It was on an unusually nippy dawn' about eight years ago' that commandos of the National Security Guard pounded their way into a building on the outskirts of Bangalore. Their mission: to arrest Sivarasan' the man who masterminded the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. In 10 minutes' the operation was over: ''one-eyed Jack''and his accomplices had killed themselves to prevent arrest. After the initial brouhaha' the Bangalore police began to fret as they had a problem on hand: the bodies of Sivarasan and four other militants of the ltte. The police didn't want ltte sympathisers to cart away Sivarasan's body and build a monument somewhere. So' after a fortnight's deliberation they turned to an individual' one shrouded in obscurity because of his gloomy vocation that of ensuring a decent last journey for those who die unclaimed.
Mahadeva was only 11 years old when he was handed down this job by Krishna thatha (grandpa). They first met by chance at the morgue in Bangalore's Victoria Hospital. A penniless Mahadeva was wailing over his mother's body. The old man offered to carry the body' then took the boy home. Soon' Mahadeva learnt to ferry unclaimed bodies from the morgue at Victoria Hospital to one of the city's three cemeteries. Sometimes he piled up five or six bodies in a pushcart and hauled them over. And it was one such journey that still gives Mahadeva goose bumps every time he thinks about it. In 1982' he was carting the bodies of 18 victims of the Gangaram Book Bureau crash in Bangalore. As he positioned the pushcart to lower the bodies into a mammoth grave' he slipped in' and was covered by a heap of bodies. It took an enormous effort on his part to draw the attention of the undertaker and be pulled out.
By 1991' when he had to ferry the body of Sivarasan' Mahadeva had managed to acquire a horse-drawn cart. ''The police told me all about the man' but warned that I shouldn't blab to anyone about it. They escorted my cart in two jeeps and his body was cremated at an electric crematorium'''he says. Cut to November 2000. The number of bodies interred by him so far has risen to 42'000' an average of four a day since 1971.Tucked away in two sacks are the death certificates of each individual he has buried so far. Mahadeva has been acclaimed as ''Kaliyug's Trivikrama''for unclaimed bodies—a sign he used to display on his cart. He's also been felicitated a number of times and was conferred a state award by CM S.M. Krishna in November 1999. Though he's sought after by the city police and the railway authorities every time they find an unidentified body on the street or along the railway tracks' Mahadeva's earnings are meagre:
Rs 25 per body' though the police pay him Rs 300 a month. He also has to bribe the staff at the mortuary (Rs 150)' and pay Rs 125 to the undertakers. And he never lowers a body into the grave without offering a garland bought from his paltry wage.
Mahadeva slogs in abject penury and even had to pledge the CM's gold medal for Rs 8'000 to meet the expenses of his wife's caesarian delivery. He also had to sell his horse and cart to raise another Rs 8'000 to pay off debts. ''I respect the dead. I don't regret doing it though sometimes they are soaked in blood and the stench is nauseating'''he says. His 13-year-old son Praveen Kumar' a class eight student' accompanies him on weekends and during vacations. ''I don't know what god has in store for me' though there's nothing wrong in continuing with what my father does'''the boy says.
Mahadeva's desperate pleas for a three-wheeler to carry the bodies to the cemetery have finally elicited a response. The mayor of Bangalore recently gave him a cheque for Rs 25'000' which along with help from social welfare organisations' and some media support' has helped him buy the vehicle. But more help in his lonely task is always welcome. Mahadeva can be contacted at: No. 125' Adigewadayera Halli' Raja Rajeshwari Nagar' Bangalore-39.
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