The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, August 20, 2000
Time Off

The sad story of unquiet graves
By Manohar Malgonkar

NANI PALKHIVALA is one of the country’s foremost lawyers. But he is also an astute and clear-headed economist who has the ability to demystify the complexities of high finance. That is why his annual dissection of the country’s latest budget is so fully attended, so widely discussed.

I remember how he made a point which touched the truth of the theme of his lecture that we had become the world’s Highest Taxed Nation. This was during the sixties, when, Nehru’s Big Brother shadow fell over everything. Palkhivala had us sitting up and listening intently when he said something like this:

"If what I have been saying has made you realise that, for most of us who earn a good living, declare our incomes, pay our taxes, ours is a pretty difficult country to live in. Now let me tell you this: It is an even more difficult country to die in."

And then Palkhivala went on to show, giving precise figures, how if a very rich man were to die leaving Rs 1 crore to his heirs, his heirs would not only have to sell all his assets, but borrow money to satisfy the tax man’s claims for death duties.

A crore in the sixties was wealth beyond the dreams of avarice: worth about Rs 20 crore today. But the country’s finance ministers had devised methods to make sure that no one could be rich enough to leave behind enough money to pay the fine for the crime of having lived and earned money.


Rare manuscripts
August 13, 2000

Letters for sale
July 30, 2000

Retreat from Naulakha
July 16, 2000
The land of goats
July 2, 2000
What a tangled web !
June 25, 2000
Rivers for sale
June 4, 2000
Knowing when to stop
May 14, 2000
The lingering memory
May 7, 2000

Anyhow, this is not an article on financial wisdom, but about something else Mr Palkhivala told us that day, that the dead often create a lot of problems for other people.

When a famous man dies, there are always people who want to claim him as their own. In ancient Greece, when the poet Homer died, several small towns in Greece claimed to have been his birthplace and caused riots and killings. In the same manner, in recent memory, when the Burmese statesman, U Thant, who had been the Secretary General of the United Nations in the 1960s died, and his body was flown back to Burma, there were bloody riots in Rangoon among U Thant’s admirers over the right place for his grave.

At that, U. Thant obviously belonged to a religion which believes in burying its dead and Burma — like ourselves is a secular land which permits both cremation or burial to say nothing of disposal by other methods such as the one favoured by the Parsis, of being fed to vultures. Because there are countries which hold that their soil would be rendered impure by the interment of a dead body of a person who belonged to a religion different from their own.

The classic example was Saudi Arabia. Up until the 1970s, the Arabian American Oil Company, Aramco, held the virtual monopoly for extracting and selling the country’s petroleum products. Aramco always had around 1300 American citizens working in Saudi Arabia. These Americans lived as a pampered community. They were given padded salaries, extra leave and everything that an American citizen was used to: Coca-cola, hamburgers, corn flakes. They had social centres, dance halls, libraries, even facilities for prayers except that their churches did not bear crosses and their priests, no priestly robes. They even had a little cemetery in which bodies placed in coffins could not be buried. Instead, they had to be encased in concrete blocks, as though they were some kind of a nuclear waste, leakproof. It was these rectangular concrete blocks that formed the graves in the Aramco cemetery.

One wonders if there are similar prohibitions in other Islamic lands, too. What happens, say, to the victims of a car crash in Peshawar or Kandahar, in which a Hindu or Christian dies, and the body is so severely mangled as to make body-bag repatriation impractical? Would a cremation be allowed? — a burial? And even if it can be done, just think of the procedural runround that those responsible for the body would be put through?

But it is not only Islamic countries that look upon the dead of other faiths as soil-pollutants. Until quite recently, things were just as difficult in parts of Europe. Why, in Italy in the 19th century Roman Catholics, too, were strict about not permitting cremations on their soil or even the burial of Protestant Christians.

In 1822, the British poet, Shelly, was drowned in the sea near Leghorn in Italy, after the small boat in which he was travelling capsized in a storm. Shelly’s companion, a sailor named Edward Trelawny, rescued the poet’s body and dragged it to the beach. Trelawny scrounged around for flotsam and cremated Shelley’s body, seemingly without realising that he was violating a papal taboo. Then Trelawny collected the poet’s ashes and took them to Rome, where he delivered them to the British Consul, Joseph Severn.

As it happened, Joseph Severn — the same man who had looked after the poet John Keats in his last illness — had known Shelly, too, quite well. Only a few weeks earlier Severn had had to send a soothing letter to his own family in England, making it plain that, just because he was friendly with men such as Shelly and Byron who had so scandalized Britain’s society by their poetry as well as by their decadent behaviour, it did not mean that he, Severn, had actually become a member of their fast set. Now Severn found himself responsible for burying Shelley’s ashes.

From England, Shelley’s widow, Mary, wrote to say what she wanted done. Mary was Shelley’s second wife. The first one had committed suicide, after bearing Shelley a son who had died in infancy, and been buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. Now Mary Shelley wanted her husband’s ashes buried alongside his son’s grave.

This, Severn discovered, was not possible. A year or so earlier, the Papal Government had closed down that cemetery because of overcrowding, and opened up a new area for a Protestant graveyard. That was where Shelley’s ashes were buried.

Then Severn, intent on carrying out Mary Shelley’s behest faithfully, decided to exhume Shelley’s son’s grave, remove the body and bury it in a grave alongside that of Shelley. When he had the child’s grave opened, however, he discovered to his horror that it contained the skeleton of a fully grown man. It seemed that the pressure on space in the old cemetery had become so acute that its keepers had taken to recycling grave-sites — digging up old graves and throwing away the bodies so as to make room for new graves.

Well, if 19th century Italy looked upon Protestant-Christian graves as a desecration of their soil, imagine the horror with which it must have reacted to a request for a ritualistic Hindu cremation!

It happened in 1870, in Florence, where an Indian Maharaja had died. He was Rajaram, of Kolhapur; barely 20, brought up by carefully chosen British tutors. The Raj’s keepers, keen to give Rajaram’s upbringing its finishing touches, were giving him a guided tour of Europe. Before they had set out,Kolhapur’s own priests had made known their apprehensions about this brazen defiance of a Hindu taboo against the crossing of ‘The Black water’. But Rajaram himself, a willing pupil of his English tutors had paid no heed. So far, the tour had been a raging success. Rajaram had had his audience with Queen Victoria, gone fox-hunting in England, shot grouse in Scotland, seen a military tattoo, attended horse-races, sat through an opera and even polished his ballroom dancing. Florence came at the tail end of the grand tour. There on November 30, he died.

The city authorities were horrified at being asked to permit a cremation. They passed the request to the Council of Ministers in Rome. Luckily for Rajaram’s harried attendants, the British Consul in Florence, Sir Augustus Paget, came to their rescue. He must have had to do some heroic wire-pulling and arm-twisting among the Pope’s advisors. But that very night, the Council of Ministers gave their OK. The next morning, the body of Maharaja Rajaram was cremated on the banks of the Arno.

Surely, the very first Hindu cremation on Italian soil!