Hundreds gathered outside the crematorium for Praveen Kumar’s funeral in Haryana’s Hisar, even after the police chased them away. The 46-year-old man, for them, was not an ordinary person. He was the one who had stepped forward last year when others were hesitant to cremate the bodies of those who had died due to COVID-19.
Being the president of Hisar’s Nagar Nigam Safai Karamchari Union, when Kumar decided to take up the assigned work of cremating/burying COVID-19 bodies last year, his decision prompted other workers to participate. Since then, Kumar has reportedly cremated more than 500 COVID-19 bodies until he became one of them.
“We would ask him to quit this job as he was at risk. But he would always say that if he would leave, others will too and then who will bury/cremate these bodies? Hundreds had come to pay their respect. We had to request them to leave,” said Deep Kumar (41), Kumar’s younger brother.
After the second wave of COVID-19 wreaked havoc in Haryana, Kumar had started isolating himself unlike during the first wave. He would not let anyone enter his room, washed his utensils himself, and almost stopped speaking to anyone, according to his family.
“Papa said a lot of people were dying this time and he was scared for us. Every day, he had a new story about a deceased person to share. He was overwhelmed but over time he had gone silent,” said Kumar’s son, Priyanshu.
The 20-year-old son now wanders around his two-room house, smelling his father’s clothes, admiring his photographs. He cries sporadically, then gathers himself and sits beside his mother, consoling her. Two days ago, when doctors said that Kumar had only 72 hours to live, he and his mother prayed for a miracle to happen. But Kumar could not survive for even 24 hours.
Kumar had tested COVID-19 positive on Saturday (May 15) and was rushed to the hospital after his oxygen started dripping on Sunday. However, due to unavailability of beds, he could not be admitted immediately, his son told NewsClick over phone.
“It took us three hours to find a hospital with a bed. There were no beds even in the Chaudhary Devi Lal hospital. He was later admitted in the Mahatma Gandhi hospital,” said Priyanshu. Notably, two days prior to that, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar had inaugurated the 500-bed Chaudhary Devi Lal Sanjivani Hospital in Hisar for COVID-19 patients. It was declared that the hospital would get 8 MT of oxygen supply from the adjoining plant of Jindal Stainless Ltd.
Rajesh Bagri, Kumar’s colleague, has a very fond memory of him. He remembered how Kumar who was afraid of crematoria and graveyards was the one who inspired others to give their service at the time of crisis. Bangri said that he is yet to process that Kumar is no more with them.
“He was always afraid of going inside a crematorium and graveyard. He had this fear ingrained since childhood. We would often laugh at him,” Bagri said.
According to him, last year after they cremated six bodies, it was decided that frontline workers dealing with COVID-19 bodies will be given incentive per body. But Kumar would use the incentive to feed the poor.
Kumar’s family said that he understood that the the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown had rendered the poor even more helpless.
“He would often ask what will he do with this money. He was doing a very pious job of helping the ones abandoned because of the virus,” Kumar’s son said.
This was not the first time that Kumar was infected. Last year too, he had tested positive, but with mild symptoms. “As soon as he recovered in a week, he started working. He was always worried about the dead bodies. It felt as if crematorium has become his second home,” said Deep.
Compassion and humility marked the life of Praveen Kumar, a frontline worker, who is among the countless serving silently when the health infrastructure has collapsed across India and the governments are engaged in shifting blame of the colossal failure.
“My father is a martyr. He died serving others, silently without recognition. What will we do with our lives now, I don’t know. Will I even become half of what he was? I am still looking at his photograph while speaking to you,” Priyanshu said, his voice choked with emotions.