Jinnah was staring at one more corpse that came up for cremation. Mani, the van driver told him that the accompanying person who admitted this dead-man at the hospital had tested positive for Corona and he was admitted in another hospital. Hence the patient who died became an orphan. Jinnah told him, “Oh! One more case similar to our Vimala’s.” “Yes, Sir. It is she who formed this group. Almost a month and a half ago since she formed this team of ours. After the group was formed, I came to know from her about her sad experiences. Though I should not say this… but I am forced to say. One good thing that sprang from her personal tragedy is our group of volunteers. We are all from different walks of life and our motto is to extend our helping hands to the needy and devastated people. I am happy that I am also doing my little bit just like the legendary squirrel helping Lord Shri Rama in building the Sethu Bridge to Srilanka.”
“You are correct, Mani. There is a popular saying that ‘Adversary is the mother of inventions.’ Very true. Look at her case. She admitted her father in a hospital for Corona. She had to admit her mother also. But there was no bed available in that hospital. I accidentally happened to be with them and started searching availability of beds in various hospitals, hospital by hospital. Then that lady … her mother, got admitted there. You just see the sequence of events… Vimala admitted her father in one hospital and left him to my care. Then she got her mother admitted in another hospital. Thank God! God did not make her run around for another hospital for admitting herself. All three in hospitals and no one to take care of any-one. The crude irony is, nobody ever thought of Vimala’s father that he would pass away. His health did not respond to the doctors’ treatment and medicines injected into him. Ultimately, he succumbed to his fate. At that point of time there was nobody by his side, none of his relatives. I was totally a stranger, not even belonging to his caste or community. Situation warranted that I was made to attend his funeral and perform his last rites as though I was his own son. Unknowingly, that day became the day … a red-letter day for sowing the seed for this group. Then the rest of it all, is now a history.”
Mani nodded his head in agreement. Their conversation came to an abrupt end. Jayanti from crematorium gave a call. Their turn for bringing the corpse for cremation was announced. Jinnah was ready with the priest to perform the rest of the formalities. The priest threw a questioning look at Jinnah. He acknowledged. “Panditji, yes-yes. She is the one who is going to do the incineration. The male members who were the person in charge for this job were already affected and are on leave. Jayanti and her colleague Malar are going to conduct for us. The society believes this job is meant for men only. But these two ladies had defied it. They are already in our team. When we knew that the men in this crematorium were on leave, we asked the officer in-charge of this unit, to absorb these two ladies on leave vacancy for continuation of the work.”
“Was there no objection?”
“Initially there was. But when he learnt about their experience, he accepted. More than anything else, the situation demanded. In spite of continuous operation of this crematorium, see here. How many of us are waiting with the dead bodies? Though it may be in appreciation of their work, that these two ladies had already exceeded a centum in burning the bodies, it pains heavily to note that so many died of Corona. That too recently.”
The priest also agreed. “Much to my unhappiness, even I had crossed the centum recently. In any event, reaching centum and crossing that great number is always considered a great achievement. But not for me, particularly in this line. Every time it reminds me that my turn to be cremated, may also come up any day anytime. Until such time, I shall be doing my duty without counting the numbers. Be it hundred or hundred and eight.”
Jayanti and Malar placed the dead body deftly on the plank and pushed it inside the chamber. Then Jayanti closed the shutters. She then switched on the current for chamber and pulled the lever. She told Jinnah and Mani to come by evening to collect the Hasti-kalash, the urn for collecting ash and bones as the remains and remnants of the dead man. Jinnah called another member of their group Vishwa, a policeman by profession.
As Jinnah and Mani were required to be on call for needy and critical patients at various hospitals, this policeman Vishwa apart from his routine work, tried to do small little odd jobs connected with dead patients of Corona. He was now asked to collect the Hasti-kalash, ie. the earthen pot containing the ash, and immerse the contents in the seawaters.
Policeman Vishwa joined the Corona Volunteers group, after accosting one of the team members for their movement on roads. He happened to question Vimala. She wanted a blood donor for a pregnant lady in a critical condition. Her husband was worried and very nervous and was afraid to leave his wife alone. So Vimala offered to help him by bringing a donor. She contacted Jinnah and he gave details. The nearest donor was a pharmacist at a nearby pharmacy. Phone signals were weak and contact with him could not be established. Vimala tried number of times. But failed. Then she decided to go in person and bring him. It was then that the policeman interrupted her and stopped her.
The policeman had seen many people giving lame excuses for their movement on road. So, he did not allow her to go. When she pleaded, he on the contrary, offered to see the patient and ascertain the truth. The patient was really critical and every moment was very precious. Her husband knelt down at his feet and pleaded for the blood donor to come urgently to save his dying wife. The Policeman Vishwa immediately called the nurse and asked her to check his blood group. Marvellous. It was the same blood group that was required for the patient. Awesome. The whole scene got changed. Policeman became the donor. The patient got her unit of life saving blood. She gave birth to a tiny doll like girl. The baby’s first cry simply turned into showers of joy for young mother, her husband, the attending nurse, the doctor, Vimala and most importantly the policeman. He was heightened to the level to a God sent angel. A total stranger who became a saviour of two lives!
Vishwa, on hearing from Vimala about their group, lost no time in joining them as one more volunteer. He said to Vimala that on various occasions he had donated blood but this was the first time he saw that a new life springing up from it. She, keeping his morale, asked him, “How many times did you give your blood so far … four or five?”
He replied. “Easily twenty to twenty-five. My aim to create a record of centum before I die.”
“Not a bad idea. My best wishes to you. First, let me add your name into our donor’s list.”
Immediately she got excited. “See the number! You stand as 100th person in this list. So, in your case, centum is already achieved.”
He called the patient’s husband and gave a hundred rupee note. “This is for your daughter. Please take it as a token of love and friendship.” The man was in tears. With folded hands and with a choked throat, he spoke. “Sir, you are a total stranger. You came here as an angel. You say you are our friend. What a great thing! May God bless you.”
Vimala added her point of view. “This our policeman gave you Rs hundred for your daughter. He is a centum man. At the first opportunity go and open a bank account and keep saving for your princess. Let it soon get many more hundreds into the account.”
This old incident of his meeting Vimala flashed in his memories. When Jinnah requested him to immerse the ashes, he instantly agreed. He thought Jinnah would also say something about Vimala. It did not happen. Jinnah kept saying that he did not want to touch the centum figure in Corona cases. Mani who was the van operator, he too said the same. They were getting frequent calls from receptionists of hospitals, their friends circles, pharmacists, and so on …requiring help and assistance in catering to in-patients who were in the hospitals without their relatives or friends to attend on them. Vishwa could not control his curiosity. He asked. ”What about Vimala? Whom is she taking care of now?”
Jinnah said, “She is attending to her brother Sasisekharan. He is not Corona positive. He is suffering from fever. Hope he recovers soon.”
Vishwa retorted. “With Vimala by his side for help, anybody will recover and sit up very soon. I have seen it happen earlier.”
The way he replied, Jinnah felt something sharper and at the same time something fishy. “Is something brewing?” But Vimala did not tell anything to him. May be, she would tell her brother. He decided to meet Sasi. Both Vimala and Sasi were innocent about Vishwa as they had no clue. At the same time, they had no complaints either.
Jinnah telephoned Vishwa and asked him to meet him after his official work was over. Vishwa thought it must be something serious work relating to their social voluntary obligations. He rushed to the spot and met him. The speed with which he came rushing and not bothering to wait till completing his duty hours, made him laugh. Vishwa on coming to know that he got himself exposed, felt shy. For the first time, a stiff, strict and stringent policeman feeling shy! A rare sight for Jinnah. He laughingly told him. “I am Jinnah. But I am more a Hindu than a Muslim. I have so far cremated so many Hindu men and women. People of my caste refuse to take me or count me in their fold. I don’t care about it. I believe in my conscience. That’s all. Now coming to the point, I think, you have a crush for Vimala. But she will accept you only on one condition… That you should recite Gayathri Mantram … a holy hymn for all Hindus, in all their rituals.” Vishwa replied. “I know that Sanskrit Slokam. From my childhood, I have been reciting it.”
Jinnah reiterated. “It is not enough if you recite once. You must chant hundred and eight times a day and that too, for hundred days. For a cricketer, a century is a great thing. For our Vimala also, hundred Gayathri is very important. Minimum a century, a centum on the count. Will you be able to do it?”
Vishwa understood that Jinnah was kidding. He deliberately added centum, hundred, century etc. He wanted to say one thing… for a policeman, who was doing hundred push-up each and every day, this chanting of Gayathri was nothing. But he did not say that. Instead, he said. “All conditions are okay provided, you be my best man in our wedding and that the wedding should be under the guidance of the same priest who is helping you at the crematorium. Of course, needless to say that you please ensure that all our volunteers are present.”
“OK. Vishwa. I shall try. You yourself know very well that we cannot invite hundreds of people for your marriage. Government is very strict about crowd. No centum in any case. Permitted number is far less. Centum is very much okay for your blood donation count, centum is quite welcome for our voluntary noble deeds, centum is necessary in your sit-up counts and centum is highly appreciated in chanting Gayathri hymns. But centum is strictly prohibited in participation in social functions and the visitors count. No centum in that.”
Vishwa is a policeman and for him rules are rules. No compromise.