Shes unique. The wrinkles in time havent left their mark on her 86-year-old stout frame. Nor has she flinched from the sight of death in the past 75 years. For, she earns her living from the dead. Shes Gulab Tiwari, Indias one and only woman cremator.
Popularly known as Maharajin Bua, Gulab has made Rasoolabad ghat on the banks of the Ganges in Allahabad her second home. The astute manager sits there with 12 men at her beck and call. Besides learning the cremation rituals from her, they pick up the basics in fencing, martial arts and wrestling from their maha-malkin (grand-mistress).
A trip down memory lane peels off the tough exterior Gulab has cultivated for herself to survive in the trade. "The choice was between becoming a beggar or a dom (cremator)," recalls Gulab. Her father, Laxmi Narayan Mishra, was one of the most sought-after priests in the ghats of Allahabad for cremation and other rituals. He had a good earning and gave the best to his family. "My father always tried to give us the best," she says with a sense of loss. After his death, it all changed for the family. With no earning member, Gulab, her mother and her siblings were faced with starvation. Cynicism is evident in her narrative as she goes on: "Gareebi ne hame yeh kaam sikhaya (sheer poverty drove me to this)."
It wasnt easy for a 10-year-old girl to perform the last rites. "Yes, I was scared," she admits. She recollects how her little brother would often accompany her and run away at the sight of a corpse, shouting "bhoot, bhoot (ghost)". "But I could ill afford that kind of reaction as I had to feed them all back home," says Gulab. Her mother would often break into tears and plead with her to give up the job. "Their tears and the continuous pestering by my rivals only steeled my resolve," she recollects.
No cremator around her ever gave her professional help. "Boatmen nearby would often shout at me from their boats telling me what to do next, it was all so long ago," she continues with her story. The toughest hurdles were competition and the continuous threats she faced from others in the trade. This prompted her to learn fencing and martial arts and change her diet. She took a kilo of gram and seven-and-a-half litres of milk everyday. "I realised it was important for me to appear strong to ward off miscreants on the ghat. Many would often suggest that I stay at home and they would help my family. But by then I was determined to prove that a woman can survive-and thrive-here."
The same determination still rings in her voice as she gives out orders to her men. She has employed 12 trainees, besides her youngest son who works as her publicity hand. She made Rasoolabad ghat her base 35 years ago. Married to a priest, Shankar Tiwari, in her childhood, Gulab never encountered any objection from her husband: "He performed prayers in the ghat temple while Id be busy in my duty." Back then, she charged Rs 5 per body. "People now give anything between Rs 500 to Rs 1,000," she says.
With her earnings, Gulab has turned a small, abandoned temple into a cosy home. She has given her children the best she could. Locals say one of her sons is a Provincial Civil Services officer in Bangalore. Her second son and his wife are teachers in a school in Banda. She, however, remains tightlipped about their professions. Its her youngest son, Jagadish, who has stayed with her. He now looks after most of her work. "Ill carry on with her work," he says.
Which is a tall order considering her mothers job is less manual labour (true, Gulab has cremated 7 lakh bodies) than spiritual involvement. "The dead need to be handled with utmost care. Tantrik mantras or the ceremonial shlokas should not be misused or meddled with," says Jagadamba, as shes known to her disciples. She proudly recalls how she had taught a few shlokas to Indira Gandhi. "Indira was one of the few great personalities who visited my ghat and praised me for my work," recalls Gulab, brimming with pride. The former prime minister was in the Rasoolabad ghats when her Uncle R.K. Nehru expired. She had paid the lone woman cremator on the ghats Rs 1,500, a princely sum in those days.
The shrill tone of her mobile phone suddenly breaks into the conversation. "Yes Im here, I shall be waiting for you," she tells the caller. Its her first booking for the day, a woman has died. The conversation is over. Gulabs back to business, charting for her client the route to heaven.