A. Harikrishnan has no degree, but a heart full of compassion, writes Soma Basu

‘Our services are free for the orphan, destitute, poor, needy and unknown’ reads a small poster on the walls of the Sri Meenakshi Coffee Bar behind the Government Rajaji Hospital mortuary.

Coffee bar-owner A.Harikrishnan rescues the old and the destitute, the diseased and often the dead in his ambulance and takes them to old age homes, hospitals, orphanages and sometimes when required to the mortuary. He has often helped tourists and their families, if sudden death befalls one of them while travelling. He makes arrangements for transporting the bodies to their native places. “I have even accompanied the bereaved families to Odisha, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh ,” he says. He has sometimes even motivated the families of the deceased to donate his or her eyes. It has worked in 30 cases so far.

Recently, he picked up a person suffering from leprosy with maggots in his wounds. The neighbours called the police who in turn called him for help. “There was a foul stench . I took him to a medical camp for a clean up and then to a rehabilitation centre.”

Harikrishnan is a school drop out. He has experienced the struggle for money and food. When a decade ago he shifted to Madurai from Trichy, the crushing poverty and plight of the people who came to the Government Hospital saddened him.

“People ask for food or money all the time,” he says. Many even offer their jewellery or some other valuable in exchange but he never accepts.

There are people, he says, who do not have money to buy medicines or food for the patients. Sometimes they cannot even afford a shroud for their dead. Harikrishnan helps them unconditionally. He began by donating the materials required for funeral rites. But Harikrishnan soon realised the poor had no means to take home the body either. To hire an ambulance or a hearse was beyond them. That is when he took loan and bought a second hand ambulance and ran it free for the poor.

As word spread about his free service, number of calls started increasing. And his services extended beyond GH, Madurai, to 10 surrounding districts. “I took another loan and bought two more vehicles.” Whatever money he earns from the kiosk is ploughed back into the free services and his domestic expenses. In fact, at many accident, murder or suicide spots, the police seeks Harikrishnan’s help. He either races the injured to the hospital for treatment or helps the police to clear bodies. There are occasions when he reaches before the police and completes formalities such as taking photographs of the injured or the dead, documenting the incident at the site and later expediting hospital procedures for autopsy in case it is required.

Harikrishnan has so far recovered 1,000 unidentified bodies and buried them. He maintains a meticulous record of his work and registered himself under the Nethaji Medical Trust. It helps in cases of unidentified accident victims, he says, recalling an incident when a father came and thanked him for giving his mentally challenged son a dignified burial. The boy was untraceable and when the father lodged a missing complaint after four days, the photo taken by Harikrishnan helped in identifying him.

“I can’t sleep for nights and lose my appetite each time I see a youth dying in an accident or an entire family perishing leaving behind an old parent or a young widow.” “Seeing so much flesh and blood, I am often in a bad mood. I bathe at least six times a day,” he reveals. Yet his urge to help others continues unabated. He gives full credit to his wife and family for keeping him going. “They are undemanding and offer me support.” On two occasions he recovered Rs.38 lakhs and 80 tolas of gold from the accident site and handed it over to either the family or police. He is so much trusted that his number has now been linked to 32 police stations across the city for assistance. On Republic Day this year, he was awarded with a medal for best public service by the Madurai Collector and the Superintendent of Police.

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail soma.basu@thehindu.co.in to tell her about someone you know who is making a difference)