Ground Reality

Cemetery workers struggle to keep up with Mumbai’s COVID-19 deaths

The Muslim Qabristan in Andheri’s DN Nagar used to bury thirty to forty bodies in a month on average, but, this Ramzan, it received around a hundred and thirty bodies due to COVID-19. Aakriti Chandervanshi for The Caravan
31 July, 2021

Located next to a multiplex in the posh coastal suburb of Bandra, the 356-year-old Navpada Kokni Kabrastan in Mumbai wears a sullen look. Railway tracks run parallel to its eastern wall, just beyond the section reserved for COVID-19 burials. The cemetery used to be reserved for members of the Konkani Muslim community but, during the pandemic, it opened its doors to all Muslims.

In May 2020, as the cemetery prepared to bury its first COVID-19 victim, it faced unlikely opposition. Sanjay Naik, the secretary of the Mumbai Cricket Association, and some residents of the neighbourhood put up huge locks on the cemetery gates. The cemetery workers filed a police case, and the Bombay High Court eventually ordered that the locks be removed and the cemetery be opened for COVID-19 burials.

“He doesn’t even live nearby,” an exasperated Maqsood Abdul Sattar Mahimi, one of the cemetery’s attendants, told me about Naik’s intervention. “How can the dead possibly infect us? All we want here is to facilitate a peaceful transition of the dead to their resting place.”

I visited the cemetery during Ramzan this year, when Mahimi and his colleagues were struggling with the devastating second wave. The cemetery was stretched to its limit—by 17 May, Mahimi said, 165 people had been buried in the COVID-19 section. The southern part of the cemetery has been occupied by the families of a previous generation of gravediggers, and a legal battle to reclaim that land is ongoing. “They have the backing of the local corporator and MLA,” Mahimi said. “We barely have space left. If we get more than twenty bodies in the next two weeks, we don’t know how we will manage.”

Arman Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers the intersection of gender, travel, sexuality, queer culture, and lifestyle. His work has appeared in publications such as ThemVice and Femina, and the Indian editions of VogueGQGraziaArchitectural Digest and Condé Nast Traveller.