The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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FEB 2020 Issue

A Civilized Cemetery

So great are the gifts of English civilization! Has it not given us backward Indians what we used to lack? Has it not told our shameless women how to show off their curves in ever yet newer ways? How to attract men with sleeveless blouses? How to get rid of their primitive paints and ointments in favor of lipstick, rouge, powder and other beauty products? It used to be that tweezers were reserved for plucking nose hair and trimming moustaches, but now the English have taught our women how to pluck their eyebrows as well!

These are the blessings of culture. Now a woman can prostitute herself without shame. Now there’s a civil procedure so civilized men and women can get married whenever they want, then get divorced whenever they want. (You get what you come for, but with none of the expenses or fuss.) Now there are nightclubs where you can dance, clinging onto women. Now there are gambling dens where you can religiously waste all your money. You—get arrested? No chance. And now there are bars where you can drown your sorrows in drink.

English culture has done much to lift us up from the dregs—now women can stroll about shopping in pants, or in next to nothing but sheer freedom! Our country has progressed so much that there are preparations underway to start nudist clubs!

Some say our English masters should leave, but that’s just crazy—if they leave, who’s going to oversee the nudist clubs, who’s going to run the nightclubs? Who will we slow dance with? Won’t our red-light districts turn desolate? Who will teach us to fight with one another? Who will card the raw cotton we ship to Manchester so that we can get clothes in return? Who will give us the cookies we like so much?

The progress we’ve seen under the English was unheard of in any other era. If we become free, we won’t be capable of ruling ourselves like the English—the English, who civilized our society, not only with restaurants, gambling dens, dance halls and movie theaters, but also by modernizing our cemeteries.

In backward cemeteries, corpses are thrown into graves without the least concern, but in civilized cemeteries that never takes place. I realized the difference when my mother died in Bombay. Up till then I’d lived only in small backwater towns—how should I have known that the big cities have all sorts of restrictions on corpses too?

My mother’s corpse was in the next room over. I was sitting on the sofa with my head bowed from grief and worry. A friend, and long-standing resident of Bombay, came over and said, “Hey, you guys should start thinking about burying her.”

“Can you take care of it?” I answered. “I don’t know the ropes here.”

“Sure, I’ll take care of everything. First you should get in touch with someone to let them know your mother died.”


“Right near here—the city government has an office. You’ll have to tell them, otherwise you’ll never get the certificate you need to bury her.”

Notice was sent to the office, and a man arrived to ask questions: What had she suffered from? For how long? Was she under the care of any doctor?

The truth was I’d been away when my mother suffered a heart attack. But clearly she hadn’t been under any doctor’s care, and she hadn’t been suffering from anything for long. Yet the man was hardly satisfied with the truth.

“You’ll have to get a doctor’s certificate to prove it was a heart attack,” he said.

I had no idea where I was going to get such a certificate, and so I vented my anger with a couple choice words. My Bombayite friend got up and took the man aside. After talking for a while, they came over and my friend pointed at me, “This one’s a real idiot. He doesn’t have the slightest clue how things work here.” Then he reached into my pocket and took out two rupees, which he gave to the man, who suddenly became very helpful, “Alright, get some empty pill bottles and give them to me so we’ll have some proof she was sick. If you’ve any old prescriptions or receipts lying around, get those too.”

The man went on talking in a way that made me feel for a moment as though I’d murdered my own mother and he felt so sorry for me that he’d agreed to keep the secret, and moreover was instructing me on how to clean up the evidence of my crime! Suddenly I wanted to push him out the door and smash in his idiot brain with all the empty pill bottles I could find! But I’m an upstanding citizen, and so I stifled the impulse, found some bottles and handed them over.

After another two-rupee bribe, I got the city government certificate, and the gates of the cemetery swung open. Next to the gates, there was a little office like a box office at a movie theater. The manager glared out of his window as our funeral procession went by. He was about to say something when my friend handed him the certificate, which satisfied him, since his only concern was that no corpse should enter the gates without that very piece of paper.

It was a very beautiful cemetery. There was a grove in whose shade rested a number of fancy graves with jasmine bushes (two types) and roses in great profusion. I learned this area was reserved for the rich and well-to-do and cost three hundred rupees per grave. Yes, that much to bury yourself (or your beloved) in that breezy and pleasant locale! And if you wanted the manager to look after the grave and make sure that it was kept in decent shape, that would be an extra six rupees a year!

For those who couldn’t afford the three hundred rupees, well, after three or four years their graves were dug up and a new body thrown in. These graves didn’t have the advantages of shade trees and the aroma of jasmine bushes. No. Instead the corpses in these graves were sprinkled at burial with a special mixture that accelerated the deterioration of their bones.

There were rows of generic graves, and numbers to tell graves apart. But the number cost four annas. You see the same thing at good movie theaters these days: tickets are marked with seat numbers so that once you get inside there won’t be confusion about who gets to sit where. So the way it goes is like this: after the corpse is buried, a cemetery caretaker takes a metal plate stamped with a number and affixes it to the grave, and this number remains until the spot is excavated for a new owner. Numbers do make things easier, and so the grave number of your dearly departed becomes yet another to enter into your record books:

Shoe size          5
Stocking size          9 ½
Insurance policy number      225689
Mother’s grave number    4817
Telephone number        44457

If things advance any more, you’ll be able to get your grave number at birth!


Just inside the cemetery there was a beautiful mosque with a huge message board on which was written the following announcement: “If you want to have a screen separating your grave from others, it may only be constructed by the gravediggers. No one else. For large graves, this costs two rupees, four annas, of which one rupee four annas is for labor and one rupee is the cemetery fee. The cost for small graves is one rupee four annas—twelve annas for labor and eight for the cemetery. If the fees aren’t paid, the screen will be dismantled. No one is allowed to stay in the cemetery. Please bring the corpse yourself, and when leaving, please take any food offerings you may have brought. All corpses, men or women, must be cleaned before entering the cemetery. If they aren’t but are accompanied by someone capable of performing this washing, then there is a four-anna fine. For washing at night, there is a two-anna charge for lighting. In the cemetery, absolutely no incendiary behavior is allowed. If anyone should behave disrespectfully, he will be given over to the police. For four annas a month, the cemetery will be happy to maintain the gravesite by watering any flowers or plantings, but the cemetery will not water or maintain flower beds for those sites whose family members miss payments.” –Managing Trustees.

Notices posted in movie theaters are the same: both disallow liquor and rowdy behavior and follow this up with a threat to turn over offending miscreants to the police. Maybe in time this cemetery announcement will be updated and the following words added: “In the event of damage due to earthquake or bombing strafe, management will not refund any money. Those who would like to build an air-raid shelter on top of their loved one’s grave will be charged an additional fee of two hundred fifty rupees. Management will not be held liable for any damage to the gravesite. To air condition the gravesite, generators are available so long as the responsible parties pay their monthly electrical bill.”

There was another board on which were written the fees for washing and other related services:

Prayers offered         6 annas
Washing (large corpse)        1 rupee, 4 annas
Washing (small corpse)      14 annas
Kindling for the fire to warm
water for washing        4 annas
Labor for warming and
carrying water            2 annas
Burial wood (large corpse),
each piece            2 rupees,
                one anna, 2 paisas
Burial wood (small corpse),
each piece            1 rupee,
                   three annas, 4 paisas

(Note: burial wood is used to cover the corpse in the grave so that dirt will not compress it.)


If you go to high quality hairdressers, they have the same sort of boards:

Man’s cut          4 annas
Boy’s cut         4 annas
Woman’s cut        1 rupee
Girl’s cut         8 annas
Beard trim         2 annas
Haircut and beard trim   9 annas
Hair wash         2 annas
Haircut, hair wash
and beard trim       10 annas

For a haircut and beard trim, you get a little discount. In the future, it’s possible that cemeteries will give customers a similar discount: “Order two large graves in the same year, get one small grave free.” Or, “Order two graves at the same time, get two rose bushes free.” Or better yet, “Supply all necessary materials for burying, get one beautiful plaque on which to inscribe your loved one’s grave number.”

It’s very likely that our cemeteries will modernize to such a point that there will be a reservation system for graves. That is, you’ll be able to book graves two or three years before your family’s senior members have died, this way once the moment comes, you won’t be scurrying around trying to find a cemetery that offers suitable options. Burials will take place in the modern fashion, and mortuaries will place ads in papers announcing their advantages:

Jesus, Moses & Sons—Burial Experts.
Using modern machinery, we wash corpses
& wrap shrouds
without touching the body.

It’ll be no surprise if cemeteries too get into the business of advertising themselves:

City’s Most Modern Graveyard—
where the dead rest as soundly
as in the fanciest of beds!

In Bombay, there are a number of companies whose business is preparing corpses for the grave. Leave the dirty tasks to these mortuaries. They’ll take care of washing the body, wrapping it in a shroud and burying it, and all of this done with the highest level of discretion. When the preparations have been carried out to your satisfaction, the morticians will head the funeral procession from your home to the graveyard and bury the corpse. No blabbing, no nagging. When it’s all over and you’re a happy customer, they’ll send you the bill.

Say you’re a very busy person and your servant suddenly dies. This all makes you feel very sad, but you’re scheduled for a picnic at the beach with business friends. So you quickly call the mortuary and make arrangements. Funeral professionals come to carry the corpse to the cemetery, and along the route they recite verses from the Quran. At the cemetery, they pray (itemized in your bill) and then bury your faithful servant in a big two-rupee, four-anna grave. You can enjoy yourself at the beach with your friends while at the same time the equally merry morticians bury your servant at the cemetery. And if you’ve promised to reward your servant for his services, you can have one of the men lay an embroidered sheet over his grave.

I happened to go by my mother’s cemetery several days ago. There was a general announcement on the notice board: “Due to inflation, from 8 June 1942 the fees for grave digging have increased. The new rates are one rupee, four annas for a large grave and fourteen annas for a small grave.”

The war has even made graves more expensive.


Matt Reeck

Matt Reeck lives in Brooklyn with his family. He's interested in chronicles, translations, reading, promoting the work of Abdlekébir Khatibi and other writers, and poetic forms.

Saadat Hasan Manto

Saadat Hasan Manto (1912–1955) is a giant of South Asian fiction. His Urdu stories, vignettes, anecdotal prose, and satire place him squarely at the center of the Urdu canon. His continued cultural relevance can be attested to new dramatic works centered on his life and writing: the 2018 film Manto by the famous Indian actress, activist, and director Nandita Das, and the 2019 staging of Manto’s work by Motley, the Mumbai theater troupe of the famous Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah.

Aftab Ahmad

Aftab Ahmad earned his PhD in Urdu literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Having served as the Director of the American Institute of Urdu Studies Program in Lucknow for five years, he began teaching as an Urdu lecturer at UC-Berkeley in 2006. “Reflections on Growing up Muslim in India,” his essay about being a religious minority in India, was recently published serially in Fire, an Urdu-language newspaper in Lucknow.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues