Times of India
05 October 2010
By Pinaki Das
For the last three years, Barnali Manna has had to bear the ‘stigma’ of being the wife of an HIV–positive man. When her husband Nil Madhab passed away sometime on Sunday night, there was no one to console or help her in her hour of crisis. Instead, her neighbours refused to grant her husband even the right to a proper cremation, claiming it would infect the entire area, and threatened her with dire consequences when she pleaded with them.
This was not in any remote village in some far–flung corner of the state where there is no one to enlighten people about HIV/AIDS. The incident took place merely around 40–45 km from Kolkata, in Hanturia village of Howrah’s Bagnan. Nil Madhab’s body lay rotting under the blazing sun till 3 pm on Monday when 8–year–old Debnath, the couple’s elder son, finally lit his funeral pyre under heavy police protection after health department officials had failed to mediate with the villagers.
Nil Madhab, a truck driver by profession, was 32 when he was detected to be HIV–positive three years ago. Since then, he had been undergoing treatment at NRS Medical College and Hospital. Over the past three months, his condition had been deteriorating steadily. It had been particularly bad since last Thursday. He was running a high temperature and coughing incessantly. Local doctor S Maiti had advised Barnali to hospitalise him on Tuesday.
On Sunday, Barnali, who is aged around 30, retired for the night with her two sons – Debnath who studies in Class II and Subhankar who’s in Class I. Nil Madhab was asleep in the adjacent room. The couple had been sleeping separately ever since he had been detected as being HIV–positive. Sometime in the early hours of Monday, Barnali went to Nil Madhab’s room to check how he was. When he did not respond to her repeated calls, she checked his pulse but could not find any.
"I rubbed his hands, but they were cold. I realized that he had passed away in sleep. Since it was still night, all I could do was wait for dawn so that I could inform the neighbours," Barnali said.
For the grieving widow, worse was in store at daybreak. When neighbours learnt about Nil Madhab’s death, they began gathering before his house – not to extend help, but to discuss what should be done. Soon, a 1,200–strong mob had gathered there, with some demanding that Nil Madhab’s body be taken away from the village as it was "contaminated".
"I pleaded for help to take his body for cremation, but not only did they refuse to carry him to the burning ghat at Memari, some of them said they would not allow his cremation there. Soon, others joined in and began to issue threats," recalled Barnali.
Luckily for her, however, a local health worker was passing by. He stopped to check what the commotion was all about. When he learnt about the issue, he rushed to block medical health officer Indranil Maitra, who immediately sent a medical team to reason with villagers. By now, several hours had passed and the heat and humidity were beginning to take a toll on the body.
The medical team did not have much luck either as no one was willing to hear what they had to say. It was only after prolonged attempts that panchayat head Basudeb Pradhan stepped forward. So did local youth Tulsi Manna and his uncle Utpal. The trio made arrangements to take Nil Madhab to the burning ghat around 1 pm.
But Barnali’s problem was far from over. At the burning ghat, too, a group of villagers stalled the cremation. "If the body is burnt here, there will be pollution all around. The virus will spread and infect all of us. Take it elsewhere for cremation," one of them said.
By now, there were clear signs of putrefaction in the body that was lying out in the sun. Realizing that it would not be possible to do anything without force, the medical team contacted Bagnan police station. It was only after the inspector–in–charge arrived at the crematorium with a huge force around 3 pm that the cremation could finally begin. "Had the police not stepped in, the situation would have difficult to resolve," remarked SDPO Mrinal Majumdar.
The BMOH admitted to lack of awareness among locals on how to deal with such situations. "We have to carry out a major awareness programme to prevent a repeat," he added.
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