SUBHA J RAO
Gomathy Ammal and her daughter Karpagam make a living - in a male-dominated profession - taking care of the dead.
THE lined face, bleary eyes and double chin could be any 70-year-old's. But, each wrinkle on Gomathy Ammal's face tells a story. Of a mother's breaking heart when she saw her son being taken away for cremation, a pregnant girl who breathed her last just days before she was to deliver, of a young mother being laid on the funeral pyre as her husband and son fought for their lives in the ICU of a hospital. This is simply because Gomathy Ammal is the only woman in a male dominated profession in the South. She tends to the dead. An unsuitable job for a woman but, as Gomathy Ammal says, "Poverty pushed me into it."Married young, her classical musician husband left her soon after the birth of their child, Karpagam. There was no money. She took to cooking for others and worked as a maid in many houses. "We could buy food only if amma brought home money in the evening," recalls Karpagam. Things were going downhill till a kind-hearted relative, Kuppu Vadhiyar, who presided over funerals, offered to teach her his profession.
Her entry into a hitherto male bastion created ripples. People refused to talk to her and ostracised her. "But my focus was on providing for my child," says Gomathy. It was not easy. In the beginning, Gomathy had to fight her own demons. She was scared to go near a corpse, let alone tend to it. But after assisting Kuppu Vadhiyar in a couple of funerals, she learnt how and she soon she became an expert in conducting funerals. In the 20 years she has been on the job, she has arranged more than 10,000 funerals. And today, it is just like any other job for her. "We have seen so much grief that we don't even cry when relatives die," says Gomathi Ammal. She has also lit the funeral pyre for strangers. Like the time an NRI requested her to perform the last rites for his mother as he could not fly down in time.Karpagam, 39 years old, is an able daughter. After her divorce, she has been assisting her mother for the past 10 years. Working out of the premises of the Brahamana Maha Sabha in Ponnaiarajapuram, the mother and daughter are well known in Coimbatore today. And like any other job, they have been keeping up with the times. From just helping out with rites, they are well versed in governmental procedures, forms to be filled and certificates to be got in the event of a death. They are philosophical about it. "So many dreams die when children die young, but rules have to be followed. Sometimes, we provide the bereaved family with application forms and arrange for certificates," says Karpagam.While Gomathy is unmoved by death, there are a few things that move her. She is angered by suicide and says she was moved when some of the deceased had left notes under the pillows requesting that she handle their funeral. Those who have taken Gomathy Ammal's help are all praise for her and Karpagam. M. Krishnan, Managing Director, Sri Krishna Sweets, says: "When death occurs in a family, the first thought is, `What next?' There are so many rituals. When someone takes care of those things for you, you can focus on your sorrow. Gomathy maami takes away the strain, leaving you to cope with your loss."
Gomathy charges Rs. 3,500 for getting the dead ready and taking the body to the cemetery and arranging things there, besides the following couple of days' rituals and obsequies. She knows Hindu funerals are expensive business, "But, everyone has to be cremated," says Gomathy.Gomathy Ammal and her daughter perform only funerals for Brahmin families because, "We don't know the rituals involved for others. It is not fair to offer to do something you don't know," says Karpagam. But when people from other communities seek help, they arrange for a freezer box, a van to transport the body and a slot at the electric crematorium.Helping people with last rites has stood Gomathy and her daughter in good stead. Their monthly earnings top Rs. 10,000 and they now support about 40 staff, 15 of whom have no family, and feed 40-50 people every Ammavasai (new moon day). She also does five free funerals every month. They have bought a home with their joint savings, married off Karpagam's daughter and educated her son.Gomathy and Karpagam go about their routine in a business-like manner. "We are like doctors and nurses. They take care of people when they are alive; we when they are dead."India Beats features stories on the unusual, the exotic and the extraordinary.