There is a morbid romanticism about graveyards, the destination of a desultory mind and a recluse for a lonely heart. The silence calms and the dead listen.
But it was not romanticism that attracted 30-year-old Sarju Rai to the job of a graveyard keeper. It was simply necessity.
The diminutive figure always approaches a stranger, entering the All Saints’ cemetery near Rhino Point, with cautious decency and curious eyes. ‘Namaste’ is common in every encounter. If one is a regular visitor of the spirits, then Rai does not mind taking him or her through the graves, old and new, of the old and the youth, and playing an expert raconteur.
“This is the grave of XYZ. He was a British officer and died very young. Us time mein malaria aur kya kya saab bimari hota tha (there were malaria and so many other afflictions at that time),” he says, pointing at an ancient grave that has forgotten even the name of its occupant. Time is cruel and the veil of moss on the marble slab is thick and dark green.
But the keeper remembers everything. He knows the dead like his own. He speaks about them with affection, his speech broken by frequent and inexplicable sighs.
When Rai, who is originally from Bihar’s Hajipur, took up the job at the cemetery in 1973, there was “an army hospital and the rest was forest”. Before him, his father, Prakash Rai, guarded the dead for 45 years. “I was working as a daily wage earner in Assam (Mission Charali, Tezpur) when my father and his elder brother (bade pitaji) called me to Shillong. I was offered the job for a salary of Rs 60 a month. I took it. My father went back to the village,” Rai says as he wades through the grass and wild flowers, audaciously gleeful after four days of rain. Over the years, his salary increased to Rs 9,000.
He lived alone for several years. “Even before joining, I was told not to be scared or not to run away. It was only four or five years ago that I got electricity. Bhoot woot kuchh nahi hai (there are no ghosts),” Rai talks about his life in a reluctant tone.
He raises his thin hands intermittently to show a grave of a sahib or a memsahib or a chhota sahib (baby). Rai was not only the security guard of the cemetery but also the cleaner. He would clean the weeds and wash the marbles engraved with the names and particulars of the departed ones. “There are many people in the West who visit the graves of their ancestors. They even send money regularly for the upkeep of the graves,” Rai says.
He has retired but continues to do the same job. The church has allowed him and four of his family members to stay in the two rooms at the entrance of the graveyard. Rai is grateful for this and works as hard as before, for free. He still keeps the ancestors’ graves clean for the proud descendants but his sincerity is hardly acknowledged.
Rai notices that the particular visitor has more interest in the living than the dead and the questions are about him. He shows the edge of a marble grave to the listener. He wants to sit. The story must be really tiring for the 66-year-old man to narrate after living it for years.
“I got married in Bihar and my wife came to stay with me only for a short while. She went back to our family in the village. During that time, water supply was 24×7, not like now. The place was surrounded by forests and not a soul stayed anywhere near the cemetery. The supervisor was a memsahib who gave me all instructions. There were problems at home, especially after having children, as Rs 60 was not enough for a growing family,” he says.
Rai remembers one Perry sahib, an American, who would often come to the graveyard for a walk, and that there was no boundary wall. He tries to remember more about the place that has changed so much and so fast. After his wife’s death, Rai’s children shifted to Shillong but the family’s ties with Hajipur remain. “I used to visit the village every year but this time, all plans went haywire. We are building a house there and hopefully one day we can all live together.”
Even after spending his prime in the hill city, amid the woods and with the spirits, who were Rai’s companions in his loneliness, the man pines for his “gaon”. “Apna jaga kaise bhul jaye (how can I forget my birthplace),” the words are followed by a long silence.
Rai smiles shyly and looks away. He must be remembering his village and the years spent away from it; or probably, he is ashamed of his garrulity in front of a stranger. He never indulges in story-telling, not about the living. Only the ghosts know his stories. They always knew.