According to Hindu rites, women are not allowed inside crematoriums. But Shanti Behera, 49, spends most of her time inside the Sambalpur municipality crematorium. And whenever chants of “Ram naam satya hai” draw near, she knows that’s her cue to start preparing yet another funeral pyre.
Shanti goes about her job with a missionary zeal, digging holes, picking up logs and sizing them on the pyres. “I don’t remember how many pyres I have prepared till now,” she says.
Shanti came to Sambalpur as a 15-year-old bride. Her husband, Gopal, worked in the crematorium as a non-muster roll (NMR) employee, preparing funeral pyres. The two lived near the crematorium with their four girls. Gopal’s untimely death in 2003 forced Shanti to take up a job. Two of her daughters were married by then but she still needed to fend for herself and her remaining two children.
"The future looked bleak. I had to feed my girls. The municipality would not give me a job because my husband was an NMR employee for more than a decade. So I had to take a bold decision,” says Shanti.
After her husband’s last rites were over, she went to the crematorium and started doing what Gopal used to do —preparing funeral pyres. She and her daughters survived on whatever the relatives of the deceased gave her.
Initially, seeing a woman doing what has always been considered a man’s job did raise a few eyebrows. But that did not stop Shanti from doing her duty. After some months, the municipality too accepted her as an NMR employee.
"Shanti impressed everybody with her sincerity and dedication,” says Girish Patel, chairman of the Sambalpur Municipality.
In the last four years, Shanti has prepared more than 5,000 funeral pyres. She is available in the crematorium around the clock, seven days a week. Initially, she used to be moved by the plight of the relatives. Now, she goes about her job stoically, accepting it as a fact of life and as God’s wish. “Still at times, I cannot control myself when I have to prepare a pyre for children and young people," she said.