When Praveena Solomon decided to run the Velankadu crematorium in Chennai two years ago, the public response was less than favourable, to say the least.
“The locals were hostile towards the idea of a woman being in charge a burial ground,” recalls the community worker. “This, when the place itself looked like a garbage dump. The stench of urine around the entrance was unbearable.”
“Particularly difficult” were the first six months. “I constantly thought to myself that I should run back home,” she adds.
An English graduate from the University of Madras, Solomon has been attached to an NGO--for more than 15 years. Of late, the voluntary organisation, Indian Community Welfare Organisation (ICWO), owns the crematorium, but Solomon’s initial projects were educating underprivileged children and, later, sex workers.
“I decided to work with this NGO because I saw an article about their work. I wanted to help,” the married woman says. “I’ve experienced a lot of new things, thanks to that stint.”
Then, in March 2014, Solomon’s profile changed. That was because the 1994-registered ICWO got nominated to run one of Chennai Corporation’s 38 burial grounds in the metropolis. That change in management, though, left a burning resentment on the part of the corporation workers.
“Some of them even threatened to throw acid in my face,” the mother of two reveals. “We did not have the support of the local people. They were also perturbed to see a woman handled the affairs of the dead.”
Thus, the challenge of running the 4.5-acre crematorium in bustling Anna Nagar seemed all the more overwhelming.
Eventually, she managed to win over the people’s hearts, courtesy a combination of support from the police and her own hard efforts. Solomon worked untiringly to change the looks of crematorium that looked ugly when she took over its affairs more than two years ago. “Now people say it looks like a park,” she says, gesturing at the colourful walls and potted shrubbery.
Today, the Velankadu crematorium has new infrastructure, including an elevated furnace and toilet facilities. The burial ceremonies are done free of cost, with Solomon’s team receiving Rs 750 from the corporation for each body they process, as well as donations from the local residents.
The Chennai floods in November-December last year made the burial ground a busy place for a while. “A lot of bodies began getting diverted to Velankadu because we had one of the few furnaces that could actually work,” she notes. “We would get an average of 5-7 corpses per day, and we cremated 246 in total during last November.”
Solomon’s current avatar is unique as it marks the first time a woman is running a burial ground in Tamil Nadu, where--like in most parts of the country--upkeep of crematorium is a male domain traditionally.
Her bold career choice appears to have also inspired other women to join in: Solomon is assisted in her work by a sprightly young woman: Divya R. “I joined the crematorium 6 months ago out of sheer interest,” she says.
Solomon notes none knows the time of arrival of death. “I consider it my duty to help the bereaved through the sudden shock,” she adds.