In a crematorium, a silent Hindu-Muslim bond
Suneel, 56, and Aqeel, 20, both Kanpur-born, led ordinary, mundane lives. Suneel is deeply wedded to the idea of Sanathan Dharam, eternal duty, and religious practices come naturally to him. He lost his father as a five-year-old and studied through his early years to join a transport network.
Aqeel, only 20, passed out of Class 12 and joined one of Kanpur’s many tanneries. The ₹8,000 he brought home every month, greatly supplemented the family’s income.
The two met for the first time at the unlikeliest of places: Kanpur’s Bhairoghat crematorium. Both had volunteered to work with Madad Guru, a wing of Divya Prakash Sewa Samiti, an NGO that has lent its shoulder during the Covid-19 pandemic. Its 70 volunteers are cremating bodies, cooking food for the poor and distributing medical kits in rural areas.
Suneel and Aqeel have no time to chat but have a deep bond that only grief can bring. They have carried hundreds of dead bodies and quietly laid them on the pyre.
“There is some respite now. We are cremating 30 to 40 bodies everyday but in April, when the second wave hit like a tsunami, we have had rows and rows of bodies lying at the gates of Bhairoghat,” says Suneel.
According to Ayush Gaur, founder of Madad Guru, “At the peak, we had 100 to 120 bodies per day. They just kept arriving in ambulances and we had to distribute tokens.”
Some days, the token was kept on the sheets the bodies came wrapped in. They came straight from hospitals and often without family members. Rarely did two people from a family accompany a dead relative. The fear of contracting the virus forced many to bid farewell at the hospital itself. They would come the following day to collect the ashes.
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Suneel and Aqeel worked tirelessly. They had no time to talk; unburden themselves. Each body needed at least 250 kilograms of wood, some ghee and as Suneel said, “two yards of coffin cloth.” The families would not come but sometimes gave directions on a video call. “Make sure the last rites are done in accordance with Hindu traditions,’’ was a common request.
A daughter came with her mother’s body. There was no one to help shift it from the tempo in which it arrived. The driver flatly refused but the volunteers stepped in.
Disposing the dead has become a drill. Take the body out of the ambulance. Lay it in the queue. Build a pyre. Carry the body into Bhairoghat. Place it on the platform around pyres that were already aflame. Add some ghee and some straw, so the fires crackle and burn quicker. Pyres are usually not lit after sunset. They had to be laid to rest the day they came.
There are no priests in Bhairoghat. Suneel knows the rituals. He is now a part of the Sanathan Dharam Ayog Mandal. What he was not prepared for and still finds difficult to accept is the fact that bodies were just abandoned. “I am anguished that family members were not willing to walk the last few steps for the last rites.”
The anguish is deep but it has to wait. There is work to be done. The days go by in a haze. It’s the lengthening shadows of the night that Aqeel has problems with. Initially, he had trouble falling asleep. The long line of bodies was an image imprinted in his mind. “That’s all I could think of. Bodies of all ages, fastened in plastic sheets. But that was in the beginning. Now I’m so tired when I reach home, I just fall asleep.”
Aqeel reaches every morning, wears a PPE suit, secures his mask firmly over his nose and mouth and gets down to work. He carries body after body, with help from another volunteer. “At least two people are needed to carry one body,” he said. A quick break when possible was taken, to quickly eat some food, has a sip of water. A restaurateur has loaned Madad Guru his kitchen where other volunteers are busy cooking and packing food.
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Food is distributed to many. To its volunteers, the ambulance drivers, family members, junior doctors and the hungry. “Anyone who needs it,” says Gaur, whose daily schedule now entails driving into rural areas to distribute medical kits comprising masks, sanitisers and paracetamol tablets.
Aqeel and Suneel usually eat after sunset. By then, their PPE suits are covered with soot and ash. They have no appetite but tell each other that eat they must. Last year, during the first Corona wave, both were involved with distributing food at the highway, for passing migrants.
Both of them got calls from Madad Guru in end-March this year, asking if they were willing to volunteer again, this time at the crematorium.
“If not now, then when? I consider myself lucky to have got this opportunity,” asks Suneel.
Aqeel has no problem answering the question either. “Humanity demands that I lend my shoulder,” he says. He will return to the tannery when it reopens. The NGO has become an extension of his family. “The tannery is not paying me but when I need money, I get ₹1,000 to ₹2,000 from the NGO,’’ he says. His family knows he’s doing social service but doesn’t know he’s helping at the crematorium.
Do they remember how many pyres they lit?
“Hundreds,” says Suneel.
“I didn’t light any pyre. Only helped carry the bodies,” says Aqeel.
“Because I’m a Muslim,” he says.
“You are human,’ says Suneel.
(Both wanted to be mentioned only by their first names)
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