PETALING JAYA: As always, Mogana Vadivellu doesn’t expect to receive many visitors this Deepavali. She lives in the middle of a cemetery in Meru, and guests have always been few and far in between.
Mogana, 24, is part of an extended family of 16 people who live in two rooms at the side of a prayer hall at the cemetery. They have called it home for the past 15 years.
Seven of the 16 are children, with the youngest a year old.
The adults spend their days cutting the grass in the cemetery and tidying the graves in the area, for which they are paid a small sum and allowed to live in the two rooms by the company contracted to keep the cemetery clean.
A hill covered in tombstones dominates the view from the prayer hall’s front entrance, but Mogana’s siblings, nieces and nephews seem unperturbed.
Four of them were born in the cemetery, and it’s the only home they have ever known.
“People ask why we stay here and say we should move out,” Mogana told FMT. “For them, it’s a graveyard. But for us, it’s our home.
“People usually come here for just one purpose. Imagine having a birthday celebration here. Do you think people will come?”
Mogana’s father, aunt and uncle used to live in a house at the nearby Jalan Paip which was demolished to make way for a school in 1997.
After moving to a temporary location near a fishing pond where they used to work, they made the shift to the cemetery in 2005. They started out doing some freelance cleaning and were then hired by the contractors.
Mogana’s aunt, Kalai Selvi Vengu, said the family can make up to RM1,800 a month cleaning graves, but times have been tough since the movement control order was implemented in March.
“It was hard. Sometimes we don’t have lunch, sometimes we don’t have dinner. We were able to survive due to public donations and some help from the contractors,” Kalai said.
While Kalai found some part-time work cleaning houses in the area, her brother Prakash took on some gardening jobs and sold scrap metal.
Mogana’s father Vadivellu, meanwhile, has landed a job at a poultry farm.
They are grateful that the contractor pays for the electricity in the prayer hall, and while the family has running water, they have to cook their meals with firewood: its pungent aroma permeated the evening air when the family prepared dinner during FMT’s visit.
“Cooking with wood is better,” Vadivellu said, adding that “the food is tastier.”
While they readily agree they want better accommodation, the family stress that it must be in the area.
“I hope the government can help us out,” said Kalai, adding that the contractor has asked the family to move out by the end of the year.
“We all want a proper place to call our own, especially somewhere to raise the kids.”
With four children still in school, Kalai knows it is crucial that they further their education as much as possible.
For Mogana, though, the conversation about education was pretty abrupt.
She left school at Form 2 in 2009 to help the family with the bills, but she can still clearly recall years of being taunted as “the graveyard girl” by her classmates.
“Ghosts don’t trouble us here,” she said. “People do”.