New Delhi: All Sharif Khan wanted to do was see his sister one last time, maybe click a photograph or two to remember the day he bade her goodbye. But he will now live the rest of his life stalked by this unfulfilled wish.
Khan’s sister Anjum Bi, a mother-of-three who died of Covid-19 in Delhi in the small hours of Tuesday, was cremated by a Hindu family amid a mix-up at the mortuary of the capital’s premier AIIMS hospital.
While Sharif is now back in their hometown Bareilly with Anjum’s children, their brothers Nasim and Arif travelled across Delhi, and through the congested lanes of Ghaziabad, Thursday in search of her remains. ThePrint accompanied them on this pursuit, but it proved futile.
The family still doesn’t know where Anjum’s remains are. AIIMS, they say, claims to have her ashes, but there is no way they will ever really know.
‘How do we know it’s her?’
Covid-19 protocol dictates that bodies of patients be dispatched for funerals in body bags, and neither of the families had the chance to see the corpse they received.
If it weren’t for a deep urge to catch one last glimpse of his sister, Sharif Khan, 22, would probably have buried the wrong body and that would have been it. However, just before the body was to be interred Tuesday, he paid a cemetery staffer Rs 500 and requested him to let him see her once.
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That’s how the mix-up came to light.
On Thursday, two days after the family first approached the Safdarjung Police Station with a complaint in this regard, Arif and Nasim were back there at noon to seek justice.
However, personnel at the station offered the families no answers and didn’t file a case on their complaint. ThePrint reached the Safdarjung station house officer through phone calls and even went to the station, but had received no response until the time of publishing this report.
With no help from police, the family then began their search for the ashes, but that proved just as onerous a task.
“Someone from the AIIMS authorities got in touch with me yesterday (Wednesday), told me they have the ashes of my sister’s cremated body and asked me to come pick them up,” said Nasim. “But how do I know for sure that those are my sister’s ashes and not anyone else’s? I asked them to do a DNA test but they refused.”
DNA tests on properly cremated bodies are believed to be next to impossible, with the fire destroying all of the genetic material.
Approached for comment, AIIMS public relations officer B.N. Acharya said they were investigating the mix-up but refused to comment on the whereabouts of Anjum’s cremated remains.
“One person from the mortuary staff was terminated, while another was suspended. A committee under the head of department for anatomy has been put in place and the matter is under investigation,” he added.
Where are the ashes?
By Wednesday, Anjum Bi’s brothers knew the identity of the woman whose remains had been confused with their sister’s — Kusum Lata, a mother-of-two who had succumbed to Covid-19 Monday.
According to Nasim, when informed about the mix-up, the authorities at AIIMS gave the family a phone number, saying it belonged to Kusum Lata’s husband.
“I called up last evening and her husband answered. He told me he’s at the AIIMS Trauma Centre and said he would come and meet me outside within five minutes. But he never came and has since switched off his phone,” Khan said Thursday afternoon.
Around 3 pm, Arif, Nasim and two of their relatives headed for the Punjabi Bagh crematorium, where Anjum was cremated.
At first, the staff was reluctant to speak to them, perhaps afraid they would be blamed for the mix-up. The brothers were only allowed inside when they insisted, multiple times, that they blamed the hospital alone.
The brothers then checked the registers that carry an account of all the people cremated there.
“On 7 July, a body by the name of Kusum Lata was brought here and cremated. Soon afterwards, we got a call from the AIIMS Trauma Centre asking for details about the same,” a worker at the crematorium said. Contrary to what Khan said the AIIMS authorities had told him, the staffer added, “Ashes of the body are still here, nobody from AIIMS or any family member has come to pick them up.”
A receipt is required to pick up ashes from the crematorium, which Nasim didn’t have and, once again, they were at a loss. However, the trip to the crematorium offered a slight beacon of hope because it helped the brothers secure Kusum Lata’s home address in Ghaziabad.
An hour’s drive later, they were in Ghaziabad’s Kailash Nagar, where they travelled through a maze of colonies for another 30 minutes before they found Kusum Lata’s house.
Painted a dull yellow, the house had a quarantine notice pasted on the door. The knock was answered by a middle-aged man, wearing a torn vest and a mask, who was soon joined by his children.
The son, Aditya Garg, said his mother was originally admitted to a local hospital on 28 June for gangrene surgery. “But her condition did not get any better even after the surgery, so we shifted her to the AIIMS Trauma Centre on 2 July, which is when they told us she had tested positive for coronavirus,” he added. “She was there for a few days and passed away on 6 July.”
Mahesh Garg, Kusum’s husband, joined his hands as he sought to apologise to Anjum’s family. “The slip we got from the hospital before taking the body to the crematorium was soaking wet. I could barely read the words but I saw a few alphabets that matched her name so I didn’t question anything. I was already distraught over losing my wife.”
Hours after they had cremated the body, the Gargs said, they got a call from AIIMS about the mix-up and they were back at the hospital the next day to pick up the body.
“This time they showed us the face without us even asking for it. We took the body to the Punjabi Bagh crematorium but we were turned away as a body with the same name and address had already been cremated there,” Aditya said. “So we went to Nigambodh Ghat and then we submerged the ashes in the Yamuna.”
‘Just wanted some peace of mind’
It’s almost the end of the day, and the Khans seem to have exhausted all their options. All they can do now is accept the ashes that AIIMS is offering them.
Nasim said he is worried about Anjum’s children, a girl aged 14 and two boys aged 11 and five, who are now orphaned.
“The children lost their father a few months ago (not of Covid) and now their mother is also gone. But they couldn’t even see her face one last time,” he added. “My niece has not stopped crying. She even fainted due to exhaustion a few times. We just wanted some peace of mind, but we have been robbed of that as well,” he said.
The family, he added, would probably take some legal action in the matter. “We have not made up our minds yet.”
Meanwhile, they are doing the best they can to give their sister a proper farewell. In Bareilly Thursday, Sharif and the remaining family performed Teeja, an Islamic custom observed on the third day of death.
They don’t have her body or her ashes, but there are rituals to be performed.
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