Ramananda Sarkar never wanted to burn his livelihood on corpses, but he was deeply in debt and desperate for money.
The 43-year-old fled his remote village in the northeastern Indian state of Assam after failing to repay a loan he had taken out to sell sugar cane juice on a wooden cart. But even in the state capital, Guwahati, Sarkar struggled to find work.
Two years ago he entered a cremation site in the city and began to light the pyre.
While Hindus believe that cremation rites are sacred and free the soul of the dead from the cycle of rebirth, those who actually deal with corpses are looked down upon as the work has historically been done by the less privileged castes.
This has put a stigma on the job that was only made worse by the coronavirus, which killed more than 100,000 people out of 6.6 million reported infections in India.
Sarkar believed he had resigned himself to his reputation and eventually told his wife what his job was after hiding it for some time. However, at the beginning of May he attended what he believed to be routine cremation without knowing that the woman had died of COVID-19.
When people learned that the woman had become a victim of the disease, Sarkar’s acquaintances began to avoid him, and the state authorities quarantined him for a few days. But they let him out as no one was available to do his job in the cremation site.
“I don’t understand why people hate me. Just because I’m burning the bodies? “Asked Sarkar. “If I don’t do this, who will?”
Sarkar is now working on a special cremation site that local authorities have designated only for victims of the pandemic.
With a mask on his face and a prayer on his lips, he burns corpses brought in by a handful of relatives in protective suits – urgent affairs that were carried out with minimal rituals according to the guidelines of the state government.
The state of Assam has reported more than 181,600 confirmed cases of the virus and 711 deaths since the pandemic began. Sarkar said he alone cremated more than 450 COVID-19 victims.
Despite his vital community service, Sarkar’s own life continues to deteriorate. When his landlord heard what he was doing for work, he asked him to move out. A district official arranged a hotel room for him.
Sarkar was also prevented from returning to his village to visit his family, first by the village chief and then, after the local authorities intervened on his behalf, by the villagers themselves.
After not seeing his wife and three sons for more than a month, Sarkar recently snuck into his village in the middle of a rainy night. He called his family from the street in front of 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,” said Sarkar. “I want them to go to school and become good people and get respect from society, not like me, who has to meet his family in the dark.”
On the way back to the city, Sarkar said he had decided to stop at a nearby temple to rest, but was told by temple officials to leave.
He made it back to the cremation site and said that despite the personal expense – including the risk of infection – he will continue to set fire to the pyre of those who lost their lives to the virus and he will honor them as best he can.
“I may die from COVID-19, but I don’t care,” he said. “I will do my job sincerely to the end.”