New Delhi: On a desolate night earlier this week, a lone funeral pyre came alight at a crematorium in Sector 94, Noida. The deceased was a woman who had succumbed to Covid-19 the same evening. Standing around the pyre were the woman’s son, a Delhi-based journalist, dressed in PPE, a friend, and a young man they hadn’t known before but will now be in their memories forever.
It is, after all, this young man — 21-year-old Ankur Singh, an ambulance help — who helped the journalist cremate his mother after a painfully exacting day.
Hours earlier, the journalist had been driving around in his car, with his mother in the backseat, in desperate search for a hospital. Turned away by one hospital, his mother died just as they reached the second one.
He then drove back home and hired an ambulance to take his mother to the crematorium. It was around 6 pm when they reached the Noida crematorium but, amid a pandemic that is killing hundreds every day, they found themselves in a queue. It was 11 pm by the time their turn came, but the cremation staff said the CNG incinerator was out of order and declared they were calling it a day.
After hours spent cremating people, with Covid bringing more bodies than ever before, the staff was tired.
When the journalist and his friend found a priest walking in the crematorium, they asked him to help them conduct the funeral. They offered him money — up to Rs 4,000 — but the priest was unwilling because it was the end of a very long day.
Then help arrived from unexpected quarters — Singh, the help in the ambulance that had brought them to the crematorium — stepped up.
Singh has been working on the frontline since the pandemic struck last year. In this time, he has seen innumerable cremations, which has helped him pick up some of the rituals.
He doesn’t know all the mantras, but he does know the number of times you need to apply ghee on the body, the way it should be positioned on the pyre, the number of times it needs to be circled by someone who eventually sets it alight.
“I was surprised to see the kind of knowledge this young boy possessed, and how helpful he was in the dead of the night, when it felt like vultures were circling the sky to feast on the dead if they weren’t disposed of in a dignified manner in time,” said the journalist’s friend, who is also in the news media.
No stranger to loss
Singh had an early introduction to loss. He lost his father when he was just seven years old. But a lesson his father taught him guides Singh to this day.
“My father always taught me to help the poor and the needy … I abide by it,” he told ThePrint over the phone.
A native of Bulandshahr, Singh is the second of four brothers. “We have a small field in the village where we grow wheat and other crops. We earn a little bit off it, and I also keep sending money home,” he said.
Singh found himself taking a role on the frontline of the Covid crisis last year after a close friend lost his father to the disease.
Due to the stigma prevailing at the time, nobody was willing to touch the body, but Singh helped his friend conduct his father’s funeral.
Moved by the experience, Singh pleaded with an uncle, who runs an ambulance service, to hire him. “My uncle told me that this is a serious sickness and that he won’t be able to pay me more than Rs 500 every day. But I wanted to help save lives, I wanted to help the victims of Covid-19,” he said.
Helping the dead
In the last year, Singh has been on hundreds of ambulance trips, carrying thousands of patients back and forth from hospitals. He said the ongoing second wave of the pandemic is much worse than the first one.
“Believe me, it wasn’t so bad even last year. I didn’t see so many people die. I am used to seeing 1-2 people die in my ambulance every day, now the figure is touching 25-30,” he said.
Over the past year, Singh said, he has himself cremated at least five bodies that had been abandoned, or were of patients whose families were also down with Covid-19. “A son can’t cremate a father. A father can’t give his son a shoulder on his last trip, it’s heart-breaking,” he said.
One particularly brutal experience that he had, however, had nothing to do with Covid. It was the burial of a young girl who had died of suicide.
“Last Sunday, I found a mother and daughter sitting helplessly, grieving the death of the youngest girl of the family who had died by suicide. They didn’t know how to do her last rites,” Singh said. “So I called a bunch of friends to give her kandha (carry the body on your shoulder). I dug her grave myself because there was nobody else to do it, and buried her on behalf of the family. Burying someone so young has to be tough for anyone,” he added.
Asked if he isn’t worried about his own health, Singh said he couldn’t step down “when Delhi is burning”. “What is happening to this country? I don’t understand! We are literally on fire, thousands of people are dying every day. I want to do my bit to help out,” he said. “I don’t want to be condemned to hell after I die. I want to go to heaven. I can’t see the pain of the poor and the sick. I am willing to help in any way that I can,” he added.