Sunita Patil, 33, might not be able to do much to give you dignity in life, but she will ensure that the final passage is smooth. Known as toopwali bai, which literally translates as ‘ghee woman’, Patil works in Nashik’s Panchvati crematorium where she helps prepare dead bodies for the final rites.
Patil’s calling came early, having watched her father prepare funeral pyres and dead bodies as a child. As she grew up, the job seemed like the most natural thing for her.
Bearing an uncommon courage, Patil says, “There is no money in it but the satisfaction cannot be measured. The relatives who bring in the dead body of a loved one are anyway grieving, needing help. The respect they show me later is immense, more than anything I crave,” says Patil.
With almost 100 bodies coming to the Panchvati crematorium in a month, toopwali bai is now pretty well-known in Nashik.
Her work is not the easiest, to say the least. She unties the dead body, removes all the garlands and then places the wood on the pyre, a physically tiring job.
The most essential part, the massage, comes next. With the first signs of stiffness beginning to set in, it is essential that the body is given a thorough ghee massage.
“It helps burn the body faster,” says Patil, mother of two. She says she waits long after relatives leave to check that the pyre burns properly and that relatives are able to collect the asti (ashes) the following day.
“I am not afraid of criticism. Both my children also help me sometimes. Nobody is scared – this is maanav seva (human service).”