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Thursday, May 28, 2020

3,345 km, 84 hours: From Chennai to Aizawl, youth accompanies body of best friend back home

Now that it is over, and his friend Vivian Remsanga has been laid to rest, Malchhanhima is tired, barely able to keep up with his buzzing phone.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati | Updated: April 29, 2020 11:41:16 am
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“If Vivian had to be buried, he would have to be buried at home — in Mizoram.” Raphael AVL Malchhanhima’s voice, from a quarantine centre in Aizawl, does little to give away the ordeal of the past few days — the sudden demise of his best friend, and the journey which followed: a 3,345-km road trip from Chennai to Aizawl, with two Tamil drivers, and the mortal remains of his friend.

But now that it is over, and his friend Vivian Remsanga has been laid to rest, Malchhanhima is tired, barely able to keep up with his buzzing phone. “I am getting so many messages from people. But I just want to say that I did this for my friend. And for everyone in Mizoram,” says the 23-year-old from Mizoram, who moved to Chennai in 2015.

On April 23, Remsanga, a hotel management graduate in Chennai, died after a heart attack, claims members of the Mizo Welfare Association of Chennai. That morning, the association members went to identify the body. “But because of the lockdown, we knew that there was no way of getting him back home for the funeral,” said PC Michael Lalrinkima, general secretary of the association.

However, when they heard of a private ambulance service that was doing long-distance runs during the lockdown, they did not think twice before making arrangements. “Two drivers were ready to go but they needed a family member of the deceased to accompany them,” explained Lalrinkima.

In Chennai, Remsanga had no family — but he did have a friend: Malchhanhima. “I was in my room when I got the call from Michael [of the Mizo Welfare Association] — I was taken aback. It was not like he forced me, but it was a request,” says Malchhanhima.

A little after midnight on April 26, after a word with his parents, Malchhanhima set off on a journey that would last more than 84 hours through five states: starting in Tamil Nadu, through Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Meghalaya, Assam, and then finally Mizoram.

Accompanying him were two drivers from Chennai: Jeyandran, 41 and Chinnathambi, 51. “We just drove and drove, and stopped only to eat — whenever possible. It was difficult to come by an open hotel during the lockdown,” says Malchhanhima. The drivers would alternate at the wheel every eight hours, with Malchhanhima tracking the GPS.

And tracking them, from Chennai, was PC Gabriel Lalliansang, also from the Mizo Welfare Association. “I monitored and tracked the ambulance through live location through all three days,” says Lalliansang, “There are so many things that could have gone wrong. It was a lockdown, people are on edge, checking is strict — and they were carrying a dead body, after all. But before they had left, we ensured all the papers were in order, and permissions in place.”

While the journey was more or less quiet, Malchhanhima says he often thought of his friend at the back. “We were very close…in Chennai, especially, it was nice to have someone from Mizoram around. And he always helped me in my work too,” says Malchhanhima, who has been working in a cafe in Chennai since 2015.

According to figures with the Mizo Welfare Association, at least 300 young Mizo boys and girls like Malchhanhima work in Chennai. “At some points, the journey got very tiring, but I told myself he was one of my closest friends in Chennai. And I was doing this for him.”

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But the two drivers, who have done several such long distance journeys, were prepared. “We drove 3,345 kilometers from Chennai. I have been a lorry driver, so I am experienced,” says Jeyandran, “I never felt strange about the whole thing. I have carried several patients in my vehicle over the past. In fact, many have died on the way. I have seen it all.”

But what caught him by surprise was their entry into Mizoram. From the Vairengte checkpoint on the Mizoram- Assam border, right up to Aizawl — they were met by loud cheers and claps. At Aizawl, when they arrived, a quick funeral service was performed with family members present. The drivers, who are now spending a night at the state guest house, were honoured with traditional Mizo shirts. They will set off for Chennai on Wednesday.

“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” says Jeyandran. “This is the first time here. In the past, I have faced many incidents where people will make us run from pillar to post to get even our basic wages, but here it was completely different —the Mizoram Chief Minister personally gave us some money and gifts,” he says.

The news of the road trip has gone viral in Mizo social media.

On Tuesday, Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga tweeted: “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts! You’ve just shown what every Mizo heartbeat means when it comes to the term “Tlawmngaihna”!”

The Mizo phrase, described as a way of life in the hilly Northeastern state, roughly translates to selfless service — one that puts the community above individuals.

With inputs from Janardhan Koushik in Chennai

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