CHINESE FOR DEAD

Rishi Majumder visits an over-a-century-old Chinese cemetery, one of the only two Chinese burial sites in India, and it’s very spirited caretaker

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Mohammad Rafiq Shah

Mare se kya darna. Zinda se daro,” Mohammad Rafiq Shah rejoins to a local warning him that photographing graves might be a bad omen. Then using his crutches he leads on inside the grey walled Chinese cemetery on Antop Hill, one of the only two Chinese graveyards in India. Shah, caretaker of the Chinese dead, is 76 years old, and has been working here since 10. “My father worked here before me. And my sons are ready to carry on the tradition,” he enlightens, spraying a hose over lush plants growing above the graves. The 120-year-old cemetery (opened in 1890, Mumbai’s oldest) is divided into two parts: “As per Chinese burial rites, each grave is dug up after four years and the bones buried ‘permanently’ in the other part of the cemetery, in a plastic box covered with a marble plate,” says Tulen Chen, chairman of the Maharashtra Chinese Association, which maintains the graveyard. So in two by two feet plastic boxes, lie bones of Chinese sailors, doctors, businessmen and even concubines.
Jiang Wei, Sun Quan, Zhou Tai… some names are inscribed in Mandarin, others in English, “a clear preference of the younger Chinese”, claims Shah as he walks in between graves to stop at one that reads Maharashtra Chinese Association Trust. “Here lie lawaaris bodies. The trust does their last rites.” Favourite food of the deceased is placed here, along with flowers and lighted candles. Do the lawaaris bodies also get a similar treat? “If a young person dies, then it’s a quiet affair. But if
it’s an old man, there’s a lot of fanfare,” Shah remarks. Undertaker Danny Pinto, who prepares coffins and bodies for Taoists as well as Christians, points out, “At Christian funerals three or four people give music. But at Chinese funerals a band of 15 people play!”
On a flat concrete structure at the yard’s entrance, the name of Kuan Kung, supreme god of the Taoists, stands inscribed in red on a marble plaque, overlooking the section with the burial site’s most recent graves. Wild flora abounds here. “Either the young have become less respectful, or they have no time,” Shah sighs.
Shah waters the remaining plants, deftly balancing himself on both crutches with one hand as he leans out with the other: “I lost my knee cap while watering one of these graves — slipped and smashed my knee on the marble.” Besides gardening, Shah’s functions include grave-digging, guarding, sweeping and digging up the bones to be transplanted after four years in the middle of the night to wash them with spirit and brandy before sunrise… “as dictated by ritual”.
And don’t these calling cards left behind by the grim reaper scare him at his age? He laughs. “Death? I’ve lost a knee cap and…” he rolls up his shirt to show a wide scar across his stomach: “Ulcers!” He runs his finger down to point to a larger cut: “Appendix! But I’m alive. I ask Allah to give me maut twice a day,” Shah giggles. “But he prolongs my life. Everyone should try this formula.”
Here’s one who deserves that full set band. And an encore.

a Chinese grave at the Antop Hill cemetery

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/7zps

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