Guarding the dead

A 60 feet skeleton of a whale greets the visitors at the entrance of the Government Museum’s zoology section. It had landed up dead at the coastline in the late 1800s and paves the way to the life-like Tyrannosaurus rex that growls to life as a guard flips the switch. A dinosaur with wings tied with strings at the ceiling then takes short flights but a child watching the whole scene starts crying at its earsplitting shriek.

As one wades past the taxidermied orangutan and the sperm whale’s skeletal head and the vulture and other exotic birds, displayed inside the glass chambers, the reptile section is in view.

It adorns dead snakes put on display, all kinds of them; from the cobra’s dead mien to the skeleton of a python. On the walls are various poisonous and non- poisonous snakes like embellishments for the visitors’ delight (or horror). On the other side of the hall are lifeless turtles, their dark lustered shells shining in the white museum lights as bright as pearls.

Guarding both these glorious, dead animals (or their skins) is 41-year-old J. Radha. In a burgundy sari, the guard’s indigo jacket, minimal jewelry, a bindi on her forehead and hair tied back into a braid, she sits there in a quiet vigilance.

“My shift is from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and my job is to keep the place clean and make sure that nobody touches the specimens.” She sits among the remains on display, watching people go through various emotions like joy, wonder, amusement, and sometimes fear, as they pass the reptiles.

Sometimes when the footfall is less these cadavers are her only companions in the death-like silence. “It doesn’t bother me,” she laughs.

Hailing from Tiruvannamalai, Radha has been a guard for about a year now. She lives in Amabattur here with her mother-in-law and one of her two sons. She travels every day to Egmore, a distance of roughly 18 kms which she covers by the suburban train. “I can’t afford to live nearer as the rent is too high in Chennai,” she says.

Her husband was in the army and she was a housewife, after his death she received this job as a veer nari. “My husband was very loving. He’d come home once a year. He died of high blood pressure; I wish he had cared more about his health.”

She has studied till 10th standard at a school in her village in Villupuram district. “I am still in touch with my friends who are housewives,” she says pensively. Now her two sons are studying in a polytechnic, one here in Chennai.

In her quietness she’s like one of the snake specimens that she guards, who, in life, had looked after their families just as fiercely in odd circumstances. “Sometimes there are tussles between my mother-in-law and I but then we sort it out.” Her family knows what she brings to the table.

At half past four, she gets up and informs the other guards on duty that they need to lock the doors. Time is up. She changes from her uniform to a muted sari and meets with another female guard well past her prime who is assigned the Hindu scriptures section at the Archaeology division of the museum. They walk back to the station.

Nov 17, 2016