Shunned by many, Indian man carries on cremating virus dead

GAUHATI, India (AP) : Ramananda Sarkar never wanted to burn bodies for a living, but he was deep in debt and desperate for money.

The 43-year-old had fled his remote village in India’s northeastern Assam state after failing to pay back a loan he’d taken to start selling sugarcane juice on a wooden cart. But even in the state capital, Sarkar had trouble finding enough work.

Then two years ago Sarkar walked onto a cremation ground in Gauhati and took up the job of lighting the funeral pyres.

Ramananda Sarkar, 43, stands by burning funeral pyres of COVID-19 victims in Gauhati, India, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

While Hindu’s believe cremation rights are sacred and release the dead person’s soul from the cycle of rebirth, those who actually deal with corpses are looked down upon. It’s a stigma that’s only been made worse by the coronavirus, which has killed more than 100,000 people in India out of 6.4 million reported infections.

Sarkar thought he had come to terms with his reputation, finally telling his wife what his job was after hiding it for some time. But then in early May, he took part in what he thought was a routine cremation, not knowing that the woman had died of COVID-19.

When people learned the woman was a victim of the coronavirus, Sarkar’s acquaintances started shunning him. The humiliation came flooding back. 

State authorities put him under quarantine for a few days, but let him out as there was no one available to do his job at the cremation ground.

“I don’t understand why people hate me. Only because I burn the dead bodies?” Sarkar asked. “If I don’t do this, then who will?”

Ramananda Sarkar, 43, cremates the body of a COVID-19 victim in Gauhati, India, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Ramananda Sarkar, 43, gives instruction to health workers before cremating the body of a COVID-19 victim in Gauhati, India, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Ramananda Sarkar, 43, offers alcohol to Goddess Kali before cremating a body of a COVID-19 victim in Gauhati, India, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Ramananda Sarkar, 43, offers prayers to Hindu god Shiva before cremating the body of a COVID-19 victim in Gauhati, India, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

Sarkar volunteered and now works at a special cremation ground that local authorities designated just for victims of the pandemic.

With a mask on his face and a prayer on his lips, he cremates bodies brought in by a handful of relatives in protective suits, hurried affairs conducted with minimal rituals under the state government’s guidelines.

Assam state has reported more than 181,600 confirmed cases of the virus since the pandemic began and 711 deaths. Sarkar said he alone has cremated more than 450 COVID-19 victims.

Despite his vital community service, the impact on Sarkar’s own life continues to worsen.

When his landlord heard about Sarkar’s work, he told him he would have to move out. Thankfully a district official arranged a hotel room for him.

Sarkar was also stopped from returning to his village to visit his family, first by the village head and then, after local authorities intervened on his behalf, by the villagers themselves.

Smoke envelops Ramananda Sarkar, 43, as he cremates bodies of COVID-19 victims in Gauhati, India, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Ramananda Sarkar, 43, returns to his hotel after cremating bodies of COVID-19 victims in Gauhati, India, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Ramananda Sarkar, 43, sanitizes his hands on the steps of a Goddess Kali temple after cremating bodies of COVID-19 victims in Gauhati, India, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Ramananda Sarkar, 43, speaks to his wife from the balcony of his hotel before starting his day cremating bodies of COVID-19 victims in Gauhati, India, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

After a month and a half of not seeing his wife and three sons, Sarkar snuck into his village in the middle of a recent rainy night. He called out to his family from the road outside his house and was able to spend 15 minutes with them and leave them some money.

“I don’t want my sons to become cremators like me,” Sarkar said. “I want them to go to school and become good human beings and earn respect from the society, not like me who has to meet his family in the dark.”

Ramananda Sarkar, 43, takes a restwhile journeying towards his village to visit his family, early morning in Pobitora, in the notheastern Indian state of Assam, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Ramananda Sarkar, 43, rides a bike towards his village to visit his family, early morning in Pobitora, in the notheastern Indian state of Assam, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Ramananda Sarkar, 43, smokes marijuana as he takes shelter at a temple of Hindu god Shiva during rainfall after making a trip to his village to meet his family early morning in Diprang village, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Ramananda Sarkar, 43, places a packet containing money for his wife from a safe distance in Theng Bhanga village, in Morigaon district, India, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Ramananda Sarkar, 43, talks to his children from a distance in Theng Bhanga village, in Morigaon district, India, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Ramananda Sarkar’s children rest inside a mosquito net at home in Theng Bhanga village, in Morigaon district, India, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

On his way back to the city, Sarkar decided to stop at a nearby temple to rest, but he was soon told to leave by temple officials.

Sarkar made it back to the cremation grounds and said despite the personal cost — which includes the risk of infection — he will continue to light the funeral pyres of those who have lost their lives to the virus and he will honor them as best as he can.

“I may die of COVID-19, but I don’t care,” he said. “I will do my work sincerely till the end.”

Ramananda Sarkar, 43, leaves home after visiting his family and talking to them from a distance in Theng Bhanga village, in Morigaon district, India, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Ramananda Sarkar, 43, smokes marijuana after making a trip home to his village to meet his family, at a temple of Hindu god Shiva in Diprang village, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Ramananda Sarkar, 43, rests on the way after making a trip to his village to meet his family, in Diprang village, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Wife and children of Ramananda Sarkar, 43, stand by the door of their house and look at the money left by Sarkar in Theng Bhanga village, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

By : ANUPAM NATH – AP

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