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An Unforgettable Funeral

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By Alok Joshi

Life has a strange way of conjuring up the past. Something happened with me, too, recently. As I walked past the busy Rajpur Road in Dehradun, my eyes fell on the name plate of a big desolate house. It read “BS Negi, Chairman ONGC (Retd)”. I stopped there, folded my hands and bowed in reverence. I could not believe that life would take me to the door-step of the same great man who lived in that very house long ago.

Late B S Negi

I went back by 21 years. As I walked past, many images of my Mumbai tenure flashed through my mind that faded the deafening high decibel levels of the honking horns on the street.

Yes, 21 years ago when I was posted in ONGC Mumbai as Head-HR of Operations Business Group, one of the jobs that I undertook, purely for personal and humanitarian reasons, was to arrange clearance and handling of dead bodies of our employees or their families, working in the north-east (who were referred to Mumbai hospitals for specialised treatment). A senior lady medical doctor in ONGC from the North-East (working in Mumbai), who knew my soft corner for the (NE) region (where I had started my career as a young University Lecturer), often requested me to take care of such a sensitive task. I used to visit hospitals, mortuaries, faced crying families of the deceased, make travel arrangements for escorts and coordinated with airports to transport coffins to their destination. Embalming and coffin services were the tricky part but Pinto brothers of Mahim never disappointed me and often did the job on emergency basis, often on initial credit and personal faith.

Dealing with dead bodies is never a pleasant experience. But when it is done with a good motive of helping the grieving family, it is immensely satisfying – more so if it is not a part of your job description.

A very challenging task was assigned to me on 13 July, 2001, by Mr Kharak Singh, the then ED-Mumbai High Asset.

He told me that all the top executives of Mumbai region, including him, were leaving next day for another neighbouring city to attend some important ONGC Strategy meetings over the weekend.

Since the entire top management would be away, he entrusted me with the task of making all arrangements for the funeral of a very special person, the funeral of Mr BS Negi, ex-Chairman, ONGC (who was highly respected as one of the architects of ONGC’s oil exploration and discoverer of the giant Bombay high offshore oil field and was the Chairman of ONGC from 1970-74 and a geophysicist by profession).

Late BS Negi

But then I was told Mr BS Negi had not died! He was in a Mumbai hospital on ventilator and the end could be “anytime”.

I was also informed that he had two sons. One of them could not be involved on account of some family issues and the other son lived in the USA and would arrive for the funeral only at the last minute.

Given the situation, ONGC had decided to arrange everything on behalf of Mr Negi’s family.

The funeral day was expected to be 15 July, Sunday, after his younger son arrived from the USA.

My HR team was big but mostly comprised female employees whom I did not want to trouble during the weekend. With just a Saturday in hand, I had to coordinate everything myself.

It was my first time to call up the Ambulance service. They asked me the address of the dead body. I told them he was still alive. They refused to book ambulance in advance and asked me to contact them after the death of our ex-Chairman.

To ensure that all Hindu funeral rites and traditions were duly followed, I organised a priest and kept him on stand-by, ordered flowers from Dadar flower market, fixed the cremation ground, made arrangements for the cremation ceremony, informed people about the expected date, time and venue. The toughest job was to procure dry wood for the funeral pyre since it had rained. A couple of geophysicists available in Mumbai did help me.

Finally, everything was lined up from my side. It was a sad as well as strange feeling to make funeral arrangements for a living person.

On Saturday night, I got a call that the cremation ceremony would take place on Sunday afternoon.

The dead body was taken from the hospital to the cremation ground directly in an ambulance. Some ONGCians carried the pier on their shoulders. I had to lead the funeral procession as the “Karta” (in Hindu tradition) with a pot containing the ignited fire in my right hand. The priest later conducted other rituals and I sat next to him.

Slowly grief-stricken admirers of Mr Negi started pouring in to offer condolence. Most of the mourners were ONGCians apart from his immediate family, including his wife and both the sons.

The cremation was completed. Outside the cremation ground, food was offered to mourners on their way out.

The whole solemn experience left an indelible impression on my mind. ONGC had given me an opportunity to do something sacred for a noble soul. I was in no way related or even remotely known to Mr Negi’s family but hopefully their blessings would stay with me.

The following realisations dawned on me that day:

ONGC is a great and caring organisation, just like one big family and comes forward to provide any kind of support to its employees whenever needed. Even just a few days back, I understand ONGC, led by its officiating CMD, came forward immediately and did everything possible for the families of the unfortunate helicopter crash victims in Mumbai offshore.

As a profession, HR is full of challenges and opportunities that call for sensitivity, empathy and service to people.

A funeral is NOT a day in a life time, it is a LIFETIME in a day.

And finally, death is a great leveler. Irrespective of status or title, it brings grief to the dearest ones with the same intensity.

(Alok Joshi is an HR Advisor, freelance writer and author of “12 Sweet and Sour years in China”)