“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” This quote by Haruki Murakami comes to mind as I sit down to write about Ashraf Thamaraserry.
In the last 20 years, Ashraf has repatriated the mortal remains of approximately 5,000 expats who died in the UAE, to countries across the world. He has dedicated his life to the cause, and today, even as the world has come to a standstill, his work continues.
The Padma Shri (2018) nominee spoke to The Better India about his journey and why he has dedicated his life to this cause.
When Death Came Calling
In 1998, Ashraf and family moved to the emirate of Ajman (in the UAE) from Kozhikode, hoping for a better future. He set up a garage, and the work took off. Life was moving along smoothly, but then, an incident transformed his life’s purpose—he handed over the garage to his brother-in-law and became a full-time social worker.
“It was the year 2000, and I was visiting a sick friend at a hospital in Sharjah. I saw two men standing outside the hospital and crying uncontrollably. I figured that they were Malayali and asked them what was wrong. They explained that they were brothers, their father had passed away, and they did not know what to do next or how to bring his body to their hometown in Kollam. I barely knew anything about the procedure, but I offered to help them with the repatriation clearances,” he explains.
Ashraf reached out to the Indian embassy, and within four days, he was able to repatriate the body back to Kerala. And ever since that incident, dreadful phone calls at all hours of the day have become part of his life.
Sathish Joy, a factory labourer in UAE who has experienced Ashraf’s random act of kindness says, “When an entire family is grieving over the loss of a loved one, it is difficult to focus on practical matters like documentation and clearance. This is why Ashraf bhai’s intervention is such a blessing.”
Before the body can be transported, it is necessary to procure the embalming certificate, which declares that it is fit to be transported by air or sea. For this, the body has to be taken to the embalming centre, and then the body is placed in an airtight coffin designed for air/sea passage.
At times, Ashraf has even borne the expense of the procedure and also accompanied the body to the native land. “The cost to transport these bodies is expensive, and many blue-collar workers who struggle to make ends meet cannot afford it. In such cases, I bear the entire expense, and if need be, I take it back to their home,” he explains.
Ashraf recalls an incident where he accompanied a body to Odisha and was stranded there for four days unable to find the person’s relatives. He finally reported the body to the police station and decided to return to the UAE. But on his way to the airport, he received a call from the police station saying that the relatives had claimed the body and were afraid to claim it earlier because they had no money to pay him.
“I wish they had known that I do this free of cost,” he mentions.
In 2018, Ashraf filed a writ petition in the Indian Supreme Court against the Indian airlines’ policy of weighing dead bodies and charging Rs 200 per kilo. While he had pleaded for the fee to be entirely waived off by the airlines, that did not happen. However, due to his constant efforts, Air India, the country’s national carrier, has now implemented a fixed charge of Rs 30,000 for transporting bodies irrespective of weight.
Ashraf was also the one behind the repatriating process for actress Sridevi’s body. “Since the matter was pending with the Dubai public prosecution, it took longer—about three days—for the procedure to be completed. After boarding the coffin onto the hearse I left since I had four other bodies to process,” he explains.
Work In The Time of Corona
With lockdowns implemented across countries, the calls on Ashraf’s phone have tripled. Many bodies that had to be sent over cannot travel due to restrictions, and the grief is even worse at this point of time.
“This week, I had sent a 10-year-old child’s body to Kannur, Kerala. The parents were not allowed to travel with the body, and they had to watch the funeral online. This was truly heartbreaking, but in such a situation, there’s nothing we can do,” Ashraf explains.
Last week, the bodies of three expats were refused to be offloaded and were sent back to the UAE from the Delhi airport.
“The family members who were already dealing with the grief of losing their loved ones were devastated to hear this. I fought with the embassy and immigration office for an entire week, before the remains were finally sent back to India and received by the family,” Ashraf explains.
With numerous cases like these, Ashraf is now working 24/7 to help the NRIs find solace amidst the distress of the pandemic. He has also organised food collection drives for the needy.
His Pillars Of Strength
After a day’s work that starts at 5 AM and numerous calls and requests that need to be handled carefully, Ashraf returns home to a supporting family.
“Ashraf sees almost ten dead bodies a day which is very mentally tiring for a person. So when he gets home, we don’t ask him about his work, nor does he share any stories of grief with us. His time with us is filled with positivity, and we try to make that time as joyful as we can, “ says Ashraf’s wife, Suhara.
“Initially, the kids and I used to wonder why he set out on such a journey. I was extremely baffled because he gave up a huge share from the garage, and that meant we would only have the bare minimum to live. But a few years later, we were having dinner with the Indian ambassador, and his family. That’s when I truly understood the value of the work he did and how much of a difference he was making for the NRI community here in the Gulf,” explains Suhara.
Ashraf’s children, Shafi (22), Shefana (17), and Mohammad Ameen (8) have also been very supportive of their father’s journey.
“I’ve taken Shafi, my eldest, on some social work rounds because at some point I will have to stop and someone will have to take the legacy forward,” explains Ashraf.
Over the years Ashraf has won numerous awards from the Dubai Police as well as the prestigious Pravasi Bharatiya Award in 2015 and an honorary doctorate by Kings University, Tennessee, USA. The Kerala government also nominated him for the Padma Shri Award in 2018. Reshel Shah Kapoor, a filmmaker, has even made a six-minute documentary on Ashraf called ‘The Undertaker’.
But the man remains ever humble.
“I believe that everyone deserves a peaceful goodbye from this world, and I do whatever I can to help. Yes, my work affects me, I’m only human. But the family of the deceased must be allowed to grieve in peace before saying the final goodbye. They shouldn’t have to worry about anything else. That’s why I step in as the ferryman,” Ashraf concludes.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)