In Hakimuddin’s life, death comes every day, once, twice, even thrice. His grimy grey locks weed out of a crocheted skullcap and his baggy kurta is blemished with mud. Time and fate ganged up and angrily slash his legs with wounds of spades and stones. Hakimuddin is a grave digger at the Delhi Gate Cemetery on Bahadur Shah Zafar road. He earns Rs 3,000 a month and along with Azhar and Kamruddin, he buries the good and evil alike. Their families back in villages in Uttar Pradesh are oblivious about their trade, because it might hinder the wedding prospects of their children.
The three live inside the 65-acre premises and sleep in an open verandah along with two gardeners and two guards. They are surrounded by epitaphs that rise centimetres into the sky and are pulled back in. Around these, mongoose and snakes play chase. This is the biggest graveyard in Delhi and it runs on a no-profit no-loss basis. Home to the graves of Shah Rukh Khan’s parents, a burial here costs a minimum of Rs 1,500. Along with the other 487 Muslim graveyards in the capital, this one too is registered with the WAQF board, but is run by an independent committee on a monthly budget of Rs 75,000. “Recently, the wall the graveyard shares with the School of Planning and Architecture fell. We don’t have money to fix the wear and tear of this scale, which might run into several lakhs,” says Haji Miyan, secretary. The board’s contribution is limited to Rs 200 for an unclaimed body. The diggers demand police security because people come at odd hours and claim a certain grave is their family’s. Often times, diggers wrongly dig open a grave and are then threatened by both parties. The local police, they say, refuses to ‘interfere in religious disputes’.
One sharp turn into a forest adjacent to Lodhi Road is the Panch Peeran graveyard. Deep within is a tin-roofed shack that is home to grave digger Ghulam Mohammed’s family since British era. But in 2007, the WAQF board declared it an encroachment. “Where were they all these years,” he asks. The Mumtazima Committee runs this graveyard on paper. But, as Mohammed reveals, it doesn’t pay a penny towards burials. “We filed a case against the WAQF board in 2007 when they encroached 25-feet inwards with shops,” says Mohammad, who performs burials with his two sons and three others. This is the resting place of Yamin Hazarika, the first female DCP of the Delhi Police and Kargil hero Capt. Haneef Uddin. Here, the police bring in bodies poisoned with chemicals directly from mortuaries. The Sharia prescribes that each body be given a bath, but as Mohammad informs, the key to the bathroom is in the custody of committee members who might or might not share it with the diggers.
The other minority community that sends the departed six-feet under has its own woes. Father Januario Rebello is the chairman of the Delhi Christian Cemetary Association, a body that runs four main establishments. He says none have space for fresh burials. In North Delhi’s Nicholson Cemetery, the two resident diggers have to cross in the dark the many cists and shafts spread over seven acres, to fetch bathing water. There’s no power supply for a single street lamp. The one at Rajpura has come down from six to four acres because 200 families have occupied its surroundings. The association charges Rs 16 a month for maintenance from families of the deceased. “The lack of space can be tackled with new methods like kaccha graves, second burials and even cremains placed in urns and buried in a 1.5 x 1.5 feet space. We need municipal attention on issues like the release of fatal gas from embalmed bodies that are opened up during these second burials,” he says.
All that’s haunted in a graveyard is poverty, which is helpless, fearless and pointlessly alive.