As I was reading through the topics to write, I came across sports which serve a higher purpose. Immediately I remembered Rambabu, the retriever. At least that was what he was called by the people. Not affectionately but with contempt! He was the retriever of dead bodies! Yes! That was his job! All this happened 30 years back, when I was a teenager in my village. Let me explain from the beginning! To understand what Rambabu did as a sports person, you need to understand the geography of our village.

The village Courtallam in Tamil Nādu is very famous for the dense forest and many beautiful waterfalls. Located at the western ghats, Courtallam is a tourist place all through the year! Mother Nature has given the most beautiful sites, the valleys, the wildlife and above all the silver cascading of water! Where there is abundance beauty, there is danger! This is the law of Nature. Our place Courtallm is not an exception to this. People from various parts of India come here to enjoy herbal bath in the waterfall. Many go for trekking; many go for watching wild animals as it has a reserve tiger sanctuary! Now the government had banned trekking beyond certain point!

But 30 years ago, that was not the case! People came here to enjoy the mountain view and trekking without any restrictions! The danger started when naïve people who were not aware of the nature and its power, go for Trekking! They went with the guide of course, but sometimes they were overwhelmed by the beauty of nature! They would want to see the origin of Chitra river and the waterfall that followed! This was where the danger came in! It was dense jungle then! Sudden gush of water was a part of system. The local guides used to warn the tourists not to go beyond certain point! But those ignorant tourists would insist to go beyond the danger level ignoring the warning sign boards! Sometimes they would pick a fight with the guides for refusing to take them where they wanted to go! They would want to take a dip in the origin of the river Chitra which was considered auspicious! The guides would yield to the pressure ultimately! The tourists would walk along the path where fate made them do what they were destined to do as last deed!

Now let me explain the place where river Chitra originates! It’s 4000 feet above sea level on the top of the mountain! There were no roads or mud paths! Only an experienced person would know the route! At the peak, there was pond like structure made of rocks by nature. Chitra river as a tiny brook falls into that pond! From the pond it travels a short distance to fall as a water fall down the mountain. The force of water was unimaginably high! The approach to the pond is only through water! One had to wade through the gushing water to reach the pond! The depth of the pond at the middle was more than 30 feet!

The ignorant tourists with arrogance not to listen to the guide, would wade through the water. Most of them would be city people who hardly had seen any water body! The peer pressure, just to show how brave they were! Sometimes the consumption of alcohol or fate made them do what they should have never done! Initially the water would be so calm, it would seem like all those warnings were meaningless! But suddenly they would feel the pressure of water pulling them! Sometimes there might be a flow of fresh water from the mountains too! Sometimes the person or persons would be saved with slight injuries due to the rocks. But sometimes they would succumb to the pressure of torrent water!

Those were really grim situations where the relatives or friends shout out helplessly but could do nothing! The saddest part was that their bodies could not be recovered from there! The river would have tossed the body taking it along! But fortunately, or it is unfortunate? Chitra river as a waterfall fell into another abyss in the mountain. It is called the sea of gushing water! (Pongumankadal in Tamil) From above it would look like a small pond! But the depth of the pond is not still determined! The pressure of gushing water, the sharp edges of the rocks made the task of retrieving the bodies almost impossible.

This was where Rambabu stepped in! Yes! He was a state swimming champion in his days. Due to his sportsmanship, he got a government job! After he retired from the service, he dedicated himself to this noble cause of retrieving the bodies! Whenever there was a mishap, he would be called immediately! That was the only time when he would be called! As a teenager I could not understand him. I happened to witness a grieve stricken family begging to retrieve the body to perform the antim sanskar. Without making any ado, he simply dived into the sea of gushing water! I felt my heart had come to my mouth! This was not bravery! This was absolute recklessness! Just for money, why would he risk his life? He was getting pension! That was not enough for him? I could not consider him a hero! Instead, I thought he was greedy for money even to risk his own life for that!

Retrieving a body from Pongumankadal is not easy at all! The first challenge would be to find the body in the pond! To survive the pull of water is one, imagine searching for a body which could be anywhere within the radius of 3 KM. Not to talk about the rocks in them. Most of the times the body would be caught between scarily sharp rocks underneath water. He would go inside water for a few minutes in search of the body! In between he would surface for air! Every time he would surface; the anxiety of the family would break its threshold! While Rambabu would long for air to go into his lungs, the sight of grieving relatives made him more determined. Again, he would dive into the depths of the killer pond! Sometimes it had taken more than a day for him to locate the body and retrieve it! Without food he would go on tirelessly until he found the mortal remains of the deceased person.

I asked him once, why he was doing this? For money? For fame? Was the pension enough for him?

“No beta! I believe in dharma! I know! I am not bringing joy to the family! But at least they would be relieved of the burden of not doing antim sanskar! They could perform the last rituals! Not only that Beta! Knowing one’s son’s body is lying somewhere abandoned is something unbearable for the parents! They could never eat or sleep peacefully! That’s why I do this! I don’t accept money for this duty! But some thrust me with money! I give that money to the orphanage in our village! Poor children they could eat a variety of food with that money apart from Dal chawal! “

I was not still able to comprehend! Why risk your one’s own life to retrieve a dead body? My imagination ran wild! I thought he might have had a son, who fell into the abyss, no one recovered his body! That’s the reason Rambabu was doing that!

I didn’t ask him that. But when I enquired, the facts were different! He was never married hence never had a son or daughter! Then time made me realize the value of his service! In 1994 a rich family met with the same kind of accident! Their younger son was killed! The parents were lamenting to see their son’s face for the last time! That lament made me realize the greatness of the service Rambabu was doing! He must be a man with real noble intensions! Nobody was going to thank him for this service! Nobody was going to give him money out of happiness! He was not likely to earn the respect of the villagers! Above all no one was there to look for his body if he died in his quest! But here he was diving away vigorously in water to search for a body, with whom he had no connection!

He could easily had lived a retired life spending time in playing cards and alcohol! But he wanted his lungs to support him in his noble deed! That was exactly what he told me! He had never smoked, never consumed alcohol! No deep-fried delicacies for him! What a way to live for others? But what did he get in return? The curse of the villagers. Never received an invitation to the weddings or any other functions in the village! The family of the deceased persons never turned back even once they received the mortal remains! But he went on doing the noble service till he could. At the age of 86, he died in his sleep. It was the year 1998. Just two days before he had retrieved the body of a young lad! At the age of 86, he was able dive down and hold his breath for a thankless job!

We salute you Rambabu! You were a brave warrior in your own way! An unsung super sports man! We salute you with our whole heart!

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