An Old Keeper’s tale on a February Dusk
He placed the unflattering ‘silver’ platter of insistent tea and the unmistakable leri biscoot atop the moth-eaten table. Beside me, my brother looked uneasily at the lime painted walls of the concrete shack; no doubt, his mind enthusiastically wandering to the Gangajaal waiting impatiently to cleanse us a few blocks down the road. The room had meager furnishing, with some clothes hanging off a possibly rickety aalna, a shabby clock on the wall above the fireplace, some plastic stools, and a shelf atop which sat a vernacular Bible. Our host doesn’t know the protocol to treat people like us – literally intruders, yet grudgingly welcomed visitors who wanted to know about his life. As he went to sit across us, I caught a glimpse of the cemetery through the small window behind him. ‘Miles’ of sarcophagi stood elegant in the dying light; an angel peeking from a bush; a crucifix glancing around, faceless; a cherub forever frozen in his stone sport. The man in front of us sat like a spokesperson of these personalities too ‘elevated’ to reach. He fit at ease with them, and steeled himself to tell some interesting tales. His. Theirs’.
So you have been working here for 14 years. That’s a really long time.
Yes. I started working here in 2003. I was actually transferred here from an army cemetery in Darjeeling.
“Keeping the Dead” sounds like any other job! Is it?
Actually it is. When a new cemetery caretaker takes up his job, he is usually briefed about the local burial procedure (especially if the cemetery concerned is a running cemetery as this one), the customs and traditions of the place concerned, and the stories that have developed around the burial ground. Cemeteries are where the stories live, especially those associated with the British, and the Anglo-Indians who lived in the years before Independence. Every day, when I walk past the tombstones, I feel the stories in my ears. And yes, they ask for a minimal school graduation for any candidate, so I think it’s just like any other job. [Laughs]
So please tell me about this cemetery …
The Sacred Heart Cemetery is a Catholic cemetery, opened in 1834 and still running its course. This used to be in the outskirts of the White settlement at Parkstreet, and usually the area was a ‘commercial’ one. You can still see the Judge’s House, and the ruins of the 1854 British Electric Manufacturing Co., and the White brothel. The building of the police station used to be a warehouse of Chinese goods. The road connecting these spots is this [points at the road on which the cemetery is standing] and it led to a Catholic convent; hence the name Convent Road. Locales say that the road was built in a way, so as to position the Whorehouse at one end, and the Convent on the other – possibly, a reminiscent of the ladder of feminine morality. And in a way, the cemetery lies at the center [laughs, and shakes his head] for it houses the early 19th century graves of the infamous vaishya (courtesan) [he uses the term!] Mary Archibald, and a certain French nun, Sister Pauline. It was built as an extension to the Parkstreet Cemetery.
You said the cemetery is still functioning …
Yes, it is. Usually civilian sightseeing is restricted because of the antiquity of the graves, and because the Government rarely glances this way, as it does with the two Parkstreet cemeteries. But we do open the gates on days like Good Friday, All Souls’ Day, Michaelmas, and other such Catholic festive days. We still maintain a Visitors’ Logbook, and the current one is running from the 2000s. We don’t get many visitors around here, except for local boys prowling around with cigarettes; and whatever youngsters do these days. That’s when my job really gets started …
But isn’t the graveyard a scary place to ‘socialize’? [I point to the dark graves behind the outgrowth. It is almost dusk.]
Well, when I came here – I heard that in the 1970s, the Naxalite boys used to come here to hide as the Cemetery is very near to College Street, and the Calcutta University. Tales went around that they were murdered on encounter, and their bodies were buried here to do away with evidence. Till today, during the ‘clearing season’, bones and cloth surface from random places, and by cloth I mean very Bengali kaporh (cloth). I see lights at twelve at night, and me and the sweeper, Rola have to go chasing the intruders. The cemetery is not safe at night; there are dangerous pits, snakes, and bushes. But that’s not the point. It’s sacred ground. It’s a resting place for the dead. And I think people should respect the sanctity associated.
Do you think the local people are ‘disrespectful’ of the cemetery, considering that this is a cemetery of a minor denomination? The people here are either Anglican, or they are Muslims, Jewish or Hindu so to speak …
Not at all. I am a Protestant Christian, but still am assigned a Catholic cemetery. And I don’t regret my job. Of course, there isn’t much to choose from but that’s a wrong conception that non-Christians have of us – the view that all the Christian ‘groups’ are hostile to each other; and to other religions as well. We believe the Dead is dead; you can’t put a label on them. Anyone willing to share in the peace of the resting ground is welcome here. If you see the Visitors’ Book, you will see the religious variety of people who come to visit. The other day, I saw this Muslim lady praying by this patch which has a reputation for ‘blessing the Infertile’. Then there is this Sikh man who comes once a month to put flowers on the grave of a lady who was related to his father. I won’t say the locales are disrespectful of the cemetery. The parar chele chokrara (neighborhood urchins) are generally disrespectful of everything. They see in movies that smoking and drinking in a picturesque graveyard is fashion, and they replicate it. It’s that simple.
You just mentioned that there is this almost pilgrim like patch to bless fertility. Can you please elaborate on that?
There is this patch in the western end of the cemetery, where people come seeking blessings for bearing children. The patch is where the erstwhile grave of a disgraced nun stood. The story goes that she became scandalously pregnant by a young British officer, and died in childbirth. The west end is where they buried criminals, and the social outcasts; and so she was buried there. One day, a couple came to bury their dead baby, and the grieving mother reportedly sat on the grave of the nun and uttered her wish for another child. Her wish materialized, and the grave became a local shrine of some sort. The nun’s was one of the first burials in the cemetery. But her grave has disappeared and the story just lives on.
So was this meant to be a cemetery of the ‘social outcasts’ so to speak?
I think the respectful civilians of Calcutta in the 19th century already had the Parkstreet or the Northern cemeteries to bury the dead. Considering this area was basically a non – residential outskirt, it is possible that it was meant to bury the less desirable elements of the society. The western end is basically a vegetation patch now, and burials are not permitted there – because either the ground is ‘congested’ or too ‘cursed’. I never saw a proper sarcophagus there. Maybe it’s because it contained the earliest of the graves of criminals, who were just ‘dumped’ in coffins, and you know, buried beneath mounds of soil. The graves have long disappeared, and the cemetery was thrown open to civilian burial as well. I suppose crime and scandal became less fashionable! [Chuckles] But like the story I mentioned before – the superstitions live on. Even today a padre comes, once a year, from the Nebutollar jodra girja (the St. James’ Cathedral at Kolkata) to bless the western ground. I know he is Anglican [adding after reading a specific expression on my brother’s face], but he is affordable too. We just don’t want trouble in this graveyard. [Laughs]
The name of the cemetery appears so paradoxical, considering its awkward origins. But you just shared some fascinating history about this place. Are there more such stories?
There are. In fact, this cemetery has its own ghost story too. [Laughs] I was personally warned when I came here. Every full moon night, this lady in grey supposedly walks the cemetery searching, it is said, for a lost necklace that her father/fiance gave her before he went to war. How the necklace was lost is unknown, but it had been precious somehow, and she searches for it from beyond the grave. I have never seen her. [Adding pointedly]
You just shared an entertaining story there. But when I mean stories, I mean the ones with more factual roots, based on real people buried here …
You mean ashol golpo (real stories) itihash theke (from history)? There is … let me show you.
We took a tour of the well manned section of the cemetery. We passed some elaborate tombstones, and he seemed to know the stories of one and all. The fascinating ones included:
- A well-known Irish Colonel who was buried with his favourite pocket watch, and supposedly provided the inspiration for Satyajit Ray’s Gorosthane Sabdhan.
- A certain Mrs. Elizabeth Codding’s tomb had for a sarcophagus, a defaced angel; because she was of a questionable character.
- A young cabaret dancer who lived in Amherst Street in the 1900s is buried here. Notwithstanding her indecent profession, her grave is surprisingly elaborate with a kind epitaph – “For travel you did from heart to heart/ And now from earthly turmoil to eternal peace”.
- The family vault of the Evangreens is the only vault in the graveyard. It features a gothic obelisk, and has the family crest beautifully engraved over the entrance. The motto is inscribed in Latin: Magna pars hominum est qui transeat mare (“Great is he who travels the sea of mankind”). The Family has supposedly died out but local stories claim that the vault contains the grave of an Evangreen daughter who fell in love with an Indian sepoy during the 1857 Mutiny. The Evangreens were an affluent lot of moneylenders; and she betrayed her family to support her lover. When the mutiny was crushed, the sepoy returned home to discover his mother killed in the political friction, and in a rage, he strangled his beloved in her own house, during a secret nocturnal visit.
Thank you so much for the tour. The stories are so interesting. To be very honest, I envy that you live in such a fascinating place.
[Laughs] Frankly I make do with what I get. It isn’t much, but I am happy with my life here. I sometimes go out for a walk at night, and I don’t feel afraid. I and Rola are used to this life now. It’s peaceful, and undemanding. I fancy myself that we are one big happy family. A cemetery should not be a place of fear. Obviously books have taken care of the image of contradiction, but I believe this place is God’s place, and it is his wish to see his children rest peacefully. I am happy to be a part of this world, and I hope I live up to the expectations of my job. I serve everyone associated with this place, living and dead; and I hope I am doing well.
He closed the gates behind us as we left. It was past 6:30, and it was cold and dark. He switched on the light by the gate, stood watching us behind the bars, and gave a casual farewell bid. His silent, jolly silhouette faded in the dark; and dramatically, it suddenly reminded me of an improvised dialogue from Kapoor & Sons – “Aakhri baar likh raha hoon. Ho sake to kahaani yaad rakhna.”
The interviewed caretaker, Mr. Robin Baptist (name changed) lives at the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Kolkata with the cemetery sweeper Rola Ashikul, and his cats, Ikir and Mikir. He enjoys a good bhanr (tumbler) of chai, entertaining conversations, shooing away adventurous grave-diggers, roasted chicken, and the Christmas Carol Joy to the World.