"There was a family of four with two adults and two children. We cremated the mother at 12:30 am and dropped her children back home around 1:00 am. At 4:30 am, the father, too, died of COVID-19. In those circumstances, even the neighbours were not ready to help the children out of fear. I wondered how we could help the children survive in those circumstances," said Abdul Malbari (56), a social worker, sitting outside his quaint office in Surat's Chowk Bazar area.
The open land he sat on, which is now being used by the authorities for the construction of an underground station for Surat Metro, once housed ambulances, stretchers, and a make-shift tent full of COVID-relief equipment.
Malbari and his colleagues at Ekta Trust, who were at the forefront of COVID-19 relief operations in collaboration with the local authorities, buried hundreds of victims of COVID-19 during the pandemic, including the very first one, a 67-year-old man.
"There have been so many heart-breaking incidents during the pandemic, you can write a book on every city. Our brains could not comprehend anything eventually. We would pray for forgiveness from the Almighty and tell him that we cannot face his wrath anymore," Malbari recalls.
Like Malbari and his colleagues — Ranjan Tiwari (56), Prit Vaidya (43), Yusuf Barad (42), and Kabir Barad (44) — scores of first respondents of the COVID-19 pandemic saw death, devastation, and fear upfront during the pandemic.
Several surveys, however, show that COVID-19 fails to be an election issue for the voters of Gujarat ahead of the upcoming Assembly polls in December.
Meanwhile, in a conversation with The Quint the men who buried Surat's dead, recall the horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tales They Wish They Wouldn't Remember
Gujarat is considered to be one of the worst affected states during to the pandemic. International headlines claiming underreporting of deaths, alleged shortage of oxygen supply across hospitals during the second wave, contradicting figures being cited by the Gujarat government - the state was constantly in the news.
"We were cremating dead bodies one after the other, sometimes for 24 hours at a stretch. Sometimes, there would be around 30-40 bodies in a day. We would conduct the last rites according to the religion that they practiced. During the second wave, the numbers were higher," said Vaidya.
Yusuf teared up while recalling an incident from the pandemic.
"A man from Rander had died, he was around 65 years of age. The hospital authorities kept reaching out to his son. He was so scared that he stopped taking calls. The locality in which he lived, they scared him and told him that if he goes to cremate his father, he will get infected and it would spread in the locality too. He did not come for the cremation for three days, the body kept lying in cold storage," Yusuf said.
"In another case, the sons of the family refused to come and cremate the man, but the daughter came from her in-laws place and conducted the last rites," Yusuf recalled.
'People Forget and Move On': Why COVID-19 is Not an Election Issue
Like many, Malbari and his colleagues reflect upon why COVID-19 fails to be an election issue.
Speaking about politics, Malbari said that each political party tries it best to set agendas, but eventually "people prioritise the betterment of their daily lives first."
"Financial conditions of people are such that people can't afford to hold on (to grief) beyond a few months. If someone has passed away, people have to go out and fend for themselves, be a poor man or a rich businessman. If people don't let go, they will not be able to move on and continue to work for their earnings effectively," Yusuf said.
Despite Witnessing Horrors, They Pledge to Continue
The journey of Malbari and Tiwari began in 1984, when they first volunteered to perform the last rites of a woman in Surat who was abandoned by her family after her death due to HIV.
Since then, as the trust expanded, they have cremated or buried over 50,000 unclaimed and abandoned dead bodies, Malbari claims. Tsunami in Tamil Nadu, floods in Surat, earthquake in Bhuj - the foundation has helped with relief work during calamities not just in Gujarat, but across the country through the years.
The members of the foundation come from all strata of the society. While Malbari's father is a textile merchant, Tiwari is a realtor by profession. Brothers Yusuf and Kabir Barad are both auto parts businessmen.
"There were so many people who did not want to come anywhere near the bodies. They would pray from a distance. They were hugging each other until a few days back, but eventually nobody was ready to even touch each other," Tiwari said.
"All the abandoned bodies that we cremate through the year, we take their ashes to Haridwar once a year immerse them in the Ganges and then hold poojas a Pushkar for the liberation of their souls," Malbari said.
Reflecting upon the pandemic, Malbari said: "In the Hindu religion, out of eight yatras, the last journey is the most important one. But most people fear this last journey".
"The purpose of humans is to bring joy to each other, but humans are actually becoming the reason for each other's sorrow. If all humans are inspired to spread joy, the society will flourish," he added.