The ongoing pandemic is not only claiming thousands of lives every day in India at the moment, it has put the very fabric of our society at risk. With uncertainties and misinformation driving people’s mindset, all are in a race to save their own lives. So much so, that there are quite a few instances when people refuse to recognise even their own family members when they succumb to dreaded Covid-19.
Last week a family brought the body of an elderly person to Satya Nagar crematorium in Bhubaneswar. Leave alone performing the basic death rituals like giving shoulders to the body or ‘mukhagni’, the members abandoned the body outside the crematorium and disappeared from the scene in no time.
At a time when people disown the bodies of their own people fearing Covid infection, a bunch of youth has joined hands to stand for the right to dignity of dead persons.
Every time someone dies by Covid in Bhubaneswar or on its outskirts, Prakash Naik and his associates, who can be seen round the clock at Satya Nagar crematorium, invariably carry out a decent cremation. Sunday POST talks to these ‘Friends in need’ who have been performing the last rituals of Covid victims since the virus struck Bhubaneswar.
People who cremate bodies are known for their toughness and they show little or no emotions. But 24-year-old Prakash is a little different. He says, “I am not the kind of person who breaks down easily. But carrying out cremations of kids and very young people often makes me cry. At times, the crematorium gets so overwhelmed that people have to wait for hours or a day to cremate their kin. I have been doing this since 2016. When the pandemic broke out last year, I did not retreat knowing well that I may also contract the deadly virus. ”
Till last month, the crematorium saw hardly one or two bodies of Covid victims in a week. But it has gone up to 10 in first two weeks of May, reveals Prakash.
This is such a torrid times that even the family members refuse to touch the body of Covid victims. Similarly, many others who were previously in this profession have switched to other jobs fearing for their life. While the situation is worsening by the day what made him and his team to offer their services? To this query, Prakash asks, “What if the doctors would decline to perform their duty because of fear? When I stepped out to cremate the body by wearing PPE kit, gloves and mask for the first time, my family was worried but I was not scared. Because I knew I had opted for a noble job when many in this profession preferred to give up this job. We don’t earn much money from this, we consider it as service to the mankind. My friends and I always try to give due honour to the dead persons that they deserve.”
He continues: “Cremating bodies is not a big deal but I never imagined that a time will come when a son would run away from giving ‘mukhagni’ to his father. I fail to hold my tears when bodies of kids and very young people are brought for cremation.”
Sharing a heart wrenching incident, Prakash says, “A 40-year-old woman from Balugaon came alone to cremate her mother’s body. She was the only child of her parents and not sure whether her mother’s body would be cremated properly. She thanked us after seeing our commitment to the profession and said ‘God didn’t bless me a brother because you were destined to play that role after my mother’s death. Those were poignant moments and are still ringing in my ears.”
Apart from Prakash, his teammates Tapan Naik, Ranjan Pradhan, Riki Naik, Abhimanyu Naik, Raja Das, Biki Naik and Goutam Naik are also into this service. Though they are neither tasked by the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation nor do they get financial assistance from the agency, they xcarry out the cremations selflessly on humanitarian ground, reveals Prakash.
Hailing from Banki, Tapan Naik, an auto rickshaw driver says, “Since childhood I wanted to do something for the society. I would often take the needy to hospital and do the needful. As I am not financially sound, I cannot solely depend on social service to run my family. But the pandemic offered me an opportunity to render my services to the people in distress. One day, Prakash Bhai came to me and asked me to join him. Since then I have been assisting him whenever I get an opportunity. ”
Ranjan Pradhan used to work under a street food seller near Big Bazzar. He joined Prakash after becoming jobless due to lockdown. He says, “My parents used to help patients at hospitals even as ours is a lower-middle class family. So, I got inspired by them. During one my accidental visits to Satya Nagar crematorium, I was impressed by Prakash Bhai’s selfless act and wanted to join him as I didn’t have a job. I am quite happy for what I am doing now. ”
Prakash’s relative Gautam Naik, sharing his feeling when he first cremated a Covid body, says, “The first time we received the body of a Covid victim, I refused to be part of the process. Left with no choice, Prakash had to do it all alone. Soon, I realised that we are made of dust, and will merged to it one day. After that I stopped fearing for my life. I joined Prakash to help out the needy. I know that chance of contracting the virus is always there. But I am no longer afraid to die. Working with the dead bodies has taught me that no matter who you are, you will exit empty-handed.”
Athgarh-based Riki Naik was working as a peon at a private company. After the company faced closure due to outbreak of Covid in 2020, he was looking for a job. He approached Prakash to let him join his team. “After I lost job, I have been completely into cremating the Covid victims. I really feel blessed to do this yeoman service to the mankind.”
Abhimanyu Naik used to be a housekeeper. Inspired by Riki and Ranjan, he joined Prakash for the noble cause. “I believe in the adage ‘service to mankind is service to God’. I do not have iota of fear of getting infected by the deadly disease while carrying out cremations.”
About the surge in Covid cases, he says, “There was a lull period in January and February with a much lower number of Covid deaths, but now in the last three weeks it is overflowing. Most of Covid victims’ bodies are being burnt in open crematoria using firewood.”
Raja Das was unemployed for which Prakash asked him to join him. Recently, Raja got an offer to work from a company. But he wanted to be with Prakash and serve the mankind. “Serving mankind is serving the God. When family members of a deceased Covid patient bless me for cremating the body of their dear ones with care and honour, it really fills my heart with gratitude. ”
When Prakash is asked about remuneration he provides to his friends, Prakash says, “They provide the service on humanitarian ground not for the sake of money. Of course, I help them financially whenever they are in distress. And when a family of deceased wants to give something to us, we distribute among ourselves equally.
Rashmi Rekha Das, OP