Thursday, March 16, 2006

graveyard shift

A friend was doing a photographic project on Living Spaces. So I took her to a cemetery.

The Lothian Cemetery is possibly the oldest Christian cemetery in Delhi, just about two hundred meters from the Red Fort as the crow flies, sandwiched now between the Kashmiri Gate GPO and the pink Lothian (railway) Bridge. The oldest readable inscriptions are from the early nineteenth century. British men and women in their mid twenties being cut down by dysentery and heatstroke. Children dying of the now unimaginable rigours of journeying from Banaras to Calcutta. A huge Celtic cross off to the left, ‘In Memoriam MDCCCLVII.’ Remembering 1857. ‘This cross is sacred to the memory of those whose nameless graves lie around.’

But the place is nowhere as grim as I’ve made it sound. The cross is sort of broody, but on the day late in January when we were there, the small homes on three sides of its base were still cheerfully festooned with Christmas decorations. On the fourth side is a large open space, which is the centre of the settlement in the graveyard. Here a cement platform has been built, possibly over some of those nameless graves. On this a group of children were busy playing pitthu. Those who weren’t busy teaching lattu stunts to my friend, that is. Or the one singing impressively offkey hymns in between snatches of ‘Aashiq Banaya Aapne’. Chickens clucked around. Adults soaked up the sun. We spoke about car thefts. It was a beautiful day.

There are about 35 homes inside the Lothian cemetery, all small single storey asbestos roofed structures. All belonging to members of one large extended Christian family, though belonging to different denominations. A great grandfather used to be chowkidar of the cemetery ‘in the time of the British’. His family has since, gradually, been moving in from the Meerut countryside. Vinod Jacob, who stitches lawyer’s robes and supplies a largely Supreme Court clientele with their legal black regalia, remembers coming about twenty five years ago, but his brother was already here. He doesn’t know how old the settlement is, but he does know that they have electricity bills dating back about fifty years. He studied in the school founded by Begam Samru in Sardhana.

Vinod got us tea and bread pakoras. If we hadn’t had lunch already, he was ready to cook us some. And buy us some beer. But we were in a hurry. It felt criminal to leave such a happy place, where one of the darkest chapters of the city’s history is made bearable by Christmas celebrated by the living, and the laughter of children at play. The Lothian cemetery is a world removed from the sad and terrifying Nicholson Cemetery, colonized by monkeys and kites and overgrown weeds, less than a kilometre away.

To break the ice at the beginning of our conversation I had asked Vinod, ‘You live in a cemetery. Aren’t you afraid of the ghosts?’

He had laughed. ‘There are no ghosts here. I never feel uncomfortable. The only place where I’ve felt their presence is in Goa.’

Perhaps because the unnamed dead of 1857 here rest in peace. A peace created by those who have chosen to live here amidst the graves.

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