Jabalpur: From a distance, it looks like 42-year-old Ashish Thakur leads an ordinary life —he had a 9-to-5 job at a private bank, which he quit only recently; a family with two school-going children; and an unfailing love for chai.
But look closely, and there’s nothing ordinary or routine about his life — or at least it hasn’t been for over a year now. Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit India, Ashish Thakur’s life has revolved around just one thing: Dead bodies. Many, many of them.
Thakur, a resident of Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur, has been performing last rites of abandoned bodies for over two decades now, but amid the pandemic particularly, his service has had to expand. Now, his team of 45 volunteers under the banner ‘Moksha’ arranges funerals for those who have no one to bid them farewell, or even those whose families lack the means to give them the goodbyes they deserve.
The second surge of Covid-19 has made Thakur and his team work round the clock; sometimes they end up performing the last rites of 15 bodies a day.
In the last couple of months, Thakur has quit his job and is dedicating his entire time to arranging funerals. But over the years, at a lot of job interviews, he has been told he can’t be doing both jobs — that of a banker and that of a social worker.
“I tell them that what I will be doing in a bank is my job, but what I do outside of it — perform last rites — is my duty. My job is important, but it only comes after my duty,” he tells ThePrint.
Journey began with dogs mauling a corpse
While the last year has been particularly taxing for Thakur and his team, his journey originally began over two decades ago, when he was a 19-year-old college student. Coming from a middle-class background, Thakur began working part-time as a security supervisor at a government hospital.
One day, in 1999, Thakur saw a pack of dogs opposite the hospital pulling at some clothes lying at the side of the road. Curious, he went closer, only to realise it wasn’t a bundle of clothes but an abandoned corpse being mauled by the dogs.
“I was shaken to my very core when I saw that. No one deserves that,” he recalls.
Thakur then sought the help of others at the hospital and took the corpse where unclaimed bodies are stored, but the memory of that day changed his life path.
He then began picking up abandoned bodies whenever he was informed of one; he and his friends would perform its last rites. But in 2020, the purview of Thakur’s work expanded when he began taking charge of the Covid dead bodies.
‘If we get scared, who will do this?’
Thakur’s phone is constantly buzzing with requests for help — from acquaintances, strangers, and even hospitals.
“Do we know the name? Is there a family? Which hospital? I am coming,” he says, almost nonchalantly. The Moksha team’s processes are pretty much set after so many months, so there’s not much thinking to do — as soon as a call comes in, work begins.
Immediately, he and his team set out for the hospital in two Toyota Innovas that have been turned into ambulances. At the hospital, after clearing the formalities, the team meets the deceased’s family, picks up the body and goes straight to the crematorium or graveyard.
Hindus are cremated with all the rituals and prayers, while Muslims are buried by the volunteers from the community within the Moksha team, who perform the namaaz and recite the duas.
“We strongly believe that whatever faith one has led their life by, their last rites should also be performed keeping those in mind. It’s a matter of respecting them and their values,” Thakur tells ThePrint.
When ThePrint met Thakur Tuesday, the Moksha team had collected the body of Dinesh Rakhera, who died of Covid at Sukhsagar Hospital in Jabalpur. The last rites were performed at the Tilwara cremation ground, on the banks of Narmada river, as the deceased’s family bawled from the sidelines.
The family of the deceased say they opted for Moksha’s services because everything is done with dignity, and in adherence to the rituals.
The deceased’s brother-in-law Suraj Rakhera said: “During Covid, it seemed almost impossible that we could give jijaji a dignified farewell, with all the reeti–rivaaz (rites and rituals). But we are very grateful to Ashish ji and his team that they made this possible.”
The team of volunteers performing the funerals is young — mostly between 20 and 30 years of age. Handling bodies of Covid patients as the pandemic rages is a dangerous job, but one of the volunteers, Preet Singh, sums up their mindset by saying: “If we get scared, who will do this job? We can’t afford to be scared.”
Thakur and his team are emotionally exhausted, seeing and handling death, night and day. “We are human beings too, so this is of course very painful. Often, I can’t sleep because I get nightmares. But then, I am trying to relieve someone else’s pain, so I keep my tears to myself,” Thakur said.
Money is tight
Jabalpur district officials say Thakur and his team work in tandem with the administration, almost as an extension of the municipal corporation.
“They are doing some great work for people. The idea isn’t that they are a parallel unit, but that they work as an extension of the Nagar Nigam. So we help them procure PPE kits or wood, whenever needed,” Jabalpur DM Karamveer Sharma tells ThePrint.
Thakur says that over the last few months, many ordinary people have also opted to donate to Moksha — some give PPE kits, while others donate cars to use as ambulances.
“Just last week, someone donated two cars to use for a few months as ambulances. Once the Covid surge subsides, we will give it back,” Thakur says.
He expects families who can afford to pay for the cremations to do so, “but mostly, no family wants to pay”.
“I notice families who spend lakhs in hospitals but don’t want to pay for cremation, so we take care of it. It’s not something I can argue about,” he says.
Thakur says as a legal recovery officer working in banks for nearly two decades, he has earned a decent living that allows him to spend money on others’ last rites.
“But I have no savings today, I use it all here,” he says.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)
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