GAUHATI, India (AP) – Ramananda Sarkar never wanted to burn a body for a living, but he was deeply in debt and in desperate need of money.
The 43-year-old fled his remote village in northeastern India’s Assam state after failing to repay a loan he took to start selling cane juice to sugar on a wooden cart. But even in the state capital, Sarkar struggled to find enough work.
Then, two years ago, Sarkar walked to a cremation ground in Gauhati and took on the task of lighting the funeral pyres.
While Hindus believe that the rights of cremation are sacred and free the soul of the deceased from the cycle of rebirth, those who actually care for corpses are looked down upon. It’s a stigma that has only been compounded by the coronavirus, which has killed more than 100,000 people in India out of 6.4 million reported infections.
Sarkar believed he had accepted his reputation, finally telling his wife what his job was after keeping it hidden for a while. But in early May, he participated in what he believed to be routine cremation, unaware the woman had died from COVID-19.
When people learned that the woman was a victim of the coronavirus, Sarkar’s acquaintances began to avoid her. The humiliation returned.
State authorities quarantined him for a few days, but let him out because there was no one available to do his job on the cremation grounds.
“I don’t understand why people hate me. Only because I burn the corpses? Sarkar asked. “If I don’t do this, then who will?”
Sarkar volunteered and is now working on a special cremation ground that local authorities have designated only for victims of the pandemic.
With a mask on his face and a prayer on his lips, he cremates bodies brought in by a handful of relatives in protective gear, rushed affairs conducted with minimal rituals as directed by the state government.
The state of Assam has reported more than 181,600 confirmed cases of the virus since the start of the pandemic and 711 deaths. Sarkar said he single-handedly cremated more than 450 COVID-19 victims.
Despite his vital community service, the impact on Sarkar’s own life continues to worsen.
When his owner heard about Sarkar’s job, he told him he should move out. Fortunately, a district official arranged a hotel room for him.
Sarkar was also prevented from returning to his village to visit his family, first by the village chief and then, after the intervention of the local authorities on his behalf, by the villagers themselves.
After a month and a half of not seeing his wife and three sons, Sarkar snuck into his village in the middle of a recent rainy night. 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 creamers like me,” Sarkar said. “I want them to go to school and become good human beings and gain the respect of society, not like me who has to meet my family in the dark. “
On the way back to the city, Sarkar decided to stop at a nearby temple to rest, but temple officials quickly told him to leave.
Sarkar returned to the cremation site and said that despite the personal cost – which includes the risk of infection – he will continue to light the funeral pyres of those who have lost their lives to the virus and he will honor them. as best he can. .
“I can die from COVID-19, but I don’t care,” he says. “I will do my job sincerely until the end.”