Fri, Jul 18, 2003 - Page 5 News List

81-year-old does the job that no one wants

TRANSPORTING THE DEAD As he is Muslim, Mohammed Habib does not face the Hindu caste restrictions against touching the deceased of teeming New Delhi


Mohammed Habib has a job that no one wants: transporting and cremating the corpses of the homeless and unclaimed.

He's 81 and has been doing it for nearly 70 years, sitting outside hospitals, waiting for a summons to dispose of another body.

In this teeming city of more than 15 million people, Habib's services are often required.

"There are days when I have taken care of as many as four or five bodies in a day," he says. His only help is his wife, Ameena Begum.

"No one else can pick up these bodies," said Habib. "Only Mohammed Habib can pick them up. It is in my blood and my breath." As a Muslim, he does not face the Hindu caste restrictions against touching the dead.

From his perch outside the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narain Hospital and the neighboring G.B. Pant Hospital, he takes the bodies on the back of his covered cycle rickshaw to a crematorium if they are Hindus, or a cemetery if they are Muslims.

He knows a male is Muslim if he is circumcised, but says that with women he can only rely on intuition.

"The dignity of a person has to be maintained when his last rites are being performed," said Habib. "While I do not perform the last rites of the body myself, I remain with the body until the time it is actually buried or burned."

Habib gets 200 rupees (US$4.35) per body from the police to pay the costs of washing, shrouding and blessing a corpse, and 150 rupees (US$3) for himself.

How did he acquire his profession? Habib said he ran away from home at age 12, and at a railroad station he saw a corpse collector named Mehmood Khan picking up the body of a man who had been run over by a train.

Khan took Habib under his wing. This was in 1934, when India was under British rule.

"In the days of the British, I was respected for the work I did. Nowadays no one cares," he said, puffing away on a hand-rolled cigarette.

Habib, whose beard and hair are stark white, sits upright on the back of his cycle rickshaw, looking at the world through his thick glasses.

Police constable Umesh Tomar at the station across the road from the hospitals has great respect for Habib. "He is always ready for work 24 hours a day," the constable said.

Habib says he met his future wife when he was at a railroad station collecting a body.

"I saw her walking along the railroad tracks when a train was fast approaching, so I rescued her," he said. She turned out to be blind.

The railroad tracks were also where Habib found his adopted daughter, Bhanu. "Her mother had been run over by a train and I had come to collect the body. I took care of her after that, and even had her married to a Hindu boy," he says proudly, as his wife fondles the child they treat as their grandson.

Habib is teaching Bhanu's husband the trade, but says, "I will continue with this job till the day I die."

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