The Bodywashers Living with a Taboo

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By Tabish Khan

It was the summer of 1992 and massive protests were going on in Soura, Srinagar —the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. Thousands of protesters had come out on the streets. They had gathered around an unidentified decaying body of a 16-year-old boy lying on a street few meters away from the local police station. Nobody among the protesters was willing to perform the body’s ghasul (full body wash before burial of an individual) until then 18-year-old Abdul Ahad Whichko  stood up and shouted from the back that he would perform it.

He nudged his way through the crowd to reach the deceased and asked people to pitch a tent. After witnessing Whichko’s courage, some more volunteers came forward to help him. They lifted the body on their shoulders and placed it on a yellow wooden table in front of Whichko.

Whichko, who had performed ghasul before, recalled a brief lecture of his mother to perform it. He first removed the blood-soaked kurta of the deceased and then spread a black cloth over the body, from the bellybutton to his knees, before removing the trousers from the body. He then wore white gloves in his right hand and followed proper Islamic procedure to perform ghasul. It took him more than 30 minutes to complete it. And then he covered the body with a shroud. Wichko also led the namaaz-eJinaza (funeral prayer) of the deceased. A group of locals carried the body in a coffin towards the graveyard in a procession;Whichko followed. In the evening after the protest was over, he returned home and slept immediately. He woke up with a jerk. A few minutes later, he tried to sleep again but he couldn’t due to constant fear.

Twenty-four years after that incident, this reporter went to meet Whichko at his residence – a single-storey plastered house in Aanchar, Srinagar. A lady, perhaps his sister-in-law, donning plain henna-colored pharen received me. She guided me to a guest room. The room had off-white walls. The rolled bedding, covered with a checkered fawn bed sheet, was piled in a corner. A small silver-grey tin locker stood in the other corner. The lady left me alone in the room as I kept waiting for Whichko.

Half an hour later, Whichko arrived from the local mosque wearing a grey Khandress with a net white skullcap. A well-built tall man with a fist-long salt and pepper beard, he sat cross legged near the wardrobe. “Every time I slept, the dead body of the youth would come in my dreams. It seemed I was reliving the ghasul incident,” he recalled, adding that “the atrophy of the body along with ten stitches on its forehead was visible clearly. This thing continued for more than a week.”

When Whichko was stressed by the continuous appearance of the boy in his dreams, Moughel, his mother, made him understand that he might not have performed the ghasul properly and he need not worry as it happens in the beginning.

Born in a bather’s family, Whichko landed in his ancestral profession since then. He learned the skill from Moughel, who would guide him by giving small lecturers. He got used to it only after he gave ghasul to few more bodies. Forty-year-old Whichko has performed ghasul of more than 5,000 dead bodies. “Whenever I receive a phone call during  mid-night, I go to perform my duty, leaving my family members alone,” he says.

In Islam performing ghasul of a dead body is mandatory before its burial. But those who perform this work are treated as third-class citizens in a predominantly religious society in Kashmir.

Whichko remembers his initial days after being recognized as a bather. Families who called him to perform the ghasul of their deceased family member did not bother to pay him. He argues that people in Kashmir spend thousandsof rupees on functions, marriages, buildings, etc, but when it comes to paying a bather for his or her job, the family of the deceased make them run from pillar to post for a mere 500-600 rupees.

Whichko said relatives and neighbors of the deceased showed him their back whenever he approached them. The reason he believes they prefer to ignore him is because of superstitious beliefs. People think bathers like him bring bad luck, and if they develop some kind of a bond with these bathers, next time they will be seen at their home performing ghasul to some of their family member.

Whichko remembers every chahrum (ritualistic fourth day of  mourning), whenever he was invited by the bereaved family to have meals. Being a bather, he was not served with other guests. The families of the deceased ask him to sit near the door of a room where the gathering takes place. He claims to receive meals in a small tin plate unlike others, who sit together and enjoy meal in a trami. “People treat us like death angel,” he says.

To see how bathers in Kashmir are living, I went to look for few others. On my way to Bachpora, upper Soura, I asked many people to help me in locating a bather from that side. Most of them were very reluctant as they left without uttering a single word after hearing srawn-ghour, the local word for a bather.

An elderly person donning grey Khandress was reclining in his grocery shop located in one of the narrow lanes of Bachpora. He told me to cross the road and walk along Umerhair colony where a female bather resides. He gave me the complete description of her house. As I walked through the narrow colony, I kept looking for the houses on my both sides.

A plump woman in her early forties holding an empty zinc-coated copper rice bowl in her hand appeared; she seemed to have come out just to throw leftover food on a street. She was about to close the gate of her house when I approached her and enquired about the female bather. “Do you require a bather to perfrom ghasul of your dead relative?” she asked. The moment I said no but that I want to speak to her, she at once said, “This colony belongs to civilized people. You may find her in an opposite colony,” she shut the gate.

After enquiring from the people that passed me, I finally managed to trace her. I knocked the gate of her single-storey mud house and 65-year-old Fatima Begum donning a floral white kameez-shalvar and a white dupatta on her head came out. Fatima seemed to be a religious woman and possessed every quality that a bather according to Islam should have. She welcomed me warmly and took me inside her kitchen. The kitchen was dark and the light streaming from three small windows was the only source of visibility. It had no almirah and Fatima had decorated utensils on a couple of multi-colored concrete marble shelves.

Fatima’s life had become miserable after her husband, a laborer, died from a heart attack 42 years ago. She was left behind with a 2-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son, and to support them, she chose her ancestral profession. She claims to have raised both of her children from the proceedings of her ghasul business. She, however, regrets that she could not provide education to her children due to poverty. “I managed the entire cost of the marriage of my daughter by earning from this profession only. No one came to help us. I was the only support of my family,” she told me. “Had I been earning a good amount, I would definitely have sent my children to school. My son would not have been a fruit seller, he would have been a government employee,” she added.

Fatima remembers the struggle that she had to face while searching for a suitable match for her daughter. Many poor and middle-class families gave their approval for the marriage, but once they came to know about Fatima’s profession, they rejected the proposal. Match makers who got suitors for Fatima’s daughter too didn’t leave any stone unturned. They, however, continued to charge money after every visit.

“Every time the match maker visited he used to tell us that you are a bather and you won’t get the suitor for your daughter easily,” Fatima said. “It took me three years to fix the marriage of my daughter. Only God and my kids know how we managed to fix it.”

Fatima does not understand why people from other communities in Kashmir treat them as third-class people. She believes disrespecting people like her has become common. She said her neighbors whom she faces every day also prefer to ignore her.

Fatima considers her profession as a noble one because she believes bathers ‘serve’ the dead. She said her profession had made her humble as she remembers death every time.

Fatima also claims she has never been afraid to perform the ghasul of thousands of women so far, but she remembers one incident of a young woman who had committed suicide by setting herself ablaze. The young woman, according to her, was harassed by her in-laws for not getting sufficient dowry.

“Her entire body was completely burnt. I closed my eyes couple of times so that I could not see her. I was thinking that she was killed for not getting dowry. What if tomorrow the in-laws of my daughter do the same thing to my daughter? After finishing her ghasul I came home and wept. The question of what will happen to my daughter if her in-laws ask for dowry, occupied my mind. I get some 500 to 600 rupees per ghasul. How will I fulfill their demands?” she recalled as if she were reliving that moment.

In my investigation about the social stigma attached to bathers, I visited the town of Malkha in Srinagar, a hub for bathers. When I reached there I approached many families associated with bathing.

None of them wanted to reveal their identity because of the taboo associated with their profession. Everyone I approached would tell me, “We are not bathers. You please walk straight and you will find them. I kept on looking for them till I reached the tail of the colony where the bathers reside.

Someone told me this colony “belongs to bathers but none of them will speak to you. Couple of years ago, a media person came and interviewed one of the bathers. He also published his photograph in the newspaper and since then he and his family had to face difficulties.”

“No one was willing to marry his daughters. He later tied the knot of his daughter to his nephew,” he added.

He reminded me of Whichko’s words. Whichko had told me that bathers and grave diggers marry in their own clans. “My own sister is married to a grave digger,” Whichko had said. “Initially, I felt disheartened by the absurd behavior of the people who dislike us. With time, one gets used to circumstances. Life goes on like that,” he added

—ends—

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