Token No.13! The booming voice at the crematorium echoed over the public address system. I looked at the token in my hand, it was 123. There were more than a hundred people before me standing in the queue under the hot Sun waiting to collect the urns containing the ashes of their near and dear ones amidst the stench of burning bodies on pyres ear marked for COVID deaths. This was a familiar sight in most parts of the country when the 2nd wave hit the country hard and caused inexplicable tragedy to the lives of the people. We have a senior citizen WhatsApp group where we exchange messages daily.
We have an un-written understanding in the group to post “Good Morning” messages daily and if anyone is found not posting the messages for a few days his status must be checked immediately by anyone in the group by a personal visit or through a phone call. My friend Nair, who was a very active member of our WhatsApp group suddenly stopped sending “Good Morning” messages. I knew something was amiss, and as suspected, it was confirmed that he was hospitalized for COVID and battling for his life. We, a few of his friends, planned to visit him in the hospital. But we couldn’t go as he was kept in isolation and no visitors were allowed inside the COVID ward, including the family members of the patient.
Even home food is denied fearing contamination. Disappointed over denial of permission for personal visit, we prayed for his quick recovery and discharge from the hospital. As the family members kept waiting anxiously, spending sleepless nights outside the hospital, the staff came out and apprised the waiting family members of the status of the patient’s health at periodic intervals. However, tragically, his health started deteriorating and he passed away in a few days leaving behind a shell-shocked grieving family and a host of friends. He retired from service a few years ago. Children were married and well settled abroad. The couple was looking forward to a happy and carefree living of the remaining years of life until COVID struck and destroyed all their dreams.
His body was embalmed and wrapped in a white sheet and as per the standard COVID protocol it was shown to the immediate family members from a distance and placed back into the ambulance and transported to the cremation ground for final rites by the designated hospital staff. His wife fainted on seeing the husband’s body and had to be taken to hospital for emergency care. After a few days a communication was received confirming the cremation and a token no. was given to collect the ashes at the time and venue indicated in the communication.
The family members were inconsolable and were unable to come into terms with tragedy. They had no courage to go to the cremation ground to collect the urn containing the ashes. I offered myself and here I am standing in the queue waiting for my turn. As I was lost in my thoughts thinking about the irony of life where someone who was with flesh and blood a few days back is now reduced to ashes and a token no., a voice announced “token no.123” through the public address. I moved ahead and collected the urn of my late friend. Then suddenly, a message flashed on my mobile ” Mrs. Nair passed away. Please collect token for cremation”. Drained out of all emotions, I trudged my way to the cremation queue to collect yet another token.
By: V. Subramanian