T Shakuntala has no recollection of the number of bodies buried in her backyard. Living in a corner of the 25-acre Hindu Burial Ground in Shantinagar, she does not associate any element of fear with her surroundings. It might seem like a morbid enclosure to outsiders, but it will always be home to the old grave digger, who has been living here for the last 57 odd years.
“It doesn’t bother me, I’ve always lived here. Visitors hurry out by 6 pm, they are terrified of the place when it starts to get dark,” she jokes, adding that the supernatural elements people associate with a burial ground are because of movies that build it for them.
She points with her cane to the numerous pet dogs that flank her and says, “Anyway, these are my guards, they’re all the protection I need.”
Shakuntala’s family has been in the business for a long time. Her grandfather was a grave digger at the same ground, followed by her father, her brother, and now her husband. Her admiration for her brother who raised her is evident. “My father died when I was one. My brother took over from him. He got me married, looked after my mother, he was like a father to me.” Though she learnt to enjoy her work, Shakuntala had other dreams about her working life when she was younger. “I trained to be a policewoman, I’d even got my employment card but my brother suddenly fell sick. There was nobody with my brother but me, so I gave that up and started digging graves with him. I was 19.” After giving birth to four sons, grave digging
took a backseat for her. She sent them to school and now, her two older sons work elsewhere. The younger two named Rajkumar and Puneeth Rajkumar after her favourite actor and his son, help her husband with grave digging. The family is never treated differently for dealing with death on a daily basis. “They respect what I do,” said Shakuntala of her neighbours.
Speaking of neighbours, she refers to usual hassles they face as grave diggers. She said, “Families are quiet around the body. It’s the neighbours or distant relatives who sometimes get drunk and fight among themselves, complain that we’re not putting the mud right, or whatever comes to their mind. It is a very minor thing, no trouble.”
Though she has never been terrified of her job, the grief associated with death is one element that she finds hard to get over. “I try to distance myself and stand far away from them over there,” she said while gesturing to a wall close to the idol of Goddess Kali. She continued, “But I can still hear them when they come in. Especially those burying their parents, they cry, ‘she fed us, educated us, what will I do now’. It gets to you, their grief, no matter how far you stand.”
As the year 2013 is
all set to end, City Express moves away from the usual year-ender profiles. Instead, we present some unseen faces, who have been excelling in their respective fields or living a life that not many would imagine. In the next one month, we will bring stories of lesser-known people through our series 'Unseen Faces - 2013'.