Meet Chandigarh’s Amarjit Dhillon, who gives dignity to the dead
Goodfellas: A former banker, Amarjit Kaur Dhillon has taken it upon herself to conduct the last rites of the poor and unknown patients breathing their last in PGIMER.punjab Updated: Jan 12, 2018 20:08 IST
She sits in a dimly-lit room, surrounded by scores of trophies covered with dust. The only thing shining in the dusky room is a heavy roll of white cloth, which she uses for cremating and burying bodies of the unknown and poor dying in the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER).
Amarjit Kaur Dhillon, 61, has dedicated her life to giving dignity to the dead.
At the last count in December 2005, she had conducted the last rites of 100 bodies. “I stopped counting after that,” she sighs, pointing to a big heap of files.
Born and bought up in Patiala, Dhillon moved to Chandigarh in 1980 when she got a job in the Punjab and Sind Bank. After working for 20 long years, she took voluntary retirement in 2000 to serve the needy.
Her journey of social service started in 1991, when she and her bank colleagues collected 2.5 lakh to fund the kidney transplant of a gunman’s son.
“It was then I realised the importance of money in saving human lives. In fund raising, I found a way to save lives,” says Dhillon.
She started raising funds for Red Cross, which used to organise medical camps. In 2000, she surprised everyone by arranging a lakh in less than a month.
Pointing to a cobweb-covered award, she says, “On May 8, 2000 I got my first state award by then Punjab health minister, who called me ‘Alladin ka Chirag’.”
She also started helping the poor patients at PGIMER. “It was in 1998 that I first visited PGIMER with my mother and found so many patients in need of help,” remembers Dhillon.
As she started dedicating more time to poor patients, work became a drag.
Finally, in 2000, she decided to quit her job to pay full attention to fund raising. Ask her if it is difficult to convince people to donate money and she says, “Many people want to help the poor, but don’t know how. Many want to donate money, but don’t know whom to trust. I am just a link between patients and donors,” she says, adding, “I have never faced any difficulty in arranging funds, it’s as if the divine is with me.”
On days, when she could not help people financially, she would lend them moral support.
How it started
Once, she found herself drawn to three children playing outside an operation theatre. “Their father from Bihar had undergone a heart surgery and their mother was inside looking after him,” recounts Dhillon, who started visiting them every day, bringing food and clothes.
“On May 3, 2000, a nurse came running to me for help, saying their father had passed away and their mother had lost consciousness.”
That was the first time she dealt with a body.
“I took the children to the gurudwara inside PGIMER and their mother to Red Cross for booking a funeral van,” she recounts.
The next morning, the two women cremated the body in Sector 25. Eighteen years on, she has lost count of the number of bodies she has cremated or buried.
“Kaam karne waalon ko sochnaa nahi padta, bas icha honi chahiye aur kaam aapko khud dhoondh lega (Those who really want to work don’t need to think much. All they need is a strong desire to do good),” ”she says.
Impressed by her services, Punjab State Civil Supplies Corporation Limited gave her some funds to which she added some more to purchase a mini-ambulance.
Stories in files
Dhillon may have stopped counting the bodies, but she has a record of each and every person she has cremated or buried from 2001 to 2017.
Files are sorted year-wise, with every detail like the picture of the deceased, death certificate, FIR, hue-and-cry notice issued by the police and other information.
Pointing to the files, she says, “There are so many sad stories here.”
When asked whether anyone had ever approached her for details, she says, “Only one.”
“It was a love story. A boy studying in IIT Kanpur fell in love with his landlord’s daughter. The duo ran away to Jammu, to stay with the girl’s relatives. However, the relative informed the family and the couple fled Jammu,” she recounts.
“They jumped from the train and were rushed to PGIMER in a critical condition. While the boy died, the girl lost her legs,” says Dhillon.
The police insisted that the body be cremated the same day though she wanted to wait for a day. “My heart told me that his father must be searching for him, and it would not be right to cremate him like this,” she recalls.
Forced by the cops, she cremated the body, but took the mortal remains. “The next day, the father approached me. I felt terribly sad for him,” sighs Dhillon.
She was shocked when she learnt about the ambulance scam in PGI.
“There is a seriousness attached to some issues. What can be more serious than death, and these people have made a joke out of it,” she fumes.
B’day at cremation ground
Amarjeet Kaur Dhillon also tries to fulfill the last wishes of the dead.
Once she got a call from doctors at PGIMER, asking her to convince the parents of a child from Gorakhpur to cremate him here instead of trying to take him back home. “The doctors said they couldn’t arrange the transportation cost,” recalls Dhillon.
She asked the mother if the child had any last wish.
The mother instantly replied that he wanted to go home on his birthday, wear new clothes, goggles, cut a cake and eat noodles.
The child had died on his birthday. Dhillon promised to fulfill his last wish before the cremation.
“It was raining heavily that day. I bought new clothes, goggles, shoes for the child. I also bought a cake and my sister-in-law cooked noodles at home. We packed all this and left for the crematorium where dressed up the boy, cut the cake, celebrated his birthday and then cremated him.”
Dhillon believes there is a divine force behind her.
“When I was a child, I would see my neighbor, fondly called ‘Veerji’ cremating the bodies of unknown people. He had one cart on which he would take the bodies to crematorium and perform the last rites. May be his actions influenced me.”
Dhillon is unmarried, but her younger brother and his family stay with her in Chandigarh. She says her sister-in-law,Manjit Kaur is her pillar of strength. Manjit Kaur says, “She is doing great service and she has full support of our family. I ensure that I drive her around whenever she has to run errands.”
STRAP THE FINAL FAREWELL