Madhusmita Prusty and her husband Pradeep Kumar Prusty, who runs the Pradeep Seva Trust in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, have been witnessing the harsh realities of COVID-19 for the past year and a half.
The 38-year-old nurse quit her stable job at Fortis Hospital in Kolkata in 2019 and joined her husband Pradeep, who has been serving at crematoriums in her hometown in Bhubaneswar.
As the second wave of COVID-19 unfolded, Madhusmita has been cremating unclaimed dead bodies of at least 20 COVID-19 victims per day.
Today, the mother of two spends 20 hours a day either in post mortem rooms in hospitals, ferrying dead bodies to cremation sites, or making arrangements to cremate the dead bodies.
“We get calls any hour of the day and night and we have to get going. We don’t find time to prepare meals, let alone follow a fixed schedule to say when we’ll be free. Yesterday, we had biscuits for lunch,” Pradeep tells HerStory over a phone call. Minutes later, we were connected with his wife Madhusmita who was speaking from one of the four cremation sites she frequents.
The couple has now tied up with the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) to work at a newly-developed cremation ground due to an increase in the number of COVID-19 deaths.
The pandemic has been harsh in unveiling some tough and desperate realities. While Madhusmita is used to people not willing to claim the dead body of their family members, she says she is saddened to see children abandoning their parents when they test positive for COVID-19.
“I use my past experience as a nurse to the best by giving medicines and taking them to hospitals. I feel really bad that sometimes parents who work hard all their life to provide for the family members and children become strangers. Pata nahin kaunsa pap kiya jo family members dhyan nahi rakhte. (I don’t know what kind of sin it is to contract the virus that their own people refuse to take care of each other).”
Madhusmita has always been someone who can’t stomach sadness and can’t see others in trouble, and her story of selflessness goes back to her childhood years. She grew up in a conservative and high society family of an MLA in Noida.
As she recalls, the advice was always to never visit the homes of other people and touch them, no matter what is happening as her parents believed to be “higher than the rest”.
However, Madhusmita scooped every opportunity to pack groceries like rice, vegetables, and fruits from her house and give away to the needy in the vicinity.
“Once, during the seventh standard, my father caught me up on a tree in our home garden plucking fruits. Papa ne itni pitai ki kyunki mein chupke doosron ko de rahi thi. (My father beat me up because I was plucking them to give to the poor),” she recalls.
Years later, she met her husband Pradeep on Facebook. “Just as I found joy in helping others, I fell in love with the man who has dedicated decades to social work. We connected online and whenever I visited my hometown in Odisha, I used to work with him, and we got married in 2010,” she shares.
Soon after their marriage, Madhusmita pursued Bachelor’s in Nursing and began work as a nurse in Kolkata till she returned home for good in 2019 to join her husband who was finding it difficult to cremate bodies all alone.
The age-old Hindu tradition frowns upon women’s presence at the shamshan ghat (the cremation ground), but Madhusmita has always known better than subduing by the rules over helping someone in need. And so nothing deterred her from serving and performing all kinds of work at cremation sites.
But there were challenges.
Often when she is out alone driving the ambulance late at night, other male drivers would tease her and make her feel unsafe. Above all, it is not a convenient work and even before COVID-19, family members would be reluctant to cooperate in claiming and collecting dead bodies.
“At times, people would have jumped off from a train 3-4 kms away from the station and collecting such bodies is difficult as we can’t drive vehicles amidst railway tracks. It is also life-threatening for us to go between the tracks to retrieve dead bodies,” she says.
The couple, who are offering their services for free at the moment, usually accept whatever the family members offer for cremating the bodies. To run their family of four with a son and a daughter, the duo has put a house on rent and grow vegetables to sell.
The trust is backed by about 50 members offering financial support. However, at present, the couple say they could use outsider’s support in financing an ambulance to ferry the dead bodies.
“This is our second ambulance because we use and wash it extensively. The body parts have accumulated rust, which becomes a hurdle nowadays,” she says.
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