In Kerala, Muslim woman performs last rites at crematorium | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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In Kerala, Muslim woman performs last rites at crematorium

Sep 28, 2021 01:11 AM IST

An undergraduate (she is yet to complete her B Com), Subeena Rahman was initially recruited as a clerk at SNBS Samajam crematorium. Later she took up all jobs like her two assistants

At the break of dawn, 29-year-old Subeena Rahman, a Muslim woman, is busy cremating a body in Kerala’s Thrissur district.

A 29-year-old Muslim woman, Subeena Rahman, has been working as a cremator for the past three years in a Hindu crematorium ground in Kerala’s Thrissur district. (HT Photo)
A 29-year-old Muslim woman, Subeena Rahman, has been working as a cremator for the past three years in a Hindu crematorium ground in Kerala’s Thrissur district. (HT Photo)

While there are no relatives around because the middle-aged man died of Covid-19, Rahman, clad in protective gear, lights a lamp and performs basic rituals she learned from Hindu friends in order to give the departed a decent final journey.

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Rahman has been working as a cremator for the past three years in a Hindu cremation ground at Irinjalakuda in Thrissur. Initially, there were loud protests from her community as well as from Hindus, but all came around after noticing her commitment towards her work.

According to the Hindu tradition in many parts of the country, women usually don’t accompany the deceased to cremation grounds. An undergraduate (she is yet to complete her B Com), Rahman was initially recruited as a clerk at SNBS Samajam crematorium. Later she took up all jobs like her two assistants.

Now, the three employees share their work and each body fetches them 500 in fees, which they divide among themselves. Earlier, three to five bodies were cremated every day at the gas-based crematorium, but the number has increased to 10 to 12 due to Covid-19.

“After every cremation, I pray no more bodies, but I need money also. It is a big conflict between my need and emotions. A number of times I cried in my PPE (personal protective equipment) kits. But as an employee, we are not supposed to show our emotions in public,” Rahman said.

She candidly admitted her work was not part of women’s lib or breaking of another glass ceiling. She said she knocked at many doors as the situation in her home deteriorated, and when the offer came to be a crematorium clerk, she grabbed the opportunity.

“Initially, some of them took a dig calling me a tandoor maker. When they criticise, I do ask them to give me a proper job. But they have no answer to offer. I have to keep my hearth burning,” she said, adding her husband KV Rahman fully supports her. They have an eight-year-old son.

“I know this is a job any woman would hate to take up, but situation at home was really compelling,” she said, recalling how her husband was without work for many months after the outbreak of Covid-19. Her father, who worked as a woodcutter, is bedridden after a near-fatal fall. Her mother is also down with lifestyle ailments. The family’s economic condition broke down after her sister was married off, Rahman said.

“We are staying on rent. I have to meet my son’s school fees also. Thanks to this job we manage it somehow,” she said, while acknowledging that people who looked down upon her have started recognising her work. “It is a profession for me. If people feel it’s a taboo, let them. I am least bothered,” she said.

SNBS Samajam president MK Viswambharan recalled how initially he was reluctant to hire a woman for cremation work. “When she came to us three years ago, we initially discouraged her, saying a woman that too from a different community will pose problems. But she was persistent and told us she viewed it as a vocation. A hardworking woman, she is fully committed to her job and we never had any problems with her,” said Viswambharan.

SNBS Samajam is a social organisation working for the uplift of Ezhavas, the largest Hindu community in Kerala, comprising roughly 23% of the state’s population. Viswambharan said besides Hindus, members of the Christian community also use the SNBS crematorium.

Rahman recalled an unusual experience when a cremation was booked for 2.30 pm, but the body did not arrive until 3 pm. When she enquired, she was told “the old man was yet to die.”

She said it takes at least two hours to get the ashes after cremation, and on some days, she has to work for almost 14 hours.

Talking about her job, she said cremating young accident victims (mainly two-wheeler drivers) and children really moves her, but she has least regard for those who die by suicide.

Rahman wants to become a police officer and has started preparing to complete her graduation. Despite her long duty hours and domestic chores, she keeps abreast of the world around her. She won 1.50 lakh in a TV reality show (Flowers Channel) on Sunday. “I dream of a world where there is no hate or mad race. All religions exhort us to love each other,” she said.

“Subeena is very particular about the customs of different communities. When my mother died of Covid-19 last year, she arranged a priest in a PPE kit to do her last rites. She is a symbol of brotherhood,” said PK Dayanandan, a schoolteacher.

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