It’s hard to tell what was more tragic when actor Noor Malabika Das was found dead in her Lokhandwala flat, a fortnight ago. Her untimely death at 31 after she hung herself in her bedroom and was recovered two days later, or the fact that there was no one from her family to perform her last rites and lay her to rest.
“I got a call from a police officer saying there was a decomposed body languishing in the morgue that they needed help disposing of because her family in Assam could not afford the trip to Mumbai,” recounts Iqbal Mamdani, founder of Mamdani Health and Education Trust NGO, who stepped in to ensure she received a proper farewell.
Noor’s story isn’t unique, though. In a city that never sleeps, some folks are often alone and forgotten, even in death.
Her last moments were also a reminder of the few good folks, who have devoted themselves to ensuring that those who die alone or unclaimed receive a dignified send-off, at their own cost, despite knowing nothing about them until that moment.
Mamdani, a former journalist, took on this task during the pandemic in 2020 when concerns arose over the management of Covid-19 deaths. “There was anger mounting because Muslims who had died from coronavirus were being cremated instead of being buried,” he recounted. Mamdani stepped in with a few helpers to conduct proper burials and soon noticed many unclaimed bodies in hospitals in need of similar attention. “Hospital authorities told us that people were hesitant to claim bodies due to fear of infection.”
After securing permission and assurances from the hospital and police to avoid communal disputes, he expanded his efforts and formed a 200-member team working from Churchgate to Palghar, CST to Kalyan. However, post-pandemic, the need persisted. “Police often dealt with unclaimed bodies, and additional DG of police Vishwas Nangre Patil encouraged us to continue this work.”
Today, Mamdani’s team of 12 men from a mix of faiths between 25 to 50 years handles at least a hundred bodies a month. “We conduct all rites and rituals as per their faith, free of cost,” explains Mamdani who has been collaborating with Mumbai police and railway officials and conducted the last rites for over 6,000 unclaimed bodies in the past four years.
Parallely, 72-year-old cooperative legal act consultant Prakash Gidwani has been relentless in helping cremate unclaimed bodies for five decades. From assisting the Caribbean police in Barbados while living there to continuing this pursuit in Mumbai since the 1980s. “I was at a puncture shop when a young boy came in, pleading for old tires to cremate his father because they couldn’t afford wood. That was the moment I vowed — no one should fade away without a proper cremation.”
In 2008, Gidwani approached the BMC with a proposal to collect wood from felled trees and distribute it to the city’s crematoriums which they ultimately approved. “Today, BMC supplies free wood to 86 crematoriums for at least 100 cremations. And later, electrical and biogas cremations were made free too,” says Gidwani, who operates solo with four ambulances on call, handling between three to twenty unclaimed bodies monthly, who died alone, often without medical insurance or family support.
While Mamdani has dealt with cases involving beggars, railway accident victims, newborns abandoned by their mothers, senior citizens estranged from their children living far away, and even a 12-year-old runaway, the unclaimed bodies that Gidwani has helped cremate range from the well-heeled and well-known — “like Bollywood hairstylist Sheela Kapoor who was discovered two days after her death in her Versova apartment, and after six months of trying to trace her relatives and an investigation, the DCP called me to cremate her” — to ragpickers, beggars, watchmen and rickshaw drivers whose families live in other states.
Mamdani says he often comes across migrant labourers from states like UP, Bihar, Assam, and Kolkata, working in Mumbai as daily wagers. “Their families sometimes know they’re in Mumbai but have no details about their lives here. After they die, their acquaintances in the city often can’t establish contact with their families. And even if the police trace the family, they usually lack the means to travel to Mumbai,” Mamdani explains.
Establishing the faith of the deceased can be tricky. For instance, Noor Malabika’s name had posed a conundrum. “She could be Hindu or Muslim,” Mamdani explained. After speaking to her family over a phone call in Assam, and confirming she was Hindu, they organised her cremation according to customs.
“For male Muslims, it’s easier due to the custom of khatna. For Hindus or Christians, we look for tattoos, markings like ‘Om’ or ‘Ram’, or a religious locket like the cross. Doctors document these during the post-mortem, helping us decide the appropriate rites,” says Mamdani.
“We once identified a rickshaw driver who had died in his vehicle from his Aadhar card linked to an address in Kerala. Another time, a photocopy of a cheque in his pocket helped us identify a man who had hung himself at a neighbourhood park,” adds Gidwani.
Funding remains a challenge. “Currently, we are 30 friends funding this initiative but seeking CSR or crowdfunding support to sustain it, as it involves significant expenses—salaries, running three ambulances, and necessary items for the rituals,” explains Mamdani.
One might think this work would take a toll, but both men find it fulfilling. “No one should leave this world without a dignified goodbye,” says Mamdani. Gidwani’s motivation is simple. “My intention is not to be a hero but to help in such an hour of misfortune.”