News APP

NewsApp (Free)

Read news as it happens
Download NewsApp

Available on  gplay

This article was first published 9 years ago  » News » Serving the living through the dead

Serving the living through the dead

By Shobha Warrier
May 18, 2015 14:33 IST
Get Rediff News in your Inbox:

Ashraf Palarakunnummal


Ashraf Palarakunnummal has one mission in life -- to ensure the dignity of the dead. This he does by seeing to it that expats who die in the Gulf are transported back to their home countries without too many hassles for the bereaved families.

Shobha Warrier/ talks to the Good Samaritan who was honoured with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman recently.

It’s a tough task to get to talk to Ashraf Palarakunnummal; he’s always busy. No, he is not a CEO, CTO or COO who flits from one boardroom to the other and one country to another. But yet, he is always on the move; from hospital to hospital; from one mortuary to another. He is neither a doctor nor an autopsy specialist; he is just an ordinary man who runs a mechanics’ garage in the United Arab Emirates.

But, ordinary is not the mot juste to describe him -- he is an extraordinary soul who helps those who have lost someone close to them in this land far from home by assisting in repatriating the dead bodies home without any hassle.

When he was young, his parents advised him to serve the people. He chose to serve those who die far from their home by helping give them a decent farewell. That said, he is indirectly serving the living too through the dead.

Born 40 years ago into a large family of five sisters and four brothers, like the vast majority of lower middle-class Malayalis Ashraf too dreamt of going to the ‘Gulf’ as a young man. He followed his elder brothers to Saudi Arabia soon after finishing school, where he worked as a driver for four years.

Dissatisfied with the work he was doing, he made his way back to his hometown, Thamarassery in northern Kerala, when a better offer of work as a driver in a company came through from the UAE.

It was in the year 2000 that Ashraf’s life changed dramatically. It was just a casual visit to see a friend who was admitted to a hospital in the UAE. Outside the hospital, he saw two people sitting on the pavement, crying. Knowing something was wrong, Ashraf approached them and asked, ‘What happened?’ One of the young men told him that his father had died in the UAE and he had neither the means nor the knowledge to transport his father’s mortal remains home. Though he had no means or experience either, Ashraf did not have the heart to abandon them there.

“For four days, we ran around and finally sent the body home. I was also doing it for the first time. A lot of paperwork is involved, and all the papers have to be filled in Arabic. A person who doesn’t know the language would be utterly lost, but it’s not that difficult if you do know Arabic as I do. The whole process involved visiting 16 different places, including the hospital, police station, municipality headquarters, local court, airport, and the embalmers. It is only once all the formalities are complete that the embalmed remains can be taken to the cargo unit of the airport in an ambulance to be sent home.”

As the two men got ready to go to their home in Tamil Nadu with their father’s remains, they had no words to express their gratitude. They hugged him and said, ‘May God always be with you!’

Ashraf admits that unlike in India, everything moves very fast in the UAE. But a grieving person would be totally clueless about what to do unless he knew beforehand what the bureaucratic formalities were. “The shadow of death does not often stalk a man’s life. When it happens, they need kindness and guidance, especially when they are in an alien land,” he says.  

The second time Ashraf did this was about four-five months after the first incident, when someone died in a car accident. The moment a local shopkeeper told Ashraf of the accident, he rushed to the hospital only to find that there was no one around to help the deceased make his final journey home. It took two days for Ashraf to send the body home, once again to Tamil Nadu.

Just four days had passed since this incident, when someone contacted him asking for help after his friend had passed away in a hospital. “From then on, more and more people started to call me, and I started spending more and more time attending to these calls than doing my work. But I was not worried whether I would lose my job or not. What was on my mind were the words of my Umma and Uppa (mother and father) who’d always taught all of us to help the needy. The moment a call comes to me, I drop all of my work and rush to them. I know that the dead may not have anyone here to help except for a few friends who are pravasi themselves,” Ashraf said.

Within a year, Ashraf opened his own garage, mainly because he felt this would allow him the flexibility to rush out whenever someone called him for help. Helping those in distress was a higher priority to running his garage. He decided to then get his brother and brother-in-law to take care of his shop so that he did not have to worry about it any more. “They themselves tell me to concentrate on the work I am doing and not to worry about the garage. I am happy that I do not have to worry about it at all today.”

Till 2008, his work spread purely through word-of-mouth. Sometimes, even the bureaucrats and hospitals asked those who needed to repatriate their dead to contact him. It was in that year that the Malayalam TV channel Asianet ran a program on him. “After that, all of the Malayalis in the UAE knew my number. When somebody died, all the pravasis knew whom to call!”

Six or seven years ago, corporate houses like Malabar Gold and businessmen like Yusuf Ali came to know of Ashraf’s work, and they created a fund to help Ashraf repatriate the remains of those who had no family in the Middle East, as well as those who did not even have the money to send the body home. “We must have taken money from the fund to send at least 10-12 bodies a year. Before that, in order to help the penniless, I had to collect money from people I knew. It was a tough task in those days.”

Of late, he has been repatriating on average 40-50 bodies every month. In 2014 alone, he helped send 329 dead people home for their final rest. Ever since he started this noble mission, he estimates that he must have helped in the repatriation of 2,180 bodies. “Heart attacks are the main cause of death here in the UAE. I believe stress is the reason for this, as most of those dead are between the ages of 35 and 40. Most of them are poor people who have come here to make money, but they are riven by the stresses of job security, their families at home, and the debts they incurred to make their way to the UAE.”

Feeling indebted to Ashraf for the service he renders them, the relatives of the dead call him even after they reach home though he tells them not to call. “It is difficult to pick these calls up, as my priority is to help those who need me. Some days, I get 150-200 calls; handling them is particularly hard especially on bad days when I have had to deal with up to four dead people who needed to be sent home.”

As his fame grew, people from other countries began to call him for help. Today, Ashraf has repatriated the dead to 38 different countries of origin, but the majority of the foreigners he helps are from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. “The rules are the same for all the countries. But one thing I have noticed is that the flag carriers of other countries take the dead bodies of those from their countries free of cost. Only the Indian airlines expect you to pay.”  

Ever since Asianet ran the program on Ashraf in 2008, he has been showered with awards. The latest was the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman conferred on him by the Government of India. A week before the Pravasi Divasthis January in Ahmedabad, the India ambassador to the UAE informed him that he was getting the award and that he had to go to India to collect the award. It was the ambassador himself who had recommended him for the award.

“I never thought I would get such an award. I know big, well-known people typically receive these awards; not people like me. It was the first time that the Government of India gave this award to someone like me.”

The flight to India was at 11.30 at night. But because he had three dead bodies to repatriate (all to India), he had to rush to the airport after he got home at 9. “More than any award, my duty to people comes first.”

On January 8, the day before the awards ceremony, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met all the winners and spoke to each of them. Ashraf told him in Hindi what he did and why he was given the award. He then went on to complain to the prime minister that it was only the Indian airlines that charged relatives for repatriating their dead. “Many other countries, including Pakistan, do not charge relatives a single penny. In fact, it’s not just Pakistan’s national carrier but even private airlines also move bodies free. India charges according to the weight of the person, which is extremely unfair and unjustified. I requested the prime minister to see that at least Air India does this free. He said he would do the needful, and I am hopeful that he will. I feel that much respect is due to the dead.”

What impressed Ashraf about Modi was his patience and willingness to listen to people. He found him to a person “who harbours love for people.”

Ashraf is also very impressed with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and describes her as a patriot. “I got onto the stage to collect the award from the vice president and Swaraj was also on the stage. That was the first time I was meeting her. She told the vice president that I was Ashraf and what I did. She said we should have given him the award much earlier. She said she was very proud that her government gave me this award. I was very happy to hear her words.”

Again the moment she spotted him at the airport, she went to him and started talking. “She spoke very warmly to all of us and even told my children that they also should do good deeds like their father!”

Never in his life had Ashraf looked at the dead as Hindu, Christian or Muslim; Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, African or American. For him, only one thing matters -- that the person died miles from home and he owes it to their families to get him or her back home one last time.

Ashraf only has one wish, “Until my death, I want to serve the living through the dead.”

Image: Ashraf Palarakunnummal receives the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman from Vice President Hamid Ansari as External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj looks on.

Get Rediff News in your Inbox:
Shobha Warrier / in Chennai
India Votes 2024

India Votes 2024