Four women join hands to care for the dead in Odisha
Madhusmita Prusty, Smita Mohanty, Swagatika Rao and Snehanjali Sethi have come together to ensure dignity to the dead by carrying out last rites of unclaimed bodies,writes Diana Sahu
BHUBANESWAR: Women, traditionally, are discouraged from lifting dead bodies or attending funerals. Considered weaker than men, it is said that death and rituals associated with it may leave women traumatised.
So when Madhusmita Prusty, Smita Mohanty, Swagatika Rao and Snehanjali Sethi of Bhubaneswar decided to take up the job of lifting and cremating unclaimed, unidentified bodies, it didn’t go down well with many. But in doing so, the four women said, they found a sense of purpose in their lives.
While 40-year-old Madhusmita, a former nurse with Fortis Hospital at Kolkata, had been doing the work full-time along with her husband Pradeep Prusty since the Covid-19 pandemic days, her friends Smita, Swagatika and Snehanjali joined her four to five months back.
While Smita owns a small shop in the city, Swagatika is an SBI employee and Snehanjali is a journalist and voiceover professional. The four-member team has bought an ambulance in which it lifts unidentified bodies from railway tracks and other places and if required, cremates them too.
Their recent assignment was the tragic Bahanaga triple train accident. The women, all married, gave first aid to many injured in the accident and shifted four bodies to Bahanaga school in their ambulance. When those injured in the accident were brought to the SCB medical college and Hospital (MCH) at Cuttack, they returned to the MCH to take care of them till their families arrived.
“We reached Bahanaga within a few hours of the accident and along with locals, pulled out four bodies from the iron debris of mangled coaches. One person’s head was completely smashed, and another’s eye had popped out. Two others had lost their limbs,” recalls 43-year-old Smita, adding that the sight of the bodies at the Bahanaga school will haunt them forever.
At SCB MCH, the patients were all by themselves in the wards till their families arrived two to three days later. “During this period, we took care of some of the victims by giving them medicines and dry food, changing their clothes and cleaning their wounds,” said 34-year-old Swagatika, who has lifted 25 dead bodies in the last four months and cremated 20.
Initially, their ‘unusual’ work was not welcomed by many. “Some neighbours would criticise my family for allowing me to do the work that I am doing. Some do not accept food from my house or attend our family functions. But this negativity comes from 30 per cent of people in my society. The rest 70 per cent encourage me to continue the work and that keeps me going,” says Smita, who took up the work after losing her brother to a train accident in Bengaluru and could not bring the body back to Odisha for the last rites.
She has so far lifted 43 bodies and cremated 24. Like Smita, Snehanjali also decided to take up the work after suffering a personal loss. She lost her ailing grandmother as she could not afford `10,000 for buying her medicines and one unit of blood for her in 2020. “This is when I decided to give dignity to the dead by cremating the unidentified bodies because the experience taught me that there is no bigger work than helping the helpless, be it an ailing person or cremating a dead body,” she said.
Madhusmita, on the other hand, has so far cremated more than 500 unclaimed bodies. As far as funds are concerned, the women say they contribute a part of their earnings every month for the purpose. Besides, they are also helped by Good Samaritans who contribute to a trust that was opened by Madhusmita’s husband Pradeep 10 years back.