The headstone inscriptions on the graves at the Lal Kurti cemetery help to chart history Image Credit: Rohit Ghosh

It is hard to locate Jai Prakash Yadav among the more than 15,000 graves in the Lal Kurti cemetery but he is there somewhere — maybe lazing under an old tree in the shade or tending to a plot.

In his sixties, Yadav is the caretaker here just as was his father and grandfather before him, a lineage that goes back more than 120 years in one of the oldest cemeteries in Kanpur, the second largest city in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India.

“Kallu Yadav was my grandfather,” Yadav tells Weekend Review. “I do not know the exact year when he became the caretaker, but I guess he worked here for some 30 to 35 years. He died in 1920. My father, Babu Lal was appointed in his place.”

Babu Lal died in 2000 when he was 105 years old, and so Jai Prakash became the new caretaker.

It an area with a lot of history. Initially the British selected Kanpur [formerly Cawnpore] to establish a cantonment and, because of the soldiers and their families stationed there, trade and business flourished. Administrative offices and courts also brought business, and both British and Indians alike saw opportunity and set up industries. Soon, Kanpur became the biggest city in north India by the last quarter of the 19th century. Churches, hospitals, schools, clubs came to Kanpur — and so did cemeteries.

“The British set up four cemeteries in Kanpur,” explains Manoj Kapoor, a local historian. “One has been occupied by squatters, two have been declared protected monuments. Lal Kurti is the biggest and is still in use.”

Interestingly, since the British left in 1947, no new cemetery has been opened in the city.

Lal Kurti cemetery derives its name from its adjacent cantonment. Lal in English means red while kurti means tunic — a reference to the colour of the uniforms worn both by British and Indian troops, and so the region came to be known as Lal Kurti.

A photographic memory

“My father was dedicated to the cemetery,” explains Yadav. “He had a few workers under him and he would ensure that the cemetery was spick and span. You would not have found even a dry leaf. Above all, he had a photographic memory. You had to name a dead person and he would have taken you to his or her grave within minutes. The chances of his making a mistake were nil. And you must remember, there are 12,000 graves of British people in the cemetery.”

Today, Yadav still has to go through the old records of the cemetery if a person wishes to see the grave of his or her dead ancestor. “We have the records of all the people who were buried in the cemetery since 1924,” he says.

Babu Lal was also a gravedigger, and would dig a grave using a small trowel. It was a task that usually took him 15 days. Once one grave was ready, he would start digging a fresh one.

“It is very hard to say how many graves my father must have dug,” Yadav says. “He worked here for 80 years. He may have dug thousands. In fact, he was busy digging a grave on the day he died. He returned home from the cemetery in the evening and suddenly collapsed and died.” These days, Yadav hires four workers to dig a grave.

Historically, burials took place with much fanfare. The funeral cortege would come to a halt at the gate of the cemetery. The caretaker was in a livery, and followed by a band, he would lead the coffin and mourners to a grave. “The caretaker would keep sprinkling water in front of him as he marched up to the grave,” Yadav says.

The tales are all part of a treasure of anecdotes on the lives of common British people. “My father knew the British personally,” Yadav says. “They knew him. For example, he was very friendly with a locomotive driver whose wife is buried in the cemetery. The driver would spend his nights at his wife’s grave.”

Yadav says the British ranked the cemeteries according to their neatness, and it was because of the efforts of Babu Lal that Lal Kurti always had a high place in the rankings. Today, wild bushes have overrun the cemetery and it has a somewhat decrepit look even though it seems tombstones are immune to the passage of time and onslaught of rough weather. Their inscriptions are still legible just as they were on the day they were erected. They remain a rich source of information for anyone who is interested on the British then living in Kanpur, and it’s easy to spend hours reading the inscriptions.

Kapoor says the inscriptions help to chart history. “Supposing a tombstone reads: ‘Erected by his regiment in memory of W. J. Pearce, the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, who died at Cawnpore on June 25th, 1924, aged 22 years.’ Without any doubt, it can be concluded that Kanpur was a cantonment town in 1924 and Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry was stationed here. We will get a clearer picture of old Kanpur if we study the older tombstones.”

Lal Kurti cemetery also contains the graves of 51 soldiers from Kanpur who fought and died in the two world wars. The tombstones also indicate that many British in Kanpur died at an early age. One tombstone reads: ‘Emily, the beloved wife of Henry Tall. Who died 16th May 1883, aged 35 years. Also, her two children Elizabeth Maude and Earnest Joshua who died the same month. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.’

Another one says: ‘Sacred to the memory of George E. Crawford, son of the late Major Arthur Crawford, who died of small pox at Kanpur April 6th, 1883, aged 26 years. The monument is erected as a mark of esteem by the members of the Kanpur Volunteer Rifle Corps of which he was a Liet and Adjutant. Rest in Peace.’

As Kapoor notes: “England is a cold place. India just the opposite — hot and tropical. The English could not bear the weather and there were diseases like malaria and cholera. Medical facilities at that time were not so advanced.”

India became independent in 1947 but some British families continued living in Kanpur for a few more years. Up to the 1950s, British families kept visiting Lal Kurti cemetery and Babu Lal would be happy as he received a generous tip from the visitors. As time passed, less British came and now even fewer come to visit.

“Now it is very rare,” Yadav explains. “Once in a while, an English man or a woman visits the cemetery — maybe once in five years or so.”

All Souls’ Day is observed every year on November 2, a day when Christians remember their dead relatives, light candles and place flowers on graves.

Lal Kurti cemetery teems with people on that day and Yadav is also busy with requests to whitewash or clean graves. And on that night each year, the far end of the cemetery containing the graves of Indians glows with the light of hundreds of candles and the air is heavy with the smell of fresh flowers and incense.

Even then, the graves of 12,000 British men, women and children who are eternally sleeping at Lal Kurti cemetery, far away from their home, remain unattended.

Rohit Ghosh is a writer based in Kanpur, India.