Delhi: Subina Rahman spent Eid overseeing funeral rites at a crematorium in the Irinjalakuda town of Kerala. As the Covid-dead piled up at the crematorium, she gently loaded them onto carts before rolling the bodies into two electric furnaces. When the fires crackled, she prayed for the deceased.
“I have been overseeing this crematorium over the last two years,” says the 29-year-old manager. “Since the outbreak of Covid, my work has shifted almost entirely to cremating the dead.”
Since the second coronavirus wave hit Kerala, Rahman has set aside all her commitments to give the deceased a decent send-off. When families and priests have turned away, Rahman has not only lit the funeral pyres, but also consoled the bereaved and recited a prayer or two for them.
“For ages, women have been kept away from ministering to the deceased,” she says. “My job is allowing me to serve Hindu and Christian families.”
Among handful women in a male-dominated bastion, Rahman takes pride in her work. It has not only allowed her to understand other communities better but has also brought her closer to them.
“The pyre does not discriminate on the basis of religion,” she says. “If anything, it has made me realise why more women must be involved in after-death rituals.”
Rahman, who grew up in a poor Muslim family, joined the crematorium as an office clerk two years ago. When the cremator’s position fell vacant after a few months, she took up the job with some reluctance. Her family wasn’t supportive at first nor was she sure she would be accepted by Hindus in a sacred space, leave alone shepherd their rituals.
“It’s amazing to see a woman show such courage amid a raging pandemic,” says K.R. Vijaya, an advocate in Irinjalakuda who has been campaigning for women’s rights. “In death, the grieving need empathy more than a robotic dispensing of duties, and women are better suited for that.”
Vijaya says Rahman’s work is not only critical amid the Coronavirus outbreak in Kerala but also speaks to the larger question of interfaith work and solidarity to build community ties.
Rahman’s coworker Sunil, a low-caste Hindu from Kerala’s Ezhava community, has been by her side from the beginning. He believes, “It is important to break stereotypes around religion and caste.”
“These rituals have been dominated by high-caste priests for centuries,” he says. “The pandemic has shown that social hierarchies break down during catastrophes of this scale and intensity.”
Over the last month, the cremators have seen death visit their crematorium day and night.
“We have been seeing about eight Covid bodies a day, sometimes more,” says Sunil. “People didn’t even know about our little crematorium until now, so we are working overtime.”
The cremators arrive early to hand over the remains of the previous day to the waiting families. Subina then goes home to finish her household chores before returning in the afternoon.
Even though her work is exhausting both physically and emotionally, she believes it’s her “calling.”
“There should be dignity in death,” she says. “We hear crematoriums and burials grounds are running out of space, so we want to help as many people as possible.”
The clamour for space since the second surge has not only brought smaller crematoriums and burial grounds into focus but has also highlighted the role of low-castes, civil society actors, community leaders and women in holding it all together for the grieving families.
Rahman says though she has never supervised death rituals in her own community, her proximity to Christian and Hindu rituals have given her access to “deeper philosophical questions”.
“Why have social reformers worked tirelessly for the empowerment of women and the dissolution of caste and religious barriers?” she asks. “If we don’t rise up to challenges like these, I would say we have failed as a society.”
Her assistant says when they disembark the bodies from the ambulances in their protective gears, no one cares if Subina is Muslim or Hindu, or that it’s a woman who’s overseeing the funeral rites.
Even as death remains so close, the fear of death does not haunt Subina.
Though some of her neighbours have contracted the infection and she remains perpetually exposed, her focus is on human suffering and helping build religious tolerance in her town.
“I could not even maintain all my Roza rituals this year,” says Rahman. “For me, my work is worship, and far more important than religious ceremonies.”
Even before this surge, Rahman was visiting temples and churches; working with religious leaders to sensitise the public about pandemic protocols, and attending solidarity-building events.
Sonia Giri, the chairperson of Irinjalakuda municipality, says “Subina’s consciousness” sets her apart.
“We have had a history of communal peace in our region,” says Giri. “But what Subina has shown is that in a polarised world it is important to keep working on it.”
When male priests bolted their doors in April, Giri recalls how Rahman came forward despite financial hardships, a family to care for unaided, as well as social pressures.
Sunil remembers how during the last catastrophic event – the Babri Masjid demolition – the social fabric was blown to pieces due to communal riots and “manipulation of ordinary people”.
“In Kerala, we will never let that happen,” he says. “Subina believes the pandemic is testing our limits as an inclusive society, and we will work towards holding our threads together.”
Rahman draws inspiration from the 19th century philosopher and spiritual leader Narayan Guru who campaigned against social injustices for a more tolerant and compassionate society.
“On the pyre, the deceased hold no judgements,” she says. “I have learnt more from them than the living who are always bickering over gods, religion and caste, none of which matter.”
Priyadarshini Sen is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes for India and US-based media.