In a discreet corner of Velankadu, the northwest fringe of Chennai, a cemented pathway leads visitors past overgrown burial yards and abandoned buildings into one of the city’s oldest and busiest cremation grounds. Below the vast cremation chamber lies the small office of the 34-year-old woman who runs this crematorium, Praveena Solomon.
Part of a unique social experiment by Indian Community Welfare Organisation (the NGO that owns the crematorium), Solomon is among the first few women in India to manage a crematorium — spaces from which women have been traditionally excluded while not being expressly banned.
The various explanations given for this exclusion ranges from women being ‘softer’ and easily traumatised by the death rituals to their being more susceptible to possession by the troubled spirits.
Thus, when Solomon (an English literature graduate from Madras University and the married mother of two) took up the job of crematorium manager a little over three years ago, she was greeted by scepticism, discouragement and outright hostility by most people around her. She was even threatened by the crematorium workers who thought they would lose their jobs if she took over.
The hurtful comments and threats were, however, unable to stop the stout-hearted Solomon who had herself volunteered for the job (an NGO wanted to spark social change by having a woman run the operation). Her firmness of purpose and fortitude came from her years of working with ICWO in some of the city’s seediest localities to educate sex workers on HIV/AIDS prevention.
Solomon’s unusual career choice did take her family by surprise but they were supportive and stood by her decision. Recalling the incident to BBC, Solomon said,
“When I told my husband, his first question was, ‘Can you do it?’ He said managing a crematorium was not easy, it’s a male-dominated space. I told him I’ll give it a try, and if I don’t succeed, I’ll look at plan B. He agreed.”
Solomon’s first six months were the particularly difficult, with her having to deal with hostile locals and recalcitrant workers. Neglected by the civic authorities, the cremation ground had become a dumping ground for garbage, and the new manager knew that it would take a lot of work to transform it into the calm and clean place she wanted it to be. However, the toughest part for her was handling the grief of the living, and she would often find herself crying along with the mourners.
Determined to do her best, Solomon put her heart and soul into her work.
Before her arrival, the Vettiyans (funeral organizers) would frequently demand bribes for cremation, a service that was supposed to be free of cost at the crematorium. Solomon first step was to stop this practice – while the Vettiyans would be allowed to charge for organizing funeral rituals (e.g. posing the body in the posture dictated by custom, singing of ancient dirges etc), the cremations would be free of cost and handled by her.
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Other than personally supervising cremations, Solomon also worked hard to ensure cleanliness in the crematorium grounds. Toilets were cleaned, garbage bins were installed, furnace infrastructure was upgraded and night lights were put in place across the grounds. A boundary wall (painted with messages and illustrations on global warming, safe driving, ill-effects of smoking etc.) was built around the 4.5-acre grounds and security cameras were installed, ensuring the place was well lit and secure at night.
Solomon also dotted the campus with potted shrubbery and tiny fish ponds while setting up pretty yellow benches set up along tree-lined walkways. Recently, free Wi-Fi was introduced at the crematorium to live stream last rites for relatives unable to attend the funeral.
In a first of its kind step, the crematorium also began converting left-over flowers and leaves used in last rites (about 200-250 kg every day!) into manure for its own garden and the other trees growing in the area.
Thanks to her tireless efforts and the positive results they led to, Solomon managed to win over hearts and trust of the local people.”Now people say it looks like a park,” she tells Hindustan Times.
Having broken several taboos while successfully breaking into a traditionally male-dominated domain, Solomon’s story is an inspiration for other women who dream of bold career choices. And the impact can already be seen: Solomon’s assistant at the crematorium is a sprightly 28-year-old woman, Divya Raju, who took up the job after being inspired by her gutsy boss.