Death. How does one deal with it, especially when the deceased is in a faraway land and the body has to be transported back home for the funeral rites?
In case you’re curious, hope this post sheds some light. As more and more people from the North East come to this side of the country for better education or jobs, in this blog post I’ll cover how people from the North East currently staying in Indian metros meet unfortunate demises, and what happens when their bodies have to be sent back home.
Everybody wants to cremate their loved ones at their home locality. You’ve probably read quite a few news articles in the past where a “Naga girl was found dead in her apartment in North Delhi” or an “Arunachal Pradesh student met with a fatal road accident in Bangalore”. Ever wondered what happened next?
For most incidents like those, the bodies are not buried or cremated at that location. The families of course want the bodies back. And that is where various North Eastern Associations of that particular city play a very important role, because otherwise, nobody else is going to take the extra effort of sending that body home, after all, why should they. Transporting a body is not only expensive but takes a lot of effort as well and that is probably why there are many deceased bodies of Indian origin lying in UAE morgues for more than 3 years now.
In India, transporting cremated remains via airlines is a little bit easier. Even though one cannot carry cremated remains in carry-on or checked-in baggage, one can approach the ground staff and they’ll do the needful. The problem is for those who are transporting embalmed Human Remains in coffins for burial at a different location. There’s a list of airplanes that can and cannot carry such remains.
What I’m sharing here may not exactly be what everybody from the North East goes through, but for this post, I’m just using the MMA (Mumbai Mizo Association) as an example to highlight the process of sending a body back to the North East.
I’m a member of the MMA. The Association tries to bring all Mizos who are living in Mumbai together and conduct various activities like Church services and fellowships, sports activities and other such events. It also tries to help the needy as well. And that includes the deceased.
Community plays a huge role in times of grief, even if one is a stranger to other members. That is the Mizo way of life, where we live by this principle and code of conduct called “Tlawmngaihna” (altruistic principle of putting others before oneself) which goes along the line of the motto of YMA (Young Mizo Association) – Help the needy (Tanpui ngaite ṭanpuitu a ni).
Recently, I travelled home to Mizoram from Mumbai. But this wasn’t a planned vacation, and I stayed only for 5 days in Mizoram since it was an impromptu visit. I had to go home suddenly because of an unfortunate event - a relative of mine who was undergoing her cancer treatment at Tata Cancer Hospital here in Mumbai suddenly passed away.
Nobody saw it coming. In fact, she was reacting so well to the chemotherapy and was on the road to recovery that her son and daughter-in-law who were staying with her in Mumbai went back to Mizoram. Only her youngest son, who’s much younger than me, stayed back to be by her side and do whatever was necessary like assisting and running errands.
And then suddenly it happened. She got worse all of a sudden, was rushed to the ICU, and by evening, she was gone. Just like that.
I was still in office when I got a call from my sister around 8:30 PM informing me of the sad news. I rushed to the hospital immediately. Other MMA members and leaders of our community were also on their way to the hospital.
And here’s one of the things I love about Mumbai. Our Mizo community shares a very good rapport with the management of Tata Hospital. Normally, only people with visitor badges are allowed inside the hospital after visiting hours. That night, the guards were instructed to let any Mizo inside (of course they didn’t ask us for our “Mizo ID cards” at the gates, they just let every North Eastern’ish looking people inside. Here’s one of the few times where racial profiling worked in favor of us).
Inside, there were a lot of Mizos already. Some of them were MMA members while the others were Mizo patients undergoing treatments in the same hospital. People were consoling the young bereaved son. Among our community leaders present were our MMA President Pu Lalmalsawma Pachuau (Malsawma), MMA Vice President Vanlalruata Fanai (Maruata), MSYM Sports & Culture secretary Charlie and our Mizoram House Deputy Resident Commissioner Pu Zaithanmawia. We started discussing about the next plan of action immediately. Back home in Mizoram, my relatives too gathered together to discuss the next step, and our two groups were in constant contact with each other over the phone.
Because the young son was too traumatized to travel home by himself and it didn’t make sense for his brothers to fly down to Mumbai, being the closest living relative in Mumbai, it was my duty and obligation to accompany him and the body till Mizoram.
To be very frank, u Thansiami, the dearly departed, and I didn’t get to spend much time together even though she was very close to my dad and eldest sister. I was away in a boarding school since class 3, and when I went home for my vacations, I never got to see her because we lived in Aizawl while they lived in Kolasib. But the one time I got to spend time with her was a very special moment for me, a moment I’ll cherish forever. Back during the days before Lengpui Airport, there was just the small Tuirial airport in Mizoram, and if we didn’t get a flight ticket there, then the next option was Silchar airport in Assam. When I was in class 8 (Tamil Nadu - 1995), I flew home via Silchar. Dad had sent u Thansiami along with a driver to pick me up from the airport. The driver, you know, was a typical Mizo :) Mizoram back then had just become a Total Prohibition state, so naturally, when he reached Assam, he as all glug glug glug everywhere. When they picked me up from the airport, u Thansiami told me how angry she was with the driver because he was pissed drunk and that it would be best if we stayed in a hotel in Silchar for one day and wait for the driver to recover. No way was I going to stay in Silchar for one more day when I was so close to home! I told her I could drive, even though the only driving I had done was short distance in Aizawl under the supervision of a driver or dad. And yup, that’s what I did! I freaking drove all the way from Silchar to Aizawl (with the sorry ass scum of a driver passed out in the back seat) when I was just 15 years old. I don’t know if I’m the youngest Mizo to do that, but that was one special moment for me, a moment I shared with u Thansiami. But sadly, that was the last time I saw her, and the next time I saw her again was at the morgue in Tata Hospital almost 20 years later.
Back in the hospital, Pu Malsawma pulled a lot of strings and along with Dr. John, they achieved the impossible – we got all the death certificate and paperwork in order by midnight. Such bureaucratic red tape usually takes more than 10 hours, but the persistence of our MMA leaders and kind consideration of the hospital staff guaranteed its quick execution. The body was sent for embalming immediately in a hearse and three groups followed the vehicle in Maruata, Pu Malsawma and Pu Zaithanmawia’s car to “John Pinto” a renowned funeral home.
The remaining group from the hospital went back to Mizoram House to pack up their belongings. Another group under Machhana and Charlie worked on another impossible task of getting us flight tickets for that following morning. It was 1 AM already.
That is what makes our MMA a very effective association - no matter how few we are, we work together and every task is divided among different members, well coordinated by the leaders so that we can achieve our goal.
At the funeral home, the body was taken inside for embalming. With the assistance of our senior leaders, the son selected which coffin he wanted for his mother.
Meanwhile, another group of MMA members from Mizoram House reached the funeral home with the best clothes of u Thansiami that they could find, so that the undertaker could dress her up in them.
By 2:30 AM, we were done, and we all went back to Mizoram House. We also got confirmation that Machhana and the others managed to get us two tickets from Mumbai to Aizawl. Our two tickets came at a whopping cost of Rs. 80,000 since it was a last minute deal, but cost was not a factor right then.
Back in Mizoram House, we conducted a short prayer service where our MMA VP and also Chairman of our BMCF (Bombay Mizo Christian Fellowship) Maruata read passages from the Bible and delivered a short sermon.
Our MMA President Pu Malsawma also officially handed a “Mizo puan” and Rs. 2000/- in the name of the MMA as a mark of condolences. This practice is known as “inralna” in our Mizo community, and I have written more about this in my earlier post (Mizo Customary Funeral Rites).
There was also an open box displayed where people put Rs 100 - 500 depending on their financial situations, as a way to “ral” the grieving member. Pu Rala from Mizoram House Welfare delivered the closing prayers.
After the service, the others continued helping with the packing while Pu Malsawma dropped me at home. It was almost 4 AM then.
The moment I reached home, I opened my strolley, chucked in whatever clothes I could find and then left for the airport again in an auto. By the time I reached the airport, the others had reached. Maruata along with other members of the MMA and well wishers from Mizoram House saw the two of us off.
Regarding the coffin, everything was taken care of by the Funeral Home. We weren’t allowed access to the body once it was embalmed and enclosed. They took up the responsibility of transporting the coffin to the airport, clearing all the paperwork involved and moving it to cargo, and we could only access it once we reach our destination. This was done so in order to prevent any felonious activities like smuggling or transporting contraband stuff inside the coffin.
Our flight from Mumbai left at 6 AM. There were a couple of hiccups regarding our tickets but I guess it’s not necessary to mention them here. Both the station managers at Mumbai and Kolkata were kind enough to understand our situation and allowed us to fly. Landed in Kolkata around 8:30 AM. Left Kolkata around 12. Landed in Aizawl around 1 PM, where my cousins were right there at the runway strip waiting for us as we stepped down from the plane.
More people cried as they hugged each other, and it was only then that it occurred to me what took place the past few hours. Man, everything moved so unbelievably fast. Amidst all the hectic running around and frantic planning, I even forgot to tell my own family that I was on my way home! Fortunately, my cousins and aunts told mom about it.
Back at the airport, there were around 50-100 relatives waiting. Cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, the entire Zabanga Clan and their extended family were there. Once we got hold of the coffin, there was a short prayer service conducted within the airport premises.
From Lengpui airport, most of our relatives then drove to Kolasib where the wake was to be held there. The rest of us went home.
The next day, the entire group from Kolasib again drove back to Aizawl with the body where the funeral was to be held. During the entire event, from the moment we started planning our travel in Mumbai to the moment the Kolasib party reached Aizawl, our entire cousins (and nephews/nieces) network was continuously active on our WhatsApp group, sending updates and sharing photos.
Finally, the convoy from Kolasib reached Aizawl…
A final funeral service was held in Aizawl and then we made our way to the cemetery.
All in all, from the deathbed in Mumbai to frantic calls and hectic planning to uncertain flights to Kolkata and then to Aizawl followed by a trip to Kolasib and then back to Aizawl where she’s finally laid to rest, all in a span of less than two days, had been an incredible ride. And a big thanks to the Mumbai Mizo Association for all their involvement in making this possible.
RIP u Thansiam.