What are the chances that you work in an entry level position or even a middle level job in a hotel, a hospital, a software company, or a government organization? Or, for that matter, you could be a self-employed professional like a doctor, a lawyer, or a journalist. In all probability you are educated, know English, and are working in (or have interacted with) the corporate sector. Perhaps an MBA, or a student at an engineering college? You probably consider yourself a professional, or on the road to becoming one. Definitely your station in life is well above someone whose job is to bury unclaimed corpses from city hospitals.
I want to introduce the idea of who a professional is through a man whose life is dealing with dead bodies. Unclaimed dead bodies. This is not someone who is conventionally associated with the term ‘professional’. His name is Mahadeva. He came to Bangalore as a child when one day his mother simply walked out on her entire village and her own family in a huff. Mother and son lived on the streets; she worked to support him. Until the day she became very unwell. She brought herself and her son to the government run Victoria Hospital. There she was admitted in a state of delirium and her little son, Mahadeva, made the streets outside the hospital his home.
He found many playmates among the urchins there and soon that world engulfed him. It was the first time he had had anyone to play with. For little Mahadeva, it was his first experience of kinship and he lost himself completely in this new world. It was pure happenstance that one day someone told him his mother had died. Where had he been when that happened? Died? What was that? The hospital had been unable to wait for him and had disposed of the body. Now Mahadeva had nowhere to go. No family. A few people in the hospital ward where his mother had been admitted raised some money to help him go back to his village. He refused. Instead, he grew up running errands in the hospital. The hanger-on who had helped with his mother’s admission process and made a living by running errands for patients asked him to move in with him. He was an old man who had no one either. Mahadeva grew up under his tutelage; the hospital became his universe. And then, one day, the cops asked him to bury an unclaimed dead body and paid him Rs 200 for the job. This was when Mahadeva entered his profession and eventually became the go-to guy for burying the city’s unclaimed corpses. Every time the police picked up a dead body that had no claimants, Mahadeva was summoned. He had to do a turnkey job: Pull the stiff body from the morgue, hire a horse-drawn carriage, put the body in it and take it to a burial ground, dig the ground to bury the dead – all by himself, and for only Rs 200. After doing the job, he would hang around in the hospital to be summoned to dispose of the next unclaimed body. Mahadeva did his work with such dedication, focus, care and concern that soon he was very much in demand.
His work grew and he bought his own horse-drawn carriage, and between his horse and himself he was the undertaker to the abandoned.
One day, the horse died. People who had watched Mahadeva all these years came together and bought him an auto-rickshaw. The white auto-rickshaw, his hearse, carries the picture of the horse in memory of the animal who helped him take thousands of people to be laid to rest. It became the logo of his business and appears on his business card today.
Mahadeva has buried more than 42,000 corpses in his lifetime and his dedication has earned him phenomenal public recognition. Local petrol pumps do not charge him when his hearse is topped up and the chief minister of Karnataka felicitated him for his selfless service to the abandoned citizens of Bangalore. Mahadeva is proud of his work and business, and today his son has joined him. Mahadeva: the high performer, and a true professional.
What are the two qualities that Mahadeva has which differentiate a professional from someone who is simply professionally qualified? One is the ability to work unsupervised and, two, the ability to certify the completion of one’s work. Whenever Mahadeva got a call to reach the morgue, day or night, hail or high water, he arrived. Most of the time, it was a gruesome experience dealing with a dead body; there was no telling what had been the cause of death or state of decomposition.
In his business, Mahadeva does not choose his clients. He accepts them in whatever size, shape or state they come. He treats them with respect and care, with due dignity, covering them with a white sheet and placing a garland around their necks before burying them. The day he buried the man who had taken him home after his mother died, he had cried. He was special and Mahadeva had bought a garland as a mark of his respect. That day, it occurred to him that he should be garlanding all the bodies he buried, not just his benefactor’s. Everyone deserves respect and no one should feel ‘unwanted’ in death, even if life had treated them that way.
The cops do not supervise Mahadeva. He is not an employee of the hospital; he is the outsourcing agency the hospital has engaged for the disposal of all unwanted cadavers. He does not have a boss who writes his appraisal, giving him constructive feedback for continuous improvement. In most work environments, people who produce anything of economic value usually need supervision. A person who needs supervision is no professional. He is an amateur, maybe even an apprentice. Whenever Mahadeva picks up a corpse, it goes straight to the burial ground-no place else. He completes the task with the immediacy it demands. And he certifies his own completion of the task: between the dead and the living, there is no one to question him.
– from the book “The Professional” – by Subroto Bagchi