Learning from the Grave


When your parents are grave diggers, and you reside among the dead, you are treated like the dead – you don’t exist. That’s changing. Y Maheswar Reddy tells us the inspiring story of how a couple lifted these children up from the grave and gave them hope…

Children of grave diggers, reside among the dead at the Kalpalli Burial Ground. They go to school, but fail miserably as they have no one to guide them or lean on for economic and, more importantly, academic support. Often they drop out and take to their parents’ profession, one which has been in the family for three or more generations. They hoped to learn for learning was their only hope, but that hope evaporated as their circumstances got the better of them.

One of the problems is that the Kalpalli burial ground is isolated from residential areas in east Bengaluru. Additionally, poverty impacted their academic ability. School education in itself was insufficient as their innate ability remained underdeveloped due to a poor residential and academic environment once they leave school. What they needed was academic supplements – like tuitions and individual attention to enable them to cope and compete. But, their parents could neither afford the facility, nor did they know where to avail of it. Teachers too were reluctant, perhaps due to superstition.

“Many of us could not afford to pay tuition fee. If few of us afford the fee, teachers hesitate to give tuitions to these children. Teachers do not like these children entering their homes since they reside at the burial ground,’’ says Satya Shoury Raj, the daughter of a grave digger who works at a Day Care Centre at New Thippasandra.

Parents of these children have been pursuing the profession – digging graves – for the last three generations. Most of them have not gone to schools and find it difficult to get any other work. As digging graves is a low paid job and burials dependent on the will of God, they struggle to make ends meet. They do not want their children to follow them into their profession. All the families hope that their children will get good education and find better prospects in life.

Along came Samuel Gladson, an assistant professor at St. Joseph's College of Commerce, and Gleeda D'Silva, project manager at Dream India Network, like angels from heaven. They began to tutor these children through their project ‘Rupantara’, which began in 2016. Gladson and Gleeda, assisted by student volunteers, have been spending valuable time to enable the grave diggers’ children academically.

Around 50 children from 15 families of grave diggers are currently benefiting from this project. Volunteers visit the burial ground regularly to conduct after school classes. “The confidence level among these children has improved tremendously. We are very happy to see them even speaking in English,’’ says Satya Shoury Raj.

“Majority of these children are scoring good marks in exams. I teach high school students, my friend Samuel Gladson helps primary school students. I am happy to help these children,’’ says Gleeda, director of Hand in Hand.

Gleeda works part time at LabourNet, a professional entity that works for the welfare of needy people. She comes to the burial ground at 4 pm to help these children while her classmate and friend Gladson joins her at 5 pm to help the primary school students.

Encouraged and enabled by the volunteers, the children of grave diggers are becoming ambitious. They want to pursue higher studies. They do not want to follow their parents’ profession. “I am aware of stigma attached to my parents’ profession. I do not want to pursue it. I want to become a teacher,’’ says Rani, who is studying SSLC at St. Rock’s School.

The volunteers have been trying their best to create a conducive atmosphere at the burial ground, to ensure that the children attend tuitions on regular basis. While some prefer to sit on mats during the two-hour class, a few even grab seats on the graves. "We teach them all subjects, focusing on activity-based learning. We divide them into groups after assessing their mental levels. Though they manage to pass in school, grave digging has a major impact on their lives. Moreover, they see a lot of violence around them, especially domestic," said Gladson.
"They even face discrimination in school due to their family’s profession. Some don't want to share anything with their friends due to fear of losing them," he added.

The kids use the graves to play hide and seek or chat with their peers. "I don't want to go back to grave digging; it's not a good job," says a student. "I want to be a lawyer and help people from my community fight for their rights," says Catherine, a Class 9 student from St. Joseph's school.

Some, however, don't want to change their mind, says Gleeda, adding, "As many as 12 dropouts are planning to pursue the family profession. They consider it ‘God's work'. We are trying to counsel them." Some students who suffered from dyslexia and stammered in the past are now excelling in academics, thanks to regular practice. "They are very sharp and grasp quickly. They started communicating in English within one year of us coming here," said Samuel and Gleeda.

How it all began

While Samuel was completing his Masters in social work from St. Joseph's College (Autonomous) in 2014, he was asked to do research on a selected topic. "I chose to study about mortuary workers, but as the sample size was not big enough, I couldn't," said Samuel.

Around the same time, his grandfather died and he was brought to Kalpalli. "The way the gravedigger laid out his towel and asked for money intrigued me. I wanted to know more about their lives," added Samuel. He was told to work on the idea by his mentor. Samuel studied 50 families in 33 graveyards of Bengaluru, including Kalpalli, as part of the research and topped in college. He forgot about them until he returned to Kalpalli after a year during his friend's funeral. "I thought the gravediggers wouldn't even talk to me but they were extremely welcoming. It was then that I decided to make a difference to their kids' lives," he said.

"My graduation batch mate, Gleeda and I came up with the idea of educating the kids. But we didn't have enough money. One of her relatives, Stanley David, agreed to help financially, after which Project Rupantara was born. We have 50 students from classes 1 to 10 studying here from 15 families from Hindu and Christian burial grounds," explained Samuel.

However, these children were not able to attend the tuitions during the last monsoon. "When it rains and during exam time, those from class 9 upwards shift to our office to study. We are not allowed to put up a permanent structure at the burial ground. We badly need a makeshift tent to continue tuition during monsoon. It will cost around Rs 25,000. We expect donors for this purpose since our pockets are not deep," says Gleeda.

To encourage the children, these volunteers spend money on biscuits and chocolates. “We provide nutritious food once in a week to these children since, some of them are malnourished. We need Rs 3,000 to Rs 3,500 to provide nutritious food to these children,’’ narrates Gladson.
These volunteers are indeed doing a great job by religiously visiting the burial ground to enable the children of gravediggers to realise their dreams. Helping hands are always welcome says Gladson. He can be contacted at +91 7338464814.

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