It was one of the more surreal moments of Azra Mobin’s life. The 35-year-old Muslim woman, who was fasting for Ramzan, had arranged and witnessed the cremation of a 80-year-old Hindu man whose name she had heard for the first time only a few hours earlier, when his son had called, pleading for someone to take him for his last rites.
Gaurav Srivastava’s elderly father Moolchandra Srivastava had died of Covid-19 at a private hospital in Lucknow, but the son was diabetic and afraid to go to the cremation ground. His brother and sister-in-law were infected and in quarantine.
Mobin made her way from her home in Aliganj to Shekhar Hospital, where the elderly man’s family gave her his body, and she arranged for an ambulance to go to Baikunth Dham to get him cremated.
It was a hot day, and Mobin, who was covered in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) from head to toe, recalled that she started feeling faint because she was fasting for Ramzan and it was really warm inside her suit. There was, however, no doubt in her mind that she would stay till the end.
When she had tried lifting the dead man’s body, Azra said that two men employed at the cremation ground said they would do it. One of them, she recalled, was called Khurshid.
As she watched the orange flames leap towards the sky, Mobin wondered why the universe had conspired for her to witness the end of a stranger’s life.
“I thought that perhaps this elderly man and I knew each other in a different life. I thought perhaps he and I were connected in some way. I thought perhaps the reason would be revealed to me one day,” said Mobin.
“These are such strange and difficult times. You can belong to any faith. I want to help,” she said.
These are such strange and difficult times. You can belong to any faith. I want to help.
Mobin said that she had been helping people in their struggles against the Covid-19 pandemic since last year, but it was only during this deadly second wave, when whole families started getting infected and perishing, did she hear about people whose next of kin were either unable or unwilling to arrange for their last rites, and their bodies were lying abandoned for hours.
On 19 April, Mobin wrote the following Facebook post: “Followers of any faith, god forbid, if someone is affected by Covid and is worried about cremation, or if no one is coming near you, then we are there for you.”
On why she decided to arrange the last rites of people who had no one else to do it, Mobin said, “I just thought what if I was suddenly alone. I would want someone in the world to come forward and do this for me. Sometimes, you have to put yourself in a stranger’s shoe and then you can make decisions like this.”
On how she felt about putting her phone number in a public post, Mobin said that she was aware it could open her up to a slew of unwanted calls and harassment, but she had simply decided to block those numbers.
What about pushback from her own family, given that the pandemic is raging in Uttar Pradesh and Lucknow is its worst-hit city.
Mobin, a social worker, and a mother of two children, said that her family, especially her mother, were concerned, but they know that it is pointless to object when she makes up her mind to do something.
When she decided to step into the field to help people fight the pandemic, Mobin sent her eleven-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son to live with their maternal grandmother.
When she returns from the cremation ground, Mobin says that she discards the PPE and self-isolates.
Uttar Pradesh, currently run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, recorded 23,333 new Covid-19 cases, and 296 deaths on Sunday, according to the state government, which is reportedly concealing the real figures.
Ever since she can remember, Mobin said that she has been an obsessive problem solver. It is a quality that has helped her contend with the pleas for beds and oxygen as Covid-19 cases and deaths have hit record highs in Lucknow for weeks.
A few days ago, Mobin said that she got a desperate call at midnight for a slab of ice from someone whose father had died of Covid-19, but he could only take him to the cremation ground later that day.
“I had no clue to get a slab of ice, but I did not want to say no to this man who sounded desperate. I made a few calls and somehow I was able to arrange it,” she said.
Mobin, who grew up in Amethi, and went to college in Ghaziabad, studying computer application, English and sociology, said that before the pandemic consumed her life, she spent her days fighting domestic violence.
When so many human failures are the same in every community, Mobin said that she feels sad when religion is used to divide people. She intends to teach her children differently.
“What Hindu? What Muslim? How can there be any division when there is so much pain and sadness anywhere,” she said. “If we have to heal, we will all have to come together.”
Her work, and the suffering around her, Mobin said has taken a toll on her mental health.
There is one harrowing tale that haunts her.
In April, Mobin said, a young man called her, begging for help to save his mother who was dying of Covid-19. When she called back to check on his situation, she learnt that his mother had died. Next day, his father died. Shortly after that, his grandmother died. And shortly after that, the young man who had called her also died, leaving behind his younger sister, and a brother who was in hospital with a liver disease.
“I tried to see if the girl was okay, but no one answers the phone now. Her family is gone. Tears fall from my eyes when I think of her,” said Mobin. “I feel immense suffering, pain and depression. But where is the time to even hold that feeling of shock and pain. You feel terrible about one thing and then some equally horrible or worse happens.”
While talking about how she was getting messages about three young children in Bihar who had lost their parents to Covid-19, Mobin said, “It is a tandav of dead bodies.”
But where is the time to even hold that feeling of shock and pain…It is a tandav of dead bodies.
When Muslims have died from Covid-19, Mobin said that she has not been present at the burial of male members of her community, but she has been called upon by maulanas to carry out the ritual cleansing with water or dust for a few women who have died and the men in their immediate families have not been able to make it to their funerals.
Traditionally, neither Hindu nor Muslim women perform the last rites in India.
Many young people who have lost their parents, Mobin said, have called her out of sheer panic.
One call for help came from a young man named Saksham, who she said was panic stricken after none of his relatives came forward to help him arrange his father’s cremation in Lucknow.
The challenge, Mobin said, was to get the body of the person from the hospital to the cremation ground. Once the body was at the cremation ground, she said, the men employed there did most of the heavy lifting.
“This young man was all alone. He said that his relatives were not helping with the cremation because they were afraid of getting infected. They did not want to come near the body,” she said. “He asked me for help and I went.”