More than 2,000 unclaimed bodies have had the diginity of final rites at Kishore Chandra Bhatt’s hands, says Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Sachin Haralkar

Kishore Chandra Shankar Bhatt at his Arthur Road shop

Kishore Chandra Shankar Bhatt at his Arthur Road shop

Wait a minute. Let me salute you properly,” said a police officer to Kishore Chandra Shankar Bhatt. A nun had just been run over by a truck. Bhatt was assisting the police and medical team in carrying her corpse to an ambulance. But that was not the reason for the salute.
The nun belonged to a church that would claim her body, and bury it. Since the last 40 years, Bhatt has given an appropriate funeral to over 2,000 bodies belonging to people of varying faith, and even animals. These bodies were either unclaimed, or claimed by people who did not have money for the funeral. His work has been recognized by police stations and hospitals who call him when they have an unclaimed body, or give a person who can’t afford funeral expenses his phone number. It has been recognized by a Muslim religious society which has awarded him a medal for his work in the field. It has been recognized in other parts of the country as well, by government authorities who call him to help out with such unfortunate corpses during calamities, as he did in Mumbai during the riots of ’92-’93 and the bomb blasts following them. The salute was a culmination of this recognition.
Bhatt first encountered death when he was 17. “I had gone to Surat to help out with flood relief. I saw human corpses lying around with those of animals – mangled together as one,” he remembers. “On telling my father this, he said: To wrap a corpse in its shroud, to lend your shoulder to carrying it, to perform its last rites – is the greatest good you can do.” So he started visiting hospitals and police stations, asking them to contact him whenever a body would be unclaimed, and asking acquaintances to inform him whenever they saw a corpse lying on the road. “The police were suspicious in the beginning,” he recounts. “They would
check to see if I had stolen anything from a body I picked up from the street.”
Eventually, as suspicions subdued, he won well wishers: “An NGO helped me create a trust for my work; a chartered accountant did our accounts; a medicine store owner who gave me supplies; and a friend who donated two Suzuki vans for conveyance, one of which has been transformed into an hearse-like vehicle for carrying bodies.” Also contributing to his cause are umpteen youth residing near his Arthur Road interior decoration shop, on call to help him with the corpses. Each of them has to learn, as Bhatt did, the funeral rituals for each religion.
Bhatt’s son died at the young age of 17. When asked about what makes him persevere in his philanthropy sans cynicism, he presents a plethora of fantastic tales. There is a woman who told him after he
cremated her daughter, that her faith in God was reinstated. There is a man whose son had gone into coma and was discharged from a public hospital because doctors said he would die in a few hours anyway. “He wanted to take him back to his village to die in his hometown, but his village was far off,” Bhatt recounts. “So I arranged for some men with supplies to travel with him, to cremate him if he died on the way.” Bhatt, being a Brahmin, sprinkled some gangajal on the boy’s lips to fulfill the priest’s side of the Hindu rites, in case they couldn’t find a priest when he passed away, “and the boy sprang out of coma!”
Then there is a wealthy Mr Memon who decreed before dying that his last rites be conducted not by a Muslim, but by Bhatt. Also, there is a tuberculosis patient, who Bhatt had admitted to the hospital, who returned to his shop in a tearing hurry. “Pay the taxi fare fast, I have no money and no time, he said,” Bhatt narrates. Bhatt paid the fare and asked him if he’d like some tea. He said: “No. No time, I just wanted to say thanks, and bye.” And passed away.
Bhatt has resorted to lies and coercion to get his work done: “I have called a hospital and pretended to be a politician to get a baby girl admitted. I have told a taxi driver he would be sinning heavily if he didn’t help me transport a dead man’s body.”
This commitment is in line with lineage – Bhatts, traditionally, were Brahmins entrusted with the specific duty of performing a Hindu’s Antim Sanskaar. What is not in line with lineage, however, is for a Brahmin to actually do any manual work connected with the funeral, leave alone the funeral of a person from another caste, or religion. “A funeral is a necessary tribute to life which transcends death,” Bhatt retorts. Step out of his shop into the big bad metropolis, however, and one realizes his work as a tribute to lives that were… and that could have been.

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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