Odisha has featured in the headlines several times for heart-wrenching instances of poverty, so much so that often families cannot afford to offer a dignified farewell to their deceased dear ones, and are compelled to abandon their dead.
Abhimanyu Das, a 49-year-old book-binder from Cuttack, has emerged as a messiah for people in this situation. In his quest to give dignity to the dead, he cremates unclaimed and unattended bodies and also helps impoverished families conduct the last rites of their loved ones.
Not only this, but Das has also been taking care of thousands of cancer patients in the past decade, most of whom are homeless, abandoned or extremely poor.
The Better India got in touch with this unsung hero of humanity, who shared his motivation behind such selfless work.
An accident and an epiphany
“It was my second major accident in 2002 that propelled me towards an epiphany,” begins Das.
Growing up in Cuttack, Das admits to never been interested in academics; football was his passion. In 1989, while returning home after winning a tournament, he was severely injured in a road accident that unfortunately put an end to his football dreams.
Afterwards, he started working as a sales assistant at a store for legal books. Things were going quite smoothly for him until one fateful day in February 2002.
“I had to apply the emergency brake to save a child in front of my bike, but instead, it toppled over, and I received a major ligament injury. After a critical surgery and months of bed rest, I finally managed to walk on my feet the next year” shares Das.
During his recovery, Das introspected about the poor and helpless people, who were even less fortunate than him and probably couldn’t afford treatment after accidents or major illnesses.
So after recovery, Das made it a habit to pay regular visits to the Srirama Chandra Bhanja Medical College.
“At first, I would offer some monetary help to the patients who had no family or kin to look after them. Small sums of say Rs 200-300 would take care of their medicines or a check-up. Gradually, I became a caregiver for some of them.”
Das couldn’t hold back seeing the aged and infirm patients desperately crying for help in front of him. After approval from the hospital authorities, and started nursing these patients back to health. He also underwent some brief training in caregiving from the hospital staff.
He would escort them to the hospital, sometimes from the roadside or sometimes from tattered plastic shacks that they called home. He would dress their wounds and bandage their lesions. At the hospital, every day, he would feed them, bathe them and even clean their bedpans on occasions without any inhibition.
“I received a strange sense of contentment in doing such work,” he mentions.
Losing his dearest ones to cancer
By this time, Das had encountered devastating losses on the personal front.
“I lost four of my closest family members to cancer, including my mother. My uncle, father-in-law and even my brother-in-law succumbed to the disease, one after another.”
Witnessing, his closed ones suffer before his own eyes scarred him deeply. He decided to lend his support beyond the boundaries of home and take care of the cancer patients who have no one else to turn to. Ever since he has been a regular visitor to the Acharya Harihar Regional Cancer Centre and has taken care of around 7000 cancer patients till date.
Many of them were at the final stages of the disease with little hope of survival and breathed their last in the caring hands of Das. For many others, Das has been a guardian angel who nursed them back to health.
Serving across several districts
At present, Das runs a book-binding business in partnership with his brother. His father helped him start the business after his third accident in 2008, where he ended up with a fractured knee.
His family comprises his wife and son who is pursuing a BCom degree. A typical day for Das starts at around 9 AM when he sets out for the cancer hospital. He spends approximately five to six hours there attending to the most helpless patients. After that, he returns home and engages in the book-binding work till late evening before calling it a day.
“Whatever I earn is fairly enough to sustain my family. But at the same time, I wish to continue helping the one less privileged than me,” the benevolent hero says.
He has circulated his phone number across Cuttack, Ganjam, Kalahandi and a few other districts of Odisha. The second he receives a phone call, he reaches the destination on his old Activa scooter (which is his bike ‘ambulance’) to transfer the patient to the nearest hospital. He has been doing this more than ten years now.
So far, Das has cremated around 1300 bodies.
“The burning ghat people ask for around 900 to 1000 rupees for cremating a body. Many people cannot afford even that much. For them, I do the service for free. Some of them often offer whatever little they can, and insist that I take it. I accept that graciously. Otherwise, I do not charge a rupee for the cremation services,” shares Das.
Running his bike ambulance even in lockdown
“I have never seen anyone generous as Abhimanyu Das. Jinka aur koi nahi hai, unke liye Das hai (People who have no one, have Das). These are people who have been abandoned by their own family, left alone to die from terminal illnesses. Das rescues and brings them to the hospital. He takes care of them in every possible way. He is an amazing human being,” says Himanshu Mohanty, steward manager at the Acharya Harihar Cancer Centre.
Das has received several awards for his selfless service, including the Odisha Citizen’s Award—the highest civilian award in the state.
Even during the lockdown, Abhimanyu Das has not had a moment of rest. While other car services refuse to help patients, Das has stepped up to the occasion and helped them out multiple times. He is also offering a dignified end to the unclaimed dead bodies on the streets.
Das is a real superhero without a cape. With a smile on his lips, he says, “I happily do the work nobody else is willing to do.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)