My guest in this episode is a woman who deals with death on a daily basis. What do you think her profession is? A policewoman? A cancer surgeon? A forensic investigator? Or perhaps a writer of crime fiction?
Let me give you another hint. She is someone who moved from what’s probably the most common profession chosen by engineering graduates in India, to the most uncommon one. You probably guessed the first part — yes, she started in IT. What she did later is a lot harder to guess.
Shruti Reddy started working as a developer in the IT industry in 2006. But after about a decade in what she describes as “hard-core techie” roles, she quit and started a funeral services company. That’s right, a company that offers services “assisting you in your loved ones last journey”.
I must confess I was a bit nervous about how this episode would turn out. That’s because while the subject matter was fascinating, I wondered if the conversation would live upto the expectations this topic generated. I needn’t have worried. Shruti, as you will soon hear, animates the conversation with her unbounded energy and enthusiasm, traits that have kept her going in this very difficult field. She opens up about the challenges she faced starting this venture, and she shares her ambitions for the future — not just of her company but of the industry in general. She talks about her previous life in the IT industry, the attitudes she saw there, and how she dealt with them. She reveals her deep interest in spirituality and her thoughts on a good death. She ruminates on how the five years in this field have changed her personally.
Death may be a morbid subject, but this conversation is anything but morbid. I hope you have as much fun listening to Shruti as I did talking to her.
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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
In the last week or so whenever I have told any friend of my mine that my next podcast guest is a woman who left IT and started a funeral services company, they have become immediately super curious. Their eyes widen, their ears perk up, and they want to know more. That was my reaction too when I first heard about you from Malini who was in this podcast in January.
So perhaps that is a good place to begin — with an overview of your current venture Anthyesti. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about the services you offer in this company and your current role there.
Anthyesti as the name suggests is actually one of the sixteen sanskaras of the Hindu life. The last sanskara is the Anthyesti samskara, which means last rites. That’s where I picked up my company’s name from.
I would like to introduce Anthyesti as a professional funeral planning solution, more of a one stop solution when it comes to arranging of your dead body carriers. hearse vans, freezer boxes, preservation of the dead, embalming and also ending with the cremation day. Sometimes going into the event management, wherein we do the twelve day or thirteenth day Shrardh pooja services. And in very rare cases, something we just started off just a couple of months back, the “asthi visarjan” (immersion of the ashes) in the holy places across India, like Varanasi.
Further, when someone loses a relative or a friend in a different country or a different city, we also have the transportation available in terms of train, air and road. When I mean transportation it is not just a logistics job but it has more to do with coordination with the funeral undertakers over there and coordination with the family over here. So the documentation, the clearances, the customs, the police — there are lot of people that come into play if we have to transport a coffin from a different country to your hometown.
The last case that I remember — during covid time — is one where we helped one of our clients fulfil the last wishes of his dead mom by doing the dispersal of ashes in the holy Ganges in Rameswaram and also in Kasi.
Well firstly kudos to the child who ensured that their mom’s last wishes were fulfilled. And my team was actually there with the client and their family all through their stay in Varanasi, giving a very personal touch to them while the complete processes and rituals were going on. We even accompanied them to Rameswaram and that is how we gave a very beautiful end to their mother’s last wishes.
Now this is what gives me my kick in this service Manohar. See how do you really feel when you know that you are fulfilling someone’s last wishes who isn’t even related to you? This is what makes me really happy to the core. This was the main reason why I have come up with Anthyesti.
Another example that I could share of is of a case again during Covid. There was a sailor’s body that was stuck at Glasgow, okay. And his brother-in-law was coordinating with us all the way from Glasgow and the body needed to go to Bhardaman in West Bengal. I started Anthyesti in Calcutta about four years back so I would say that we are headquartered at Calcutta and my initial first team members are present there in Calcutta. And with the help of them we ensured them that the body was transported safely all the way from Glasgow to the deceased’s wife in Bhardhaman.
And now during Covid time even the trains were not working, it so happened that the family couldn’t come down from Bhardhaman to Calcutta airport. But then we had taken the complete responsibility — or rather my team present in Calcutta they had taken the complete responsibility — from Kolkata airport and then they ensured that the body reached safely in Bardhaman.
These team members when they had delivered the coffin, the family members were literally holding my team member’s hands while weeping over the coffin. This is really for me a goosebumps kind of experience whenever we go through these cases day in and day out.
I would say that this is more of a ‘blessing over bucks’ kind of business that we are in to. So, this is the main reason I quit my IT job bad got into a profession where it’s really a nice experience at the end of the day when you feel that you are impacting so many people’s lives.
Yes, it’s hard to imagine the field where the impact is more right and so personal as well. And this field is pretty far from the everyday experience of most people, so I’m happy that you went into those cases that makes it more tangible, what you people do. You also have a foundation for organ donation, right? What does that do?
That’s right, so I started off my NGO exactly a year after I had set up my funeral services company. And the motivation for me to start my organ donation was that because exactly around the same year we started off something known as pre-planning of funeral services.
Demographically Kolkata has many senior citizens in the city. People say that Kolkata is really a city of joy, you could go there to retire. So a huge number of old people live in that city and that also results in their children, going out of the city to work, be it in different cities or different countries.
So, I would get many requests stating that “do you have a service wherein I can book myself before I die, so that if something happens to me you guys can come and take over the whole scenario while you wait for their relatives and children to come down.”
Well, we looked at some legal aspects and finally we did a soft launch of this product, of the pre-planning, and during the course of formulating this agreement, I got many queries from the old people saying that, “Listen Shruthi, I have a wish that I want to donate my organs before I die”.
Now organ donation was totally a different subject to me. I just did not know where to start with and how to start with.
So, the quest for a new service — for a new NGO — started off with a couple of my clients last wishes again. So, then I delved much deeper into it and then the more I read about it… can you believe this Manohar, I read that it is only about 0.36 per million population in India donate their organs. Which means it is not even one per million population. Whereas in relatively less populated countries like Spain and the other European countries it is about 34 per million.
So, there is a big need to create awareness right?
Exactly, and the biggest difference over there is that you need not take permission from people to take their organs when they are really in that state, because their organs are considered as national resources . Unlike the law in our country which says you need to have a proper approval from the relative of the person who dies to take the organs.
So it took me like about one year to understand what exactly the complete field is about. I had taken this training from Mohan foundation which is the pioneer of organ donations in India — I took a couple of courses and I ensured that Mohan foundation people came down and taught a couple of my volunteers in Calcutta to kickstart the whole project.
And then we were like quite successful in tying up with bodies like NASSCOM and the other youth wings CII etc. wherein they had given their projects of creating organ donation awareness to us. We would go to these places like to corporates, to colleges just to give awareness about this whole field of organ donation.
And what’s surprising is that you know very educated people like, probably you and me, we think that any normal person can donate organs. But the more I read about it I realised that no, a person needs to be privileged enough to donate his organs. Because until unless a person dies a certain death known as brain death — which is generally a case of brain trauma patients, and like brain hemorrhages or road traffic accidents is the most usual case in India which record the highest brain death cases — because only in those cases can you donate. The brain is dead but then all the organs are kept alive while being on a ventilator. So, it is those cases wherein you are eligible or rather privileged to donate your organs.
And in typical cardiac deaths like the deaths that happen in hospitals or at homes the least that we can do, or the least that we can actually ask the deceased family, is for them to donate the corneas. But there is such a huge misconception such a huge fear in people’s minds about this. In fact the most religious of people they tell me that, “Oh no, if I donate my organs in this life there is a huge probability that I might be born blind in my next life or I might be born without limbs or legs in the next life”.
So, such kinds of misconceptions are there, and the way the whole topic kind of engrossed me I realised that I think that we really need to start a mass awareness camp and I need to start an NGO. So that’s how the whole idea just came up. Also, back in 2017, we were doing like about two to three cremations per day and somehow the thought struck my mind that you know, people are just either burning the organs or burying their organs — why don’t they ever think about giving a life to someone.
So that’s how the organ donation wing of Anthyesti foundation was born. And you know what, in a country like India it’s very difficult to get funds and donations for this topic in spite of knowing that there is a huge awareness issue, only because it is one of the biggest grey market, it is a very grey area.
It’s a fascinating topic and while you were speaking I was reminded of this movie called Ship of Theseus — have you seen it?
Yes I have.
For listeners who don’t know the concept, the Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment where you take a ship and you then over time you replace individual parts and after a period of time all the parts are replaced. So, is it the same ship or is it different one? And the same metaphor or idea is mapped to this whole idea of organs, and over a period of time you get organs from others — then are you the same person or a different person? It is a deep philosophical question as a nice movie too.
You were talking about the grey market.
Yes, because after I had made my NGO and I started asking for donations and grants what I realised is that this is not really an easy area where a pharma company or a health tech company would want to donate their CSR funds to. Because if like I said that there are so much of untapped market when it comes to how will these organs be harvested? We tend to kind of make huge hue and cry saying, listen we are into this only the awareness part of it and we are not really into the harvesting of organs or putting of organs, because that is a totally different thing which is to be taken care by the government, the police, the hospitals.
In order to make one organ donation happen there are so many people who are involved in this so that, you could say it’s the beauty of the law and also the disadvantage of the law that currently India is facing.
That is one part of foundation and another aspect of foundation that I wanted to introduce — in fact which I am currently right now working with — is: can my foundation change the state and face of crematoriums in India?
You know Manohar I actually read somewhere that the crematorium or the graveyard and a mother’s womb — these two are supposed to be one of the most sacred places on earth. Well for most obvious reasons because the womb is the place where life begins and the graveyard is the place where life ends.
I have actually personally visited a majority of crematoriums in these five cities; Delhi, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Pune and Bangalore. And believe me a person would not really want to go and spend more than fifteen minutes over there. Whereas he or she is forced to spend like about one hour one and a half hour in all the crematoriums. So, it is one of the not so kept clean place, a kind of shabby place.
So that is one aspect to it and in fact I can say that I have proudly pounded the pavements of the crematoriums in all these cities. And I remember when I undertook this research, all ninety nine point nine nine percent of the people in the crematoriums were men and they would just give me this silent gaze: Oh my God what is this female doing in the crematoriums. And I would explain to them that it is a part of the research, I really want to see what is happening in the cities when it comes to cremation etc.
So, another aspect that I found out that it is very sad that in a highly polluted place like Delhi ninety nine percent of them again prefer wooden cremation. So okay Hyderabad, Delhi and it’s just that in Bangalore and Calcutta people are still going to the electric cremations over wooden cremations. It’s just that in metros that are talking about electric cremations, in the top metros. Only God knows what’s happening in the tier two and tier three cities but majority of people are still preferring to do the burning of wood.
Is there a cost angle to this or is it just a traditional thing?
I guess its both, if you ask me eighty seven percent of our country’s population is Hindus and Hindus believe that in order to give salvation to the soul one of the ways to cremate a body is on wood. But again, these principles really were valid so many years back when conservation of natural resources was not a thing, but now we all are very much clear about how much carbon footprint each of us is causing.
It’s fascinating — you bring up so many different dimensions to to this topic which I was not even aware of (and I am sure the listeners would feel the same way). We should come back to this Shruti when we will trace the complete arc of your career and then look at the transition as well.
So, let’s move back into the early part of your career. So, you finished your B. Tech in electrical and electronics, you graduated in 2006 and then you joined the IT industry and you were there for about a decade. So, take me through that journey a little bit — what kind of a companies did you work for in what kind of roles and how was your experience? What were some of the highlights of that journey?
I was a very darling daughter of my parents because I did everything that my parents wanted me to do. Being born in a south Indian family, in the nerdy south I guess everyone is … they don’t have any other option either to become an engineer or a doctor.
Fortunately, or unfortunately I got into one of the most difficult streams of engineering — electricals and electronics was a difficult field. And my initial graduation days paved the path for me to an entrepreneur or for me to get into the slogging lifestyle or the hustling lifestyle. Because we would actually not have personal life because the syllabus was so expansive and exhaustive that we would go on weekends also to finish our course curriculum.
And then after that the big IT tide had come and that’s how I got placed into Satyam immediately, during a part of my campus placement. And my parents were like damn happy, they were like the golden years, wow my daughter has got a job into the IT and after that, after me joining the IT industry Satyam within one and a half years I got my first on site.
Where was that?
That was in Spain. We had to go there to do an onsite assignment. I never had an international trip until then with my parents and that was the first ever time, I was setting my foot out of my country and I was all alone. So, these things really made me brave, strong and to face situations because there were innumerable experiences when I went into a different country, spoke to different people, how to get adjusted to different cultures. So, it made me more and more accommodative to things around me.
And so after Satyam (where I worked for close to five years) I moved on to a different company called i-Medex, which was more of a product based company.
But before I moved to my product based company, I think I would want to share this experience with my so-called sexist boss who is the main reason as to my another major transformation in my life because I still remember that he would just pass a general comment that Shruti a face like yours should be either in the teaching or should b e a receptionist, what are you doing in the coding industry?
But I mean it’s not surprising because we know that these attitudes do exist, and in fact Malini (with whom I had the podcast conversation in January) is in a role where she is looking at the gender aspect — of women in IT and how that can be made better in that specific company. And this is a space which requires, which has actually made some progress, but it still requires so much more of advancement in terms of attitudes, in terms of even accepting women in roles where it’s been traditionally men who have been calling the shots.
Exactly, I totally agree with this. It was because of that one comment that he had passed on to my life that I took it as a kind of challenge. I took it as a challenge to that extent that I made it as my my dream that as long as I am in the IT industry, I am definitely going to be into the hardcore technology jobs. Although I have seen many of my female colleagues and peers who started off their journey as hardcore techie jobs, IT engineers, but as and when they got married and had children, I have seen that either quit the jobs or they had moved into the managerial positions.
But I ensured that I did not do that, and slowly I was just getting into the Java coding roles and then going to the senior Java roles itself and then going to an architect’s level. And it so happened that in the last IT company, we were just the two females in a floor completely of about thirty men. So, this again also kind of geared me up for my current profession of funeral services which is again totally male dominated. Also I never had this fear that what am I doing in a room full of twenty men or what am I doing in a crematorium full of thirty, thirty-five men. So, each and every aspect I did in my IT had geared me up for this role.
So you were in this hardcore techie kind of job in this product based company, but obviously something wasn’t meeting your expectations. There was some trigger probably which led you to thinking about a life beyond IT. So, tell me a little bit about that, what led you towards entrepreneurship as an idea in general and specifically about funeral services?
I always felt that I was born with a golden spoon and got whatever I had asked for or whatever I had desired for, either through my confidence or my grit and motivation. So, I just explained to you right now that I had four years of graduation and immediately started off my career and I had ten years of undisturbed career.
In between I had gotten married to the person of my choice, that was also a very long history and different story. It was about victory, I never wanted to fail. So that was also my winning aha moment, and then having a child when we had planned for — so things were like really going on very smoothly, very very smoothly. In fact, my boss was so kind to me that although I had moved to Calcutta along with my husband, he gave me a two-year ‘work from home’ job, so I was basking in glory at that point of time because I was a full-time mom with my just born baby. I am a very proud, I can really proudly say that I breastfed my child for close to two years only because of the job, the feasibility that my job gave me. And I was also doing this the same hardcore techie job that I was into. So, I was really loving my IT profession.
For me to do my job I need to get a kick in that job. I literally use this word kick because even initially also in the first part of conversation I said that impacting life and impacting people is what is right now giving me a kick. Similarly, in the IT profession also it is more about how a small coma or a semi colon the code can actually give rise to so many different things in the experience for the end user. So, I had a lot of energy and enthusiasm when it came to solving the production bugs, coding, ensuring that how a couple of lines of this logic is actually leading to something very beautiful in the people’s screen, is leading to a very great user experience.
So, all this was going on good when ultimately a call came from by boss saying, listen Shruti it’s enough, it’s two years now, either you need to come back to Hyderabad (because that was the last job was where I worked) or you need to call it quits, because we are no more able to support you.
So that was a very turning point moment for me in my life I would say. And you know by then I was already thinking that it’s been ten years, and I wanted to start off something on my own. Having said that, I strongly believe that there is no point in me taking my baby and going to Hyderabad for my job, because children when they are young, they definitely need both the parents. So I had to make that sacrifice, I had to quit my job and I was steered into doing something else.
Now typically an IT engineer having ten years of experience would have gone into starting a company which is into further providing IT services or other products but I was very keen on doing something different.
So funeral services: there was a very personal experience that I had in my family because my husband, he is a Sikh Punjabi and I have seen that specifically you are a non-local of that city ( this was in Hyderabad) it becomes very difficult for you to arrange services according to your customs and rituals. This was again back in 2014, so at that point of time I thought that if I really want to start something as a company, I think funeral services should not be a bad idea. But this was more like an idea and I didn’t not really know what it takes to start a company, what is it like to be an entrepreneur.
So, this was what the thing with which I started off. But yes in between, see I am a person who has straightly gone into running a company from being a shy person behind the computers whose world was just coding. So, it was a major transition for me. I did not know ABC of management I did not even have a management post-graduation degree. I thought maybe taking degree would help me out, so I spent a couple of months here and there. In fact, I would say that was the only break I have taken in my career. So, I spent a couple of months here and there to do the GMAT, I gave my GMAT and then I got a call from IIM Lucknow etc.
And it was just at that crux of the moment when one of my friends from Toast Masters told me, see Shruti don’t think that learning a management degree is going to teach you how to run a company, it is more about networking and it is more about getting the right people on board. So, with that money why don’t you just start up your busines and then you kickstart and you see you, you know people will come along the way.
So I just took that advice very seriously and I started my company in 2016. And then I realised that you need a lawyer and you need a CA and something known a marketing department. So I was just a spoke in the wheel at some point of time and now I had suddenly jumped to a position wherein I had to manage the whole vehicle.
That’s a very nice metaphor. So you were thrown into the water and you had to learn to swim by yourself.
Exactly. Yeah, and you know while along the way I just realised that whatever I was doing it was garnering a lot of attention, PR people were writing about it and so, although one side of the job was… it was very grim, it was very dark. Day in and day out handle death calls talk to people who are in depression, talk to people who are literally on their last words, they would be crying etc.
And whereas the other side people were really writing about the company for the great job that we were doing, so this kind of kept my balance, this really kept my sanity. One of my clients who was very impressed with our job, he told me, “Beti, kam aisa karo ki naam na bathana pade ya varna naam aisa kamao ki kaam na bathana pade”. (Do a job in such a way that you don’t need to use a name, or earn such a name that you don’t have to talk about the job).
So, these are the things which I have like beautiful memories with my clients that has really made me what I am right now in the funeral services. Initially we just started off with the end-to-end funeral planning but then later on, on the go I read more about it, I realized oh this thing also we can do, this also is supposed to run, etc. So that’s how I just kept learning about the domain knowledge experience along the way, made my network with a couple of people abroad, other undertakers in different cities and that’s how we are going about it right now.
I am a little interested in the early phase. So you had this idea, but of course it’s not just you — so you need to talk probably to your family and it’s not a very usual profession as we have discussed so far. So I am curious about what was their reaction, what was the reaction of your family and friends and how did that play out when you were considering this kind of a transition?
When it comes to reactions, definitely it was two people who matter a lot to me in my life, my mother and my husband. So their permission was the most important thing for me to kickstart this profession. It was not very difficult convincing my husband because the main idea stemmed from the fact that he had lost his grandfather and I really wanted to work towards establishing an industry, a start-up which would cater to that.
So, I mean frankly or fortunately I never had this problem of him doubting my ability on what would a woman do in a male dominated industry. Will she be able to navigate through it, will she be able to steer through it — these doubts had never come up either in his mind or in my mind. The only thing that he told me was sure, go ahead let me know if you need any support. He himself is not a businessman and he doesn’t really know at that point of time what it really needs to kickstart a company. So, for him it was like okay if my wife wants to do something, fine let her do it. Yes, so that was the thing from my husband.
But when it came to my mother, oh my God I had a lot of resistance in convincing her because she was the one who had set my path while I was young, who had made me, and so it was more like the family’s dreams were our dreams. The only thing that she told me was, Shruti you really spent four years of your graduation into an engineering degree, ten years of learning something, which needs to be continuously renewed. So having spent so many years on a career and an industry like this you are taking a huge leap which doesn’t even require half the IQ of whatever you had in this. You know your coding skills, your algorithm writing skills, or your business solving skills — all this is going to go for a toss. So her view was that this was a dead body’s job, what thrill do you get in doing this?
So it was very difficult for her to explain that it is very difficult to tun a company. You could say that this is easy whereas you know sitting and writing algorithms you know that is difficult. But if you ask me it is very difficult to run a company successfully, it could be anything, be it a small Paanwala shop or a big IT conglomerate. The journey was totally different.
So my mom she did not speak to me for close to five to six days at that point of time and because I was already married by then, the final permission or the final level was with my husband and not really my mother. She said okay if your family is okay with that, if your in-laws are okay with it then I have no problem. And fortunately my in-laws also never really had any problem, they come from a very highly educated backgrounds and my mother in law she retired as principal of a college so for her I could explain to them the social angle to it, the charitable angle to it. But none of them really doubted my ability of being in a male dominated world.
It’s interesting you went into the details of the exact reasons your mother gave, which sounded very pragmatic — using your experience and using your learning and so on. The whole topic of dealing with death right on a daily basis it also has some kind of, I mean people can have the mindset to say that this can bring bad luck in whatever way and you are dealing with this and this can impact you and so on. But the response from the close family members has been more on the pragmatic side and that’s nice to see.
Now how has dealing with death on a daily basis affected you? Because in the IT field I guess it would have been a totally different experience that you were talking, solving problems and talking with other techies and so on. But here, it’s a completely different field and I guess the people whom you interact with I guess is blue collar workers. And they also have to deal with death — I am not sure if some of the people whom you hired, they had previous experience with this. So how was that part of the transition, dealing with totally different set of people in this new field?
Frankly initially my life took a toll. The first couple of months were like the honeymoon period, I could say, it was really great, the PR the people talking about it, the friends coming and saying, Wow you are doing a great job, such a courageous task to do, you are really a gutsy woman etc. etc.
But slowly — I would say that in hindsight — I realised that there is a lot of stigma towards people working in this industry. Can you believe this Manohar, people stopped taking my visiting cards just because thinking that, oh my God why would I keep a funeral undertaker’s visiting card with me? So slowly life started showing me it’s true colours of being in an industry which was considered as a taboo.
Stigma and taboo were the words which I was looking for.
I mean it’s something like sex, right? Everybody wants to do it but them nobody wants to talk about it. Similarly death — that would be a very different kind of comparison but death is something that happens in everybody’s life, but nobody wants to plan for it. Nobody wants to think about when they die what should it be or how should it be, who should be the people, the pall bearers etc. etc. It did so happen that people started branding me as hey she is the girl who sells death. In fact I liked the idea so much that someday I am going to have a book on that name: the girl who sold death.
So my co-founders Prateek Mukherjee and other people, we were like the people who were literally in white collared jobs in the industry. They have done their MBA’s, BBA’s, so my employees they got trolled by a girl saying that this profession is for the uneducated people — what are you doing here and why are you wasting your career being in this industry. Now that is what I want to change, I want to give dignity to this job, I really want to bring in white collared people, I want to tun it like a proper business.
I guess everyone needs a decent farewell. I mean you and I have a right to die in style, don’t we?
Absolutely, although we don’t think about it as much as we should.
Talking about white collar workers and changing the nature of the profession, I was looking up a little bit about the others in this space, in the Silicon Valley. Because in the Silicon Valley we commonly read about people actually investing into ventures which are trying to solve death. Right, you might have heard of the Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin and Larry Page who have pumped millions into something called Calico, which is a health venture that wants to solve death. And Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel they are backing another biotech company in which they want to combat the effects of ageing. There is this institute called Coalition for Radical Life Extension and actually there are several of these startups, very well funded startups, which are trying to cheat death.
And on the other hand, now we are also seeing some startups which are getting into this end-of-life planning that you also talked about. There is this startup called Lantern which, offers checklists and to get people start thinking about death a little earlier itself and looking at what you need to do with your planning, etc. And you can monitor how well prepared you are for that last phase of life.
The interesting pattern I’ve seen here is this: the people who have started these kinds of end-of-life startups are mostly women, and the ones who are funding the other kind of startup where you are trying to beat or solve death are mostly men. Make whatever you want out of it, but that tells a story in itself, right?
So one question I have here is that there is an online aspect to this business — I think you have also spoken about it in some of your interviews — so, can you explain that a little bit? What do you mean by talking the funeral services thing online?
So there are two aspects of making an online funeral services. This again stems from the fact that the personal journey, the customer journey that I had seen while giving a couple of services to them, specifically when it came to the repatriation of human remains.
The kind of emotions that run for a person who is waiting in their hometown just for the coffin to arrive at their doorstep, that’s very high. Because they just don’t know where exactly it is stuck or how many levels is the coffin stuck at various places — they are waiting for their loved one to come. Has it crossed the international borders, has it come to the domestic airport, was it given a clearance or not, or has it come to their, has it reached their city border etc.
So, I really wanted to come up with a Swiggy kind of concept wherein you are getting instant notifications of your loved one’s journey when it comes to the international repatriations. Because see in this moment, talking to multiple people is the last thing that one would want to do. So what if we could really use technology to get all this information, and it is systematically update the progress of the journey. That makes things very easy for the person who is literally waiting at the doorstep waiting for their loved one’s mortal remains.
So this is one aspect, and the second aspect is that India is a country where among the Hindus also you have got a thousand plus communities, Marwadis, Bengalis’, Jains etc. So, I am pretty sure in the next ten to fifteen years to come the children would definitely lose the meaning of many rituals and traditions that need to be done a certain way. So, what if you have an app which just picks up your community and then it just tells you everything the way you are supposed to do it.
See I will just give you a small example, like for example in a Garuda Purana it is written that you are supposed to shower the Brahmins with so many gifts like little bit of gold, earth, a piece of earth, cow, or like clothes and slippers etc. The reason that it is quoted over there is to ensure the journey of the soul is very smooth from one life to the afterlife. Now this is actually is interpreted differently — you know it’s a mafia market over there wherein a person tends to extort a lot of money from the client saying that you have to do all this and so keep giving me lots of money. If you can’t donate me these articles you give me money, that is also okay.
So, these are the things that you really need to eradicate in the current post-funeral rites system. But if you can really come up with a system wherein people can just blindly trust, and say there is a death in my family irrespective of whether I am a Marwadi or a Jain or a Brahmin let me just go to this company and they know the rituals… So, this is what I want to get in the form of, like an app as a one stop place and also in terms of the real experience to the client.
Right, there is a clear gap there. And all the things that you have been talking about Shruti brings forward a very strong social angle to this right? So, you are an entrepreneur yes there is that business part of it but there is this strong social dimension to it.
Now I am curious about the origins of this social side of your personality? Were there things in your childhood where some incident or some things that you saw made you feel that you need to have a certain kind of impact on society as well?
That is a very good question because many people ask me this that how from a hardcore techie IT job that you moved to a very social sector like this. During my IT job — of course you know that these jobs are literally filled with stress —I would take resort to Art of Living courses. I think I have bene religiously following Art of Living for close to ten years and that was the first place wherein I was introduced to the world of spirituality.
So during that point of time, I kept reading about the purpose of life, the journey, what is your role, if you are born in this earth you need to ensure that your impact is felt. Or atleast I was hundred percent sure that I don’t want to just do a job, get married, bear children, then again become grandparents and then die.
I wanted to do something so that when I die at least fifty million people think about me — I wanted to create such a kind of impact. Somehow the topic of death really fascinated me because you don’t really know as to what happens when someone dies right? It is just written, the people the Gyanis, the Gurus, the Babas they say that you enjoy heaven and hell in the same life itself and then there is a next life. Then when you are born you get born with a Sanchitha karma, that is whatever the good deeds and bad deeds that you have done in your past life that gets carried on to your next life.
Okay this angle I learned from Sadguru, what he says is that a majority of problems that right now the adults are facing is because of the ways a deceased in their family was not given a good farewell. So he is actually placing a lot of importance to the last rites and rituals because if they are not done in a certain way the salvation of souls is not attained. And if a person doesn’t die a good death — so when I mean a good death, what they say is that the last thoughts that you need to have on the death bed should be that “ok, I have lived my life”, at any point of time irrespective of whether you are dying in the twenties or thirties or forties or the eighties.
So can you really get such kind of contentment into a youth? Can you get such kind of fulfilment into a middle-aged man or a woman? Okay I think I am diverting into the stuff, but yeah overall you know this stuff it really excites me a lot.
Yes it is clear that there are these other layers to the reason why you actually are in this field. So, you need to feel connected to it in a deeper way and what you just said spoke about that.
Now, I am also curious about the impact of this transition on the personal side. Are you the same person you were five years ago before you started? I think not, and I want to hear from you about what has changed for you in the personal side?
Okay I think that is a very good question. It is a very deep one too because yes definitely there is a lot of change. Let me talk first about the good part of it.
So, the good part of it is yes, I feel that individually every person needs to be an entrepreneur at some point of their life. Because it really teaches you a lot of things.
Like I said you were a spoke in the wheel to now can you really manage the whole show, or you know manage a whole big department. Managing the people, managing the marketing side of it, or even if you have marketing head or even if you have a technical head, how do you really laisse with them. It is really about people management, people’s emotions, can you really trust their verdict, can you make them trust your verdict and whatever you are dealing with you know sometimes your final decision can actually impact so many people’s lives. So that actually taught me a lot.
Because specifically during covid times I had to ask myself if my employees, who were with me since so many years, should I go ahead and lay them off or should I go ahead and decrease their salaries. And these were actually the lowest level people, the drivers and the helpers. So suddenly your emotional side kicks in and you need to have a balance with your boss side because ultimately you have to do what is good for the company you cannot only do what is good for the people — it needs to be balanced.
So these are the things I really learnt which I would have not learnt in those initial ten years. Because see those ten years are more like, okay go to your job take your salary and then cater that salary to the materialistic needs of your life. Buy a house buy this buy that. But here you know that you know that you are giving employment to people, that also gives me another kick. There are people relying on the revenue that your company is making. You know that because of you there are stoves burning in other people’s homes.
I would say that it has literally made me very strong, because the kind of criticisms that I get, the kind of brickbats that I get, because dealing in this industry sometimes it is inevitable that the most difficult customers are passed on to the founder by the customer care executives. You know when it is not being handled at their level it comes to me and then sometimes you literally need to listen to proper MC BC gaalis (swear words). Because the emotions sometimes, they really run like that if they don’t get a choice of what they need, the flowers what they need or something doesn’t happen on time, they just burst.
The fact that I am a female also doesn’t save me from taking in that side of the abuses. So, in these five years it has really made me like a shield in fact, impermeable probably. So, I know exactly what to listen, what to sink in and what to just remove from the other ear. So, had it not been for the entrepreneur journey I don’t think so I would have learned all these things. So, this is the positive side of it.
And the negative side of it is that, probably I think it is making me a bit insensitive. Perhaps it is the problem with people who are in the medical profession as well or people who are in the dead body profession because you are literally you know you are talking to people in their grief, day in and day out. So, I really dread or fear a situation that if such a situation like that happens in my life and I am just not able to show any grief.
Because you start dealing with it in a very professional way rather than a personal way.
Exactly. So, this is my biggest fear. In fact my husband keeps telling me, that I know that if a death happens in the family it wouldn’t make a whit of difference to you. That’s what he tells me, but yes, I just take it with a pinch of salt.
So, what does your mother think of it now, five years hence?
Oh, my mother — again there are two aspects to it. She is definitely very happy because when her relatives from different parts of the world they started pouring in complements saying that, Wow your daughter is so courageous, I never thought Shruti would do something like this, etc. So, courage and gutsy are the words are making her happy now. That I chose something very different and I chose to go against the tide and I am, you know making good progress in it.
See mothers specifically they are very influenced by society, they are influenced by their own relatives. So as long as that group of ten or twenty people are speaking positive its fine. But still sometimes she taunts me saying that you know what is left in this business, just about transporting bodies, just about conducting funerals. So, she still doesn’t understand how our business needs to be run, you know what all aspects are there. So, it is like there are two ways to it.
Do you miss something about your old life Shruti?
Yeah, in fact sometimes I really miss a lot. In the past couple of years, I was selected by other incubation setups. My peers, specifically those who are in IT jobs, have different professions — the lady who is sitting to my right is pursuing a Phd in quantum physics, and the lady sitting to my left is working on how to depict the traffic of a city based in machine learning and artificial intelligence. So sometimes I think that I could have been there had I not chosen this.
But then I think there is a saying that the grass is always greener in the other side. So maybe if I had been there, I would have always thought. that I wish that I had started my entrepreneurship journey much early on in life.
Right but I can tell you one thing, if you are doing something like that then you wouldn’t be in this podcast.
(Laughs) That’s true.
When I was looking at your profile and was researching a little bit about you, I found that some people are making a movie about Anthyesti. I found that fascinating. Can you tell me a little bit about that? What that movie is and how is it going?
This started off back in 2017, about a year after I started off my startup in Calcutta. So, this very famous movie director Shiva Prasad Mukherjee, he’s known for making very emotional movies not the techie or sci-fi kind of movies. He is known for making very emotional movies. So one day he finally calls me up and he tells me, Hey I am Shiva Prasad why don’t you just come down to my studio. I was shocked — why would a movie director call me? I couldn’t believe what was happening to my ears and I did not even know anything about the Tollywood industry at that point of time.
I quickly Googled him and I realised that his last movies had above 8 IMDB ratings. So yes, that was a good director and I spoke to a couple of my Bengali friends in Calcutta who told me that he was in the top two directors at that point of time — this was three to four years back. Then he calls me down and then he hears to my story, and I still remember the spark in his eyes the way he listened to my story, right from my childhood, to my marriage, to my guts in going against my family to get married to a Punjabi husband and then from the IT job to the funeral services.
So after taking in the whole story, he told me, “Initially Shruti I wanted yours to be one story among the five stories I wanted to make the movie on, but I think you have enough spice in your life to make a complete proper full blown commercial movie.”
My ears were still ringing when I was listening to it and so it was something like an idea that started off about four years back. But it took us about two and a half years more to sign the agreement and then finally make the formal movie announcement, which happened in 2020 January. So, the idea was that the movie would get into production within a year but then the pandemic happened so, I literally have no idea when it will be on screens.
Looking back, in hindsight, do you think you would have done something differently?
Well I don’t think so. My life couldn’t have been any more challenging than this and any more different that this could get. Being in one of the professions which is not an easily sought-after profession, people dread to take this up just because they think there is lot of sadness to it, you don’t make money, what is the point of starting a business where you don’t have profits — so such kind of mindsets exist. And I am very keen and eager to know how long and where I will really reach in the next decade.
Like all the dreams that I had, I really want to be a part of my country’s sustainability story. I want make that impact: can really the top hundred crematoriums in my country have eco-friendly furnaces? Can I really make crematoriums places where people don’t really dread to go into but they feel happy and peaceful, and that the last few moments where they were with their loved ones was a good experience?
And can I make India, which is now the second highest populated country, where from 0.6 per million if we can move to even 1 per million with the organ donation rate, we will be having so many organs that we can easily cater to the needs of so many different countries, leave alone India.
So making small strides, making small changes, I personally felt that in a difficult field it takes generations to make milestones, very small milestones. but I really want to die thinking that okay I was a part of that thing, that journey.
[ 1 ] Editors note: This is partially correct — Some European countries require explicit consent from the person for his or her organs to be taken from the body after death. For more on this, see here.