Fiction: Funeral (Ranjit Kulkarni)

In Varanasi, Pappu Pandey gazed at his dear friend Lalu Mishra's dead body on the pyre. He stood next to Lalu's son Pratap waiting for proceedings to begin. He was at a makeshift crematorium ghat next to the main one at Manikarnika. It was for people who had passed away due to the lethal pandemic virus. Pappu was among the less than ten close friends and relatives allowed to attend it. He stood in the middle of four other similar funerals of bodies of pandemic patients. They were all wrapped in personal protective equipment body bags.

"Lalu seems to have lost a lot of weight during his illness," Pappu whispered in the ears of another common friend. 

"Yes, true. This virus is extremely dangerous. See what it reduced our dear Lalu to," the other said in a choked voice. 

"In two weeks, he lost all the weight that he could not lose in his entire life." Pappu couldn't resist a backhanded joke even in such a sombre atmosphere. His five-decade long relationship with Lalu was such - always full of life and banter.

Lalu's son Pratap overheard this conversation. A shadow of doubt crept into his mind. He had a closer look at the bag that had his father's wrapped body. Indeed, my father has slimmed down a lot, in fact, it is a drastic shrinkage in size, Pratap thought. They weren't allowed to see Lalu during his almost two week stay in hospital. Pratap felt it was tragic for his father to have shrunk so much. 

He looked around with searching eyes. "Can I have one last look at my father?" he asked the healthcare staff standing next to the pyre. All the attendees had masks and gloves on, so it was tough to recognise relatives with all the distancing. But healthcare staff were the most covered of all. With their full body suits, Pratap could identify them from a distance. 

"Yes, only one person. Who are you?" he asked Pratap. 

"I am his son," Pratap replied.

The healthcare worker gestured at Pratap to come towards him and went near the head side of the body bag. He then opened the zip, and asked Pratap to come and have a final look. 

Pratap saw an old man in his 70s with a haggard face and wrinkled cheeks. He didn't seem to have any teeth as his mouth collapsed with pouting lips. 

"This is not my father," Pratap howled at the healthcare worker. "I am certain. This is not him."

Pappu Pandey heard Pratap and rushed towards him. He peeped into the head in the bag and vouched for Pratap. 

"Yes, this is not Lalu Mishra. You have given us the wrong body." Pappu proclaimed with confidence, raising his hand along with his voice. Pratap pulled it down. 

The healthcare worker put his gloved finger on his lips and ordered Pappu to stay silent. He then removed his mobile phone and called the hospital. 

"Body of Lalu Mishra is missing. His relatives claim this is not his body," he said on the phone. Pratap and Pappu looked on with worried, angry eyes.

"Wait one second," the healthcare worker said, and walked over to the other end of the body bag. Pratap and Pappu walked behind him in worried, angry eagerness. 

"Yes, tell me. #CV19-UP-09324. Tag seems to be correct," the healthcare worker said in a puzzled tone. 

"What tag are you looking at? We are telling you this is not Lalu." Pappu shouted, pushing himself forward with the momentum of all his ninety kilos even at this age. "Where is Lalu?" he questioned, raising his voice. 

"This is...I am telling you... not Lalu Mishra," the healthcare worker yelled into the phone. Then after a few seconds of pause, he howled even louder. "What?" he yelled and disconnected the phone. 

"Hospital said that the handing over of the body is complete. Check others in the crematorium," the healthcare worker reported in a morose expression. 

Pappu Pandey's eyes turned red, and he grabbed the healthcare worker by the neck on hearing this. 

"You bloody....," he yelped. 

"No...no..," the worker shouted. 

"I will turn you into a dead body now. Let your family search for it," Pappu shouted, and got ready to punch him on his face. 

Pratap got into immediate, quick action. He along with couple of others jumped at the scene, sensing the urgency. 

"Pappu uncle, forget him. We have to find Papa," Pratap said. 

He disengaged Pappu from the healthcare worker and took him along holding his hand. Pappu muttered under his breath with glaring eyes while walking away. 

They walked to the funeral next to them that was about to start. Pratap looked at the body on the pyre. It was again too short and small to be his father. He moved on. The next one was that of a woman. He skipped it. The third one seemed like a man who matched his father's body in size.

"Sir, I am sorry. But there seems to be a mix-up," Pratap said. 

"Of what?" the man standing next to the body asked, startled. 

"Of...umm.. bodies," Pratap replied. "Our healthcare worker says ..err... my father's body...hmm.. is sent here but.. err.. we don't have it," he stuttered. 

"We.. umm... have the wrong one," Pappu Pandey barged in. 

They could see that the man's expression was changing as they spoke from grief to sympathy. But Pappu's next demand saw it change to anger. 

"I have to check your late relative's face," he said.

"What nonsense!" the man shouted. "We are in the middle of last rites and rituals...."

"Sir, only one check. Let me please see if, by chance, he is my father. Else, you can have a glimpse of your loved one for one last time. Sir, please understand...," Pratap pleaded with folded hands.

The man's anger subsided with Pratap's plea. He gestured by his hands to Pratap to go ahead. The healthcare worker unzipped the bag so that they could see the face. 

"We are sorry, Sir," Pratap said. He moved on with Pappu, who had also resigned himself to their unprecedented, stark fate by now. 

The utter despair of not finding his father's body overcame Pratap’s mind and emotions. 

"What the hell!!" he cried out loud. "Where is my father?" he questioned the healthcare worker. 

This time Pappu held Pratap by his hand and tried pacifying him. Then he whispered in his ear. "We should go to the hospital. For all you know, Lalu might still be alive," he said. Hope awakened in Pappu's voice and face.

Pratap looked with eyebrows raised towards Pappu. He wiped his face in a hurry and decided that Pappu uncle had no chance of being right. But his mind asked him - what if he is? He told everyone assembled for the funeral to wait there while they go to the hospital and return. 
***

On reaching the hospital, they thought of going straight to the mortuary. But the flash of hope that Pappu had given birth to in Pratap's mind took them to the patient ward first.

"Lalu Mishra," the nurse on duty checked the list of patients. She then looked at Pappu and Pratap and asked, "You are the patient's relatives?"

"Yes, I am his son," Pratap said. 

"And I am his brother," Pappu clasped Pratap's hand and replied. 

"Patient expired last night." The nurse confirmed in a sombre tone after going through the sheet. 

"Oh, are you sure?" Pappu persisted. 

"Yes, see here, #CV19-UP-09324," she showed them the list. "Lalu Mishra."

"Because we got the wrong body," Pappu told the nurse, whose mouth gaped open in surprise. 

"Wrong body??" she exclaimed, with her palm on her forehead. Then she rechecked her list. "Patient is no more. If you got a wrong body, check with the mortuary."

Pratap and Pappu walked fast with dejected faces towards the mortuary. It had been a dim, baseless hope. But a faint glimmer that the hospital had made a mistake in declaring Lalu dead had lit inside their being. It extinguished as fast as it had taken light.

"Lalu Mishra. #CV19-UP-09324. We got the wrong body," Pappu Pandey thrust himself towards the person in charge at the mortuary. "We want to return it and get the correct one," he added. 

He later realised that it sounded odd. Like an online delivery received wrong. He felt like he was at the exchange counter. Even in this sombre mortuary, Pappu didn't lose his mood of jest and banter with his dear friend. He hoped that the man there doesn't say goods once delivered will not be taken back. 

"Yes, we are sorry for the mix-up. Sunil told us," the man said, with a surprisingly empathetic tone. His eyes probed at a register. His voice sounded tired with overwork. 

"Sunil?" Pappu asked. 

"The healthcare worker with you," the man said. 

"How can you be only sorry?" Pratap raised his tone. "Where the hell is my father?" he shouted. 

"Calm down Sir. This is not a shopping mall," the man replied in a soft, exhausted tone. "We understand your situation. But this pandemic has caused so many deaths. Mortuary is full of bodies," he added in a worn-out voice. 

"Besides, the policy of giving bodies started only last week. Earlier they only gave ashes due to infection risk." The man put a lid on Pratap's grievance and continued voicing his weary tirades. "We are tracing your father's body," he said, on seeing silence from Pratap and Pappu. 

He was on many phone calls for a while after that, while they waited. 

"We have traced it. The man who took it is coming here in fifteen minutes. Please go to the crematorium, and get back the body you have," he said. 
***

Pratap and Pappu rushed back to the crematorium. They told the health care worker Sunil the update that they had got from the hospital. He already knew about the status and was waiting for them to arrive. He had repacked the body and got it loaded into the ambulance. Pratap and Pappu told everyone else to wait for them to return with Lalu Mishra's body. They got into the ambulance. Sunil drove them to the hospital.

On reaching the mortuary, they went back to the man. 

"We have got the body back," Pratap said. 

"That man there took your father's body," he said, and pointed to a man standing near the notice board with his back to them. He was an elderly gentlemen wearing white kurta pyjamas.

"Hello Sir," Pratap called him out. "I am Pratap. You took my father's body. We took your body in the mix-up. I mean your dead relative's body." Pratap clarified. He tried to exchange pleasantries with an unknown stranger. This was a much unanticipated situation. He shuffled his feet in discomfort. 
The man turned around. He had traces of a faint smile on a jaded face. He was an old man in his late 60s or more. But his face had an inexplicable zest for life. He had a white beard and wore a cap. 
"He is not my relative," the man said. 

"I am Aslam Sharif," he introduced himself. "I used to be a hospital worker here. Retired from the mortuary ten years back. Since then, I collect unclaimed bodies every day. I give them a dignified funeral," he said. Pratap and Pappu had expressions of shock with raised eyebrows and a wrinkled forehead. 

"I am sorry your father's body got mixed up and was handed over to me as unclaimed today morning,” the man said. He then turned his gaze skyward and raised his hands in prayer. He looked at the man at the mortuary counter. “Unfortunately, I have already performed the last rites," he murmured. "Please take these ashes. May God give peace to his soul," he whispered, and walked away towards Sunil. As he went towards Sunil, Pratap and Pappu saw him take out a handkerchief and wipe the tears on his face.

"Sunil, can you tell me where the actual unclaimed body is?" Sharif asked Sunil and walked towards the ambulance.

Pratap and Pappu stood with their feet locked to the ground holding the ashes of Lalu Mishra in their hands.

The man at the mortuary saw them in their stunned state and woke them from their traumatic jolt.  

"Don't worry Sir. Sharif would have done the last rites as per your religious rituals. He has been performing this noble service for many years," he said. And then he added, "You are in Varanasi near the holy Ganga, Sir. Lalu Mishra's soul will rest in peace."

Pratap and Pappu recovered, if only for a while, and left with the ashes of Lalu Mishra. 

The man at the mortuary, then, scolded the clerk sitting next to him with a tight slap on his face. "How many times have I told you not to drink on night duty?"
****

About the Author: Ranjit Kulkarni’s work so far includes short stories, articles, and novellas, many of which, he is told, have made people think and smile. His work has appeared or forthcoming in Literary Yard, Indian Periodical, Academy of the Heart and Mind, Potato Soup Journal; and a collection of his short stories is expected by the end of 2021. More details about his work can be accessed at https://www.ranjitkulkarni.com


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