Graveyard shift

When cycle mechanic Mohammed Sharif's son died, all he got back was his shirt. But he rose above his personal tragedy to perform the last rites of those who had no family, irrespective of faith. Paramita Ghosh writes.

india Updated: Jan 15, 2013 12:09 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times

In 1992, a brown bush shirt of Mohammed Rais, a 22 year-old homeopathy doctor, went around for identification in Faizabad. By the time it reached his father, a cycle mechanic, he had been dumped in the river. Unclaimed bodies in the city since then have met a better fate.

Mohammed Sharif, Rais's aged father, began to pick up the dead from railway tracks, streets and hospitals. He bathed their bodies. He arranged their last rites.

Sharif's wife lost her mind after losing her son. Sharif held his together by social service. Till date, he has buried 500 Muslims, helped cremate a thousand Hindus.

If the victim is a Muslim, Sharif takes him or her to the burial ground. If the dead person is a Hindu, he wraps the body in a 5-metre cotton yarn and asks Santosh Mishra, a Brahmin, to do the cremation at the Janthara Ghat.

"I saw a body lying severed on the road one day and decided I just had to take care of all those who die unclaimed in Rais's memory," the 70-year-old said, hobbling towards the Taad-ki-Takiya community burial ground that has made space for many such bodies in Faizabad.

"If someone dies, you have to walk 40 steps with him. The blood of all human beings is the same," said Sharif.

Twenty-five boards all over the city mention his address and contact number for this purpose: "If you find an unidentified body or an unattended patient, contact Mohammed Sharif".

Once contacted, Sharif sends over his lieutenants - four Hindu rickshaw-wallahs - for pick-up. He pays for their service from his own meagre earnings and with donation from locals.

Personal tragedy may have triggered Sharif's work, but over the years, he has unwittingly acquired a more social role.

In 1992, Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya, 6 km from Faizabad. The minority community was targetted, nine were killed. Their mosques and businesses were attacked.

Post 1992, Sharif became 'Sharif Chacha,' a visible glue of social harmony for a city that seemed in desperate search of symbolism and an identity separate from its twin-city, Ayodhya. Holy towns anyway are always full of saints, that is, ordinary people who go on to do extraordinary things.

"Religion needs a human face," said local writer Krishna Pratap Singh.

Faizabad has a Baba feeding monkeys, a Nali-wala Baba cleaning drains for free. So does Sharif Chacha belong to this league of anachronistic do-gooders?

Not quite.

"His work has a personal basis. Each boy he looks after reminds him of his son," said Akshay, a youth working at a pathology centre, adding Sharif is quite the local hero.

Not surprisingly, every political party now also wants a piece of him.

During the first phase of the recent UP assembly campaign, "all parties wanted me to be part of their campaign rallies, travel in their car," said Sharif with a cackle.

So, he is careful of the company he keeps.

"I'm cautious about who I take help from. I don't want people saying my service has become my profession," he added.

The Millat Committee, a body comprising of Faizabad's Hindus and Muslims, gives him cash to pay for funeral arrangements. No questions asked.

According to Mukesh Patel, a local businessman, Sharif is a good samaritan beyond compare. A Father Teresa if you please.

"Mother Teresa would look after the ill, but not many can do what Sharif Chacha does. This is a man who tends to bloodied limbs, rotting flesh, dead bodies eaten by worms," said Patel.

Sayeed Subhani, another local business leader has, in fact, been a direct beneficiary of Sharif's service. His sister-in-law was one of the women killed in the riots in Ayodhya in '92.

"Curfew had been announced and we couldn't go out to look for her. Sharif had a pass from the District Magistrate. The administration would hand him all the dead bodies. We got her body due to him."

Ramzan, Subhani added, is good for collection time.

People all over India send money to Sharif's account or call him at his number - 09235853230. Funerals are an expensive business.

"A wooden coffin, gravedigger's pay - it costs Rs 4,000 to bury a Muslim; at least Rs 1,000 to cremate a Hindu," said Sharif.

Sharif's daily brush with death has left its mark on him. He has an album of pictures of the unclaimed bodies he has buried.

He furnishes letters of praise from families whose member he has looked after or performed the last rites for. His daily acts of kindness have been documented in a film, Rising from the Ashes, by local boys Shah Alam, Shariq Naqvi, Gufran Khan and Saiiyed Akhtar.

Officers garland and pat him especially during official programmes under media glare.

"They give me shawls," said Sharif.

"Sometimes, I travel to deposit the dead bodies to their families when they ask me to. What I really need is a railway pass."

Soch badlo
Arvind Gupta, an IIT Kanpur alumnus, took his love for science to the children in a country where only a lucky few have access to good books and great teachers. Gupta travelled to over 3,000 schools, distributing e-books and videos and captivating young minds with science experiments.

His gift has been the joy of learning to Indian children for the last 30 years.

A real life Fungshuk Wangdu, Gupta’s dream is to enlighten the keenest minds, to the endless possibilities of science, hidden in the derelict schools of unheard of towns in India.

This story has been submitted by Viral mehta on

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First Published: Feb 15, 2012 22:14 IST