Giving dignity to the dead is the life-mission for this Odisha man
Early this month, a 90-year-old, under treatment for Cancer at the Acharya Harihar Cancer Centre in Cuttack, died a lonely man with no relatives to either offer comfort in the last moments or to mourn his passing. But the Dhenkanal resident was not denied the dignity every man deserves in death, thanks to a total stranger Abhimanyu Das, who not only looked after him in his last days but also gathered people from the deceased’s village for cremation, which he arranged with his own money.
It was just another day for 49-year-old Cuttack resident Abhimanyu Das, a book binder by profession and better known as Abhi bhai, who has helped cremate over 1200 bodies in the last 10 plus years and taken care of over 4000 cancer patients. Giving dignified farewell to the dead and taking care of lonely cancer patients at the government cancer hospital in Cuttack is his life’s mission.
Last month a woman cancer patient of Ganjam breathed her last after 2 years of treatment. She only had her husband by her side in her last moments. Das quickly rushed to help with her cremation. He only had ₹300 in pocket but asked a few others to help him buy timber for the funeral.
“No one knows if he is going to die 9 minutes before his death. But people’s birth is known 9 months in advance. There is no way of presaging one’s death, which is often lonely. In my own way I try to give dignity to the dead who have no one with them,” said Das.
It was in 2004 when Das started out as a Good Samaritan, he says he was inspired by his father.
“When I was bedridden for more than a year in 2002 due to a leg injury, my father had then decided to help out needy people from our own income. My long illness made me understand the true beauty of helping out people in sickness. From 2004 onwards, I started cremating unclaimed bodies,” he said.
In the subsequent years, his father, mother, uncle and brother-in-law succumbed to cancer giving Das a measure of a cancer patients suffering. “In 2009 when my brother-in-law was being treated, I was attending him regularly. I saw several patients in the hospital who had no one to turn around for help. That moment I decided to help out cancer patients,” said Das.
Though a moderately successful book-binder in Cuttack, Das devotes just about 3-4 hours to his profession in the evening. The daytime is mostly spent on cremating the unclaimed bodies, impoverished and on cancer patients in the hospital. He helps the poor with money for medicines and treatment.
In the hospital, Das cleans up the cancer patients’ bedsores, faecal matters and even gives them a bath.
“Looking after such patients gives me a high. In the last 10 years, I have seen people deserting their wives, husbands, children and parents after they get tired of looking after them in the hospital. Cancer is a deadly disease and often there is no light at the end of the tunnel. I have seen the worst of humanity in the cancer wards, but that has strengthened my resolve to stand for the helpless patients.”
Dr SN Senapati, professor in the Acharya Harihar Cancer Centre says Das is the first name that the doctors in the hospital first think of when they see a patient who has no one to look after. “He is a Good Samaritan. Utterly selfless, he probably spends much more time in hospital than at his home,” said Dr Senapati.
Over the last few years, Das has received numerous awards including the Odisha Citizen award. Acknowledging his effort, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik recently tweeted, “Service to mankind is Service to God”.
Das’ wife Nirupama and 18-year-old son, sometimes grumble about Das neglecting them and even spending from his own pocket on the patients. The income from the book-binding business is not steady enough to fund the education of his undergraduate son. His long hours at the cremation ground and frequent baths after hospital visits have also left him with a persistent cold.
But financial hardships and physical difficulties have not deterred him in his life mission. “I never think I am doing something on my own. I have never refused anyone so far, if they needed help,” Das says with a hint of pride in his eyes.