I remember something my father said to me when my grandfather passed away almost a decade ago. He said that the success of one’s life can be measured by seeing the number of people who show up at one’s death.
This has stuck with me since then.
Today, as I sit down to write about Khaalid Ahamed, founder of Uravugal (Tamil for relationships), an organisation that performs the last rites for the homeless and unknown dead across the city of Chennai, I am reminded of what my father said.
Imagine the plight of those who, for some reason, have no one to conduct their last rites. This is the space that Uravugal fills. The trust also works towards rescuing and rehabilitating aged, homeless people.
I must mention here that getting hold of Khaalid for this interview was extremely tough. We had to reschedule the meeting a number of times because the police kept calling him to ask for his help with an unclaimed body. This is a regular feature in Khaalid’s daily life.
This role that Khaalid has undertaken requires him to be available 24/7 and despite all his other commitments, he always manages to take time out and help those who have no one.
Inception of Uravugal
The genesis of Uravugal came from an intensely personal experience that shook Khaalid to his core. In 2015, Khaalid and his friends were visiting Coimbatore. A stroll down a busy road brought them in contact with a homeless man lying by the road asking passers-by to give him some water. “It was perhaps the odour from him that kept everyone at a distance. My friends and I brought some water to him and soon after he had his fill, he breathed his last,” recalls Khaalid.
The police were informed almost immediately, but there was no record of where the man came from and who his family was.
“The police filed an FIR and kept his body in the mortuary for a few days, in the hope that someone would come and claim it. Unfortunately, that did not happen and fifteen days later, with the help of the police, we cremated his body,” recalls Khaalid.
This incident changed Khaalid in more ways than one. In July 2017, Khaalid decided to start a Trust called Uravugal, in Chennai. “In the end, everyone has to face death and it is an ultimate reality for all of us, beyond caste, creed or religion. This is the least we can do for people,” he says.
Khaalid remembers speaking to people about what would their last wish be before dying, and the unanimous answer would be a good send-off (burial/cremation). It was with this thought that we started work.”
In the beginning, the Trust would be called in once or twice a month to help with the last rites of an unidentified body.
Slowly as word of this selfless group of good samaritans started spreading, the calls increased. Now, all major police stations display the number of the Trust and calls usually come from the police. Khaalid says, “Within a year of starting the work, we started getting multiple calls and now we get almost 20 plus calls a month.”
How do the volunteers deal with this?
“We look at each person we give the last rites to as someone who belongs to our family. We do not look at it as a job we are doing. If that were the case we would not have grown to such numbers in such a short span of time.”
The Trust today has 400 plus registered volunteers and almost 50 plus active volunteers. Since its inception, the Trust has performed the last rites for almost 250 plus unidentified bodies.
Speaking about the one case that left an indelible mark on him, Khalid says, “There was a six-month-old baby who was left in a dustbin. That one case shook us all, just to imagine that this world could even have people of this nature was something that we found very difficult to digest.”
The organisation is able to function only because of the volunteers. Dr R Bhuvaneswari, a physiotherapist by qualification was Uravugal’s first woman volunteer. Speaking to TBI, she says,
“While one part of what the Trust does is to conduct the last rites of the deceased, we also do our best to rehabilitate and help the aged, homeless people in the city. I focus my attention on that bit.”
On days when the core team is busy, Bhuvaneswari also helps out with cremations and burials. She says, “I am now the secretary of the Trust and help include more women into the Trust. In the last two years, we have seen a huge increase in the number of volunteers and we now have about 60 to 70 women volunteers as well.”
This is an immense statistic in a culture in which women are forbidden from going to the cemeteries.
Most of the volunteers are between 18 to 25 years of age and do this only because they wish to work towards the betterment of the society, there is absolutely no monetary incentive linked to it, says Bhuvaneswari.
Bhuvaneswari shares an incident about one rehabilitation call she had attended where a lady in her late 60’s had injured her leg in a car accident and had been living on the pavement for almost 6 months post-accident since she had nowhere to go.
“The injury was so bad that when we reached her, her leg was completely infected and there were worms in her leg. It had even reached her bones. We rescued her and ensured that we got her the requisite medical treatment.”
Even among the many selfless individuals who add immense value to the society by helping to bring about change, the volunteers of Uravugal have to be held even dearer – for they offer such a service that has no reciprocity. They do not even have the succour of seeing a satisfied face or hearing a thank you from the recipient of their goodwill. As a society, it falls upon us to celebrate them and encourage them for the kind of work they are doing.
If you wish to know more about this Trust or want to help in any way, do reach out via their Facebook page.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)