Lahore Stories: Scared of the dead
By Ayesha Javed Akram
Akhtar Khan likes speaking to witches. He says they have interesting stories to tell, and aren’t bad looking at all. “Unless you look at their feet where the toes are pointed backward,” he said, with a glazed look in his eyes. Even when Khan is looking at you, his focus isn’t really you. The penny-shaped hazel eyes that take up most of his face seem to always be looking at another world – a world inhabited by ghosts, witches, and goblins. According to Khan, conversing with the other world-ers are a few advantages of being a gravedigger.
Five years ago, 21-year-old Khan started working in a graveyard in Samanabad after his parents died. “I was so devastated at their death, that I began spending most of my time here,” he recollects, looking out at the rows of gravestones dotting the yard. Before he was employed at the graveyard, he would pay the place a morning visit to scatter petals on his parents’ graves and an evening visit to sweep the graves. “I like being close to them,” he said, “which is why I don’t mind spending time here.”
Sometimes, when after his day’s work is done and he sits at his mother’s grave, he can actually hear her talk to him. But more often, those he has buried during the day talk to him in his sleep. “They all come in my dream, telling me whether they liked the way I made their grave or not.” The days Khan works hard and takes extra care to make the grave sturdy and comfortable, he goes home certain of pleasant dreams. “But sometimes, when I am not very careful with making the brick walls and putting the slabs in the right place, I prepare myself for bad dreams,” he says, speaking softly as if he didn’t want those gathered around him to hear anything.
We were sitting on charpoys in a spacious courtyard next to the graveyard’s entrance. Khan’s feet were caked with mud from the gravesite he had just finished digging, his fingernails had grime collected under them, and thin beads of sweat were still gathering on his forehead. Digging graves is hard work, he said, which is why he doesn’t think women are suited to the job. Some days Khan has to dig seven to eight graves a day – his record in the last five years. On other occasions, he spends fortnights without even digging a single grave.
Around Khan were gathered the other gravediggers who work in the same place. Some wore shalwar kurtas, others were outfitted in dhotis, and the youngest of them all, a 15-year-old who was still learning the art of digging graves, was dressed in a button-down shirt and neatly pressed trousers. On the floor behind them sat two elderly men, salt and pepper beards flowing down to their waists, long nails curled at the ends, and strings of beads hanging around their necks. These sufis had made the graveyard their regular meeting place, and the gravediggers were too scared of them to request them to move. “What are you afraid of?” I ventured to ask. “They might curse us,” Khan answered. Curses are his worst fear, and to ward off evil spirits, Khan wears a number of protective lockets and bracelets.
But coming back to graves, there are some he enjoys far more than others. “On occasion, we are handed a limb, and once I was even just given a hand to bury,” he said. The limb-graves are a breeze to dig, but they also give Khan the worst nightmares. “I dream of faceless-limbs running after me, searching for their bodies,” he said, his face deadly serious as his companions roared with laughter.
Khan’s biggest worry is the crime he has started committing on a regular basis. Due to a lack of space in the graveyard, graves are now being dug one on top of the other. “We only dig graves over those that no one visits but what if a long-lost family member comes to find them one day, and the grave is lying four graves below the surface,” he said, his brow wrinkling with anxiety, “what answer will I give them then?”
To save himself from the ghosts of all the bodies he has buried, Khan has told his companions that when he dies, he doesn’t want to be buried here. “I want to go as far away as possible from here,” he said, “otherwise all those who are not happy with their graves will make my time in the grave very difficult.”