A day in the life of Esther Shanthi, manager at the Otteri cremation ground in Chennai. She narrates how she put in almost a decade to transform this place, despite the threat to her life.
Crematoriums and burial grounds see an honest outpouring of emotions, and their walls have several stories to share. Working in such a place where emotions run through the roof is arguably not a cakewalk. For a woman to do so becomes that much harder, considering that there was a time when they were not even allowed to step inside a crematorium to honour the dead.
But facing every challenge with aplomb and managing one of Chennai’s largest crematoriums in a notorious area is Esther Shanthi. The 44-year-old has been managing the Otteri burial ground and crematorium since 2014. It has been a tough ride for her, but with grit and gumption, she has overcome all odds.
Shanthi was working with an NGO called the Indian Community Welfare Organisation (ICWO). When the organisation got a contract to manage a crematorium in Velangadu in 2009, she was asked if she would take this up.
Open to a challenge, she accepted the assignment.
“I’ve never limited myself. When the opportunity to run a crematorium came my way, I accepted it. Just because I’m a woman, doesn’t mean I can’t handle this work,” Shanthi tells The Better India.
After five years of managing the crematorium at Velangadu, her boss came to her with a new request. The ICWO had received a contract to manage the crematorium and burial ground at Otteri.
“Otteri is a very critical area. When we all heard this news at the office, everyone ran away. It’s difficult for anyone to work there, be it a man or woman. I just went to visit the ground with my boss. Compared to the well maintained, neat Velangadu crematorium, Otteri was a shock. It was not maintained well, and was a hub for alcohol, drugs and criminals,” she recalls.
‘I was not going to run away’
The first two years, she says, were far from smooth.
Shanthi recalls that even auto drivers would not be willing to come to Otteri due to its reputation. The crematorium was used for other purposes by local boys and goons. She notes that if she would question them, they would just abuse her and brandish their knives at her.
“The local thugs would ask me, ‘Do you think we’ll not come here just because a woman is working?’ Young boys would sit there the entire day and smoke ganja, drink and just create a ruckus. Local thugs would gamble. It was a very uncomfortable situation. They would threaten me by killing goats in front of me, saying ‘You’re next’. I would cry everyday,” adds Shanthi.
Even with the danger of working this job in such an area, the thought of quitting seldom crossed Shanthi’s mind. She only thought of what she could do to remedy the situation.
She says the first thing she did was tie up with the local police. Then, she installed CCTV cameras across the crematorium. Finally, this mother of three decided to counsel those young boys.
“The only thing on my mind was that I should prove myself. I was not going to run away. I befriended an inspector in the nearby police station and she helped me greatly. Even today, we have a codeword for when there is trouble. I just call her and she’s here in five minutes,” she says.
Shanthi says that having worked in an NGO and raised three boys, she knew how to get through to these young men.
“These boys were hardly in Class 10. I started counselling them. I reminded them of the sacrifices their parents are making to raise them. Thanks to my work with ICWO, I knew how to handle different people. After a lot of effort, I started seeing changes,” she smiles.
After a year of struggle, she learnt how to handle such difficult situations.
“It took me a while to understand the men’s psyche. And I was done crying and struggling. People had started dominating me. I realised that I can’t allow that. I am in charge of this space and I treat it like a temple. Today, with my one look, these men put their knives down.”
“Women can face any problem, I realised. Sometimes, they look at you with a bad intent. I simply beat them if anyone dares look at me like that.”
It was a while before she even told her husband about where she was working.
“Initially, I just told my oldest son as I needed him to drop me to work. He was also surprised by my choice. After a few days, I had to ask my husband to drop me at 7 AM. When I asked him to go to Otteri, he asked me, ‘Why a burial ground?’ It was then that I told him that I worked there. All he knew before that was that I was working for an NGO,” says Shanthi.
After entering the ground, Shanthi’s husband came and sat in her office. He was very silent for a while.
“He started crying. He asked me, ‘Do you have to do this?’ I told him clearly that this is my purpose in life. God wants me to do this holy work. He understood.”
Today, Shanthi has won several awards for her work. She also managed more than 300 bodies during COVID. Her work starts at 8 AM and ends by 7 PM.
She has no holidays, and says that while she has mastered the art of managing goons, the sounds of drums and people crying still haunt her and give her sleepless nights.
“I think it’s important to love your job, whatever it is. I have made this place systematic. My day starts with booking slots and I ensure that people come on time. Since it’s an emotionally charged time, we have to be sensitive too. But I’ve brought some discipline here,” she says proudly.
She says that being around the dead and seeing their relatives really brings perspective in life.
“When a person dies, we remove every piece of jewellery from their body, even a small thread. You don’t take anything with you. All we take is the love and memories of people. What matters is whether people cry for us at the end or speak ill. Ensure that you are spoken of well when you die.”
Shanthi manages her house single-handedly with a salary of Rs 15,000 per month, as her husband is unwell. She also uses her time to work with underprivileged children. Hoping that people stop looking down at her work, she says, “It’s one of the purest jobs in the world”.
Edited by Divya Sethu, Images Courtesy Esther Shanthi