ताकि अंत में उन्हें उनकी मिट्टी नसीब हो

Ashraf Thamarassery: serving the dead to help the living

The memories of one of the greatest moments in Ashraf Thamarassery’s life will always be eclipsed by the shadow of death. The 44-year-old Indian social worker’s recollection of the telephone call informing him he won the prestigious Pravasi Bharatiya Award in 2015 is gratitude tempered by the inability to truly rejoice.‘When TP Seetharam sir (former Indian ambassador to the UAE) called me with the news, I had just returned from the funeral of a 12-year-old girl who had fallen to her death from a building in Sharjah,’ Ashraf says.Seetharam’s was perhaps one of the few phone calls in the last 18 years that haven’t been an intimation of death for Ashraf — a garage owner by profession and a humanitarian by choice — who has dedicated his life to repatriating the mortal remains of expatriates who die in the UAE.Dreadful phone calls at all hours of the day and night have become part of life for the Ajman resident.A mere 50 seconds into our conversation and Ashraf has already fielded two calls, directing strangers to health centres and talking them through the steps involved in securing a death certificate for a friend or relative. ‘Like time and tide, death doesn’t wait,’ he says, apologising for the interruption before resuming our conversation about the service he provides voluntarily and free of cost.‘Earlier, a lot of people used to hesitate to contact me, worried I might charge them. But now everyone knows I do this for free.’Ashraf is referring to the spotlight Bollywood actor Sridevi’s death in Dubai last year shone on his work, resulting in a slew of articles and media reports — both international and regional — documenting his humanitarian endeavours.

While some mediapersons egged him on for intrusive details about how, if at all, death had marred the actress’s legendary beauty (‘Yes, I did see her dead body and it was like any another person’s. She looked peaceful’), most reporters highlighted the important work he does. Thanks to the media spotlight, Ashraf quickly became the go-to person for expats in the UAE who had lost a family member or friend and were looking for help to repatriate the body to their home country. It’s the only reason why he acquiesces to interviews and entertains media attention.His indifference to fame is reiterated multiple times during our 40-minute chat, in a fastfood outlet in Dubai’s Al Muhaisnah one Sunday morning. It’s reflected in his unassuming shrugs that are responses to my queries about the numerous awards he’s garnered over the years (two of his shelves at home are stacked with trophies, medals and plaques ranging from honours granted by charity associations and organisations to an honorary doctorate by Kings University in the US and prizes by the Dubai Police).He wasn’t aware that the Kerala state government had nominated him for the fourth highest civilian award in India, the Padma Shri, until he read about it in the newspapers. It’s also echoed in his unbiased empathy that doesn’t discriminate between celebrities and the blue-collared workers he’s helped.‘Death is the greatest equaliser,’ he says. ‘When we die — Sridevi, you, I — we’re all just bodies in a coffin. On the day I helped repatriate Sridevi’s body, I also arranged to send the bodies of three other individuals from here.’Ashraf has often been described as the ‘guardian of the dead’ and like every hero’s origin story Ashraf’s too is steered by chances and choices. It was sheer chance that led Ashraf to help with repatriation. ‘It was back in 2000. I was at Kuwaiti hospital visiting a friend who was ill, when on my way out I saw two men, brothers, around 30 years of age, sobbing inconsolably. I stopped and asked them what happened and they told me their father had died and they were trying to figure out how to take his body back home to Kollam in Kerala.’

Tags:  Ashraf Thamarassery  |  Social Worker  |  Pravasi Bharatiya Award  |  Garage Owner  |  UAE |   Kerala  |  Guardian of The Dead