and the rest we raised from cheering well wishers. Sir, that was how I won the hand of Pushpalatha. For Thatha the novelty of being related and respected was happiness he could scarcely bear! He jumped at the idea of moving into a home of our own. I had rented a one room hovel. It was the first ever home for both of us. They say plants seek the traces of moisture even in hot rocks  to survive and grow - I suppose humans do something similar. My son Praveen arrived soon. And after him, Sonia the girl. By then I was a professional disposer of unloved bodies.

"When Thatha died in my arms, I suddenly realised what death of an intimate one can be. I had by then buried a few thousands as a 'professional' but now faced personal loss. Thatha was not a destitute. He had a family that mourned him. Since that day, I began to garland each body that I buried and accorded it whatever respect I could muster in this frenzied city.

"Life went on. My score ran into their several thousands. I made a net of about Rs.25 per burial out of the Rs.200 that the police gave me for expenses. Each body had to be autopsied, certified and properly accounted for. It was an accountable job! I had a career.

A society man:

"Then one day the local magazine "Sudha" discovered me and ran a feature. That appears to have woken up Bangalore. "Are there so many dying unclaimed and being buried by this Mahadeva?," they seemed to ask. Balakrishna Tabarkar did a documentary on me for the Cauvery TV channel.

"There was an avalanche thereafter. I was honoured in a public function and crowned "Kaliyuga Trivikrama". The Chief Minister of Karnataka, Mr.S.M.Krishna gave me a State Award. Neighbours who had just about suffered me and my family began to hail me and boasted of me. I was a celebrity.

"I had in the meantime graduated from a push cart to a horse cart. My horse was my loyal friend in the years of obscurity. I loved him dearly. But he was dying after about 25000 burials. Public enthusiasm resulted in my getting an auto-rickshaw for my work. But I have not forgotten my dear horse: he lives on in my calling card. The railways have given me a cell phone. A petrol station offers me free fills. My children -- I have three and the fourth is on its way -- go to school. My wife has smartened up.

"I want my son to go on with his education, but I see no reason why he should not carry on this much needed service. Cities are heartless - we have so many getting killed under trains, in the traffic or just dying on the pavements. I am quite amazed at the number myself: I have so far buried 42880 humans. Why shouldn't my educated son carry on the work? India needs the work and will recognise him as it has done me.

"You have come from Chennai to interview me in this graveyard. What greater proof does Praveen need that it is an honourable vocation. Sir, I am astonished at my own life. I feel I so totally belong here. I may be ignorant about the world but when you write the story do mention that I think that India respects sincere workers. And say that I am proud to be an Indian."


125 Adigewadayara Halli

Raja Rajeshwari Nagar [off Mysore Road]

Bangalore 560 039