Historically, Hindu ladies don’t go to a crematorium for the ultimate rituals of their family members. However within the southern Indian metropolis of Chennai, a 34-year-old girl has been managing one of many metropolis’s oldest and busiest cremation grounds. Praveena Soloman discusses her uncommon profession selection with the BBC’s Geeta Pandey.
It is mid morning and the Valankadu crematorium within the Anna Nagar district is a hive of exercise. Ms Soloman, the administrator, is an image of effectivity as she checks the preparations one final time earlier than the subsequent physique arrives.
Minutes earlier than midday, a sombre funeral procession reaches the crematorium. A person of 88 from a close-by space has died and his household has introduced his physique to carry out his final rites.
On the gates, the procession is met by N Manikandan who ushers the mourners in, hitting a brass plate with a gong and blowing a conch shell to announce their arrival.
Ms Soloman steps out of her workplace to fulfill them, the procession is led up a flight of steps to a corridor the place the picket pyre is laid on the ground.
As a priest chants mantras, a male family member of the deceased performs the final rites earlier than the physique is taken as much as be burned in a gas-fired furnace.
It is going to take almost two hours for the physique to utterly burn, Ms Soloman tells the household, and goes again to her workplace to finish the paperwork for them.
“Tamil Nadu has a excessive literacy price, 90% ladies listed below are literate, however nonetheless there are many limitations and boundaries on them,” she tells me.
Because the physique is consigned to flames and we sit speaking, Mr Manikandan begins to sing the Shivapuranam, a haunting melody invoking the Hindu god Shiva, “informing him that this mortal shall be arriving at his toes quickly”.
A crematorium will not be actually a contented place and though ladies will not be expressly banned from attending, they’ve all the time been discouraged from being current.
The reason usually has been that it’s for their very own wellbeing – since ladies are “softer and weaker” and could also be traumatised by the demise rituals.
So when Ms Soloman, a mom of two and English literature graduate from Madras College, took up the job two-and-a-half years in the past, it did not go down properly with many.
“Not everybody was okay with a girl working right here. Some teased us, some handed filthy remarks. Some even questioned what kind of a girl would come and work right here. They stated we should be unhealthy individuals and that was very hurtful,” she instructed the BBC.
Then there have been individuals who had been depending on the cremation floor for his or her residing and thought that they might lose their jobs.
“So that they threatened to throw acid on my face,” she says.
The primary three months had been the hardest, when even a tiny sound would make her bounce.
“However slowly they realised that we weren’t there to remove their jobs and issues have modified.”
The chance had come her manner when the Indian Community Welfare Organisation, the NGO she had been working with for 12 years, received the contract to run the 120-year-old Valankadu crematorium.
Lengthy uncared for, the cremation floor had grow to be a dumping floor for garbage – and teams of males assembled there each evening to drink.
“We thought we’d make it a protected place for girls and ladies to return and spend the final moments with their family members. We wished to create a peaceful and therapeutic place,” says ICWO chief AJ Hariharan.
“So we requested all our senior ladies employees who wish to take up the problem. Solely two ladies volunteered and Ms Soloman grew to become the primary to be appointed to run a crematorium in Chennai.”
And he or she hit the bottom working – on her first day at work, she supervised seven cremations.
“It was overwhelming,” she says. “Each time there was a cremation, I’d additionally cry with the mourners. It took me a variety of time to beat that, to not cry after I noticed different individuals crying.”
Since taking on, Ms Soloman has labored exhausting to safe the place – constructing a boundary wall across the four.5-acre grounds and putting in safety cameras, making certain the place is properly lit up at evening. It additionally now has clear bathrooms, garbage bins, and brightly colored benches and dozens of bushes and pot crops have been introduced in to make the realm extra enticing.
“Now individuals say it seems to be like a park,” she says, visibly happy.
Her uncommon profession selection did shock her household however, she says, they had been very supportive.
“Once I instructed my husband, his first query was, ‘Are you able to do it?’ He stated managing a crematorium was not straightforward, it is a male dominated house. I instructed him I will give it a try to if I do not succeed, I will take a look at plan B. He agreed.”
Fortunately the necessity for that didn’t come up.
And for her effort, she has discovered acceptance. Even reward.
Priest Irushankar Narayanan says he’s “very proud” of Ms Soloman. “She is doing a beautiful job. Earlier than she got here, the bathrooms had been filthy. Now they’re so clear you possibly can eat a meal there.”
The guests, too, admire her presence. Janasi Ramachandran Krishnamachari, who’s right here for her father’s cremation, says she wished to accompany him in his final moments and describes Ms Soloman’s presence as “an excellent pattern”.
“And a trend-setter,” says Divya Raju, who adopted in Ms Soloman’s footsteps and has been working on the crematorium for the previous months.
Ms Soloman says her stint on the crematorium has been a steep studying curve and the most important classes had been throughout final November’s Chennai floods.
As giant components of the town went down below flood waters, and most of Chennai’s 140 cremations grounds grew to become inaccessible, she ensured the fires saved burning at Velankadu.
“Usually, we get 5 to seven our bodies day by day. Throughout the floods it was double that. We took up the problem and thought we should assist and assist individuals and do our responsibility. We cremated 246 our bodies in November alone.”
Cremations are free and Ms Soloman’s group receives 750 rupees from the civic authorities for every physique they take care of.
As we’re wrapping up our interview, considered one of her colleagues brings her an urn with the ashes of the deceased.
It is a sombre second as she fingers over the urn to the household.
As we bid farewell, I ask her what she thinks of demise.
“There’s nothing after demise, that is what I perceive,” she says. “So be comfortable, take pleasure in what you are doing and do one thing good when you’re alive.”