I Cut Dead People

Invisibles

I Cut Dead People

Illustration: Mudit Ganguly

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tark naked under a disposable blue tarp, the girl’s body is laid out on a stainless steel table. A coroner mumbles, “Okay darling, let’s find out who took you away from us,” before making a deep Y-shaped incision from the shoulder to just below the sternum. The incision ends just above the pubic bone, curving to avoid the navel.

Over the next few hours, the coroner and her assistant methodically dissect the body with specialised instruments and deference. They examine every square inch of tissue; weighing, cataloguing, analysing, and piecing together clues that will tell them how the girl died. The answer is revealed after four minutes of suspense-filled toothpaste, condom, and car ads.

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American crime dramas have invaded television and infiltrated our brains with ideas about what happens when you die when you’re not supposed to. Reality, however, is very different.

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In India, you will wind up at your local morgue, aka the murdaghar, in the hands of the indifferent Balu kaka.

Working amid the dead and decaying at the morgue at Mumbai’s KEM hospital, Balu kaka ends up with remains of people who have met their untimely demise in unnatural ways. They lie stacked on glinting steel racks like commodities on display, waiting for their turn under his shaky, leathery hands.

Pushing 40, Balu kaka is a Class-IV government employee. It’s a grade and status he inherited from his father nearly 20 years ago. His job is to help the Post-Mortem Assistant (PMA) cut and sew bodies. The PMA conducts these crude invasions, instead of a trained pathologist, based on a hospital rule that has something to do with junior employees doing whatever their seniors tell them to do. This rule has been the basis of kaka’s nine-year-long, thankless stint at KEM.

During our first meeting, Balu kaka described himself as an expert at cheer phaad, literally slice and tear. With his average build, unremarkable features, tough skin and a constant stench of Tango Punch (desi alcohol), he looks like any other drunk, awaiting his fix. His day begins the same way it ends — with a strong drink to calm the nerves and a Shivaji beedi or two.

He usually heads to work at 7 am. Being a more senior employee at a government job gives him carte blanche on when to report for duty. An average of five post-mortems are conducted at the KEM morgue every day, making Balu kaka an invaluable asset in this clusterfuck.

Balu kaka operates out of a Gothic snuff film, with dirty walls, a floor that looks like it was retooled from an overused public toilet, sinks stained brown with god knows what, and autopsy tables that belong in a Victorian-era BDSM dungeon. The smell of formaldehyde and the stench of death, fill the air with a smell that is truly indescribable. All this, when the ACs function normally and the weather isn’t too hot.

“Kuch nahi, jyaada sochneka nahi, bus kaam khatam karneka, taaka maarne ka, aur body ko bhej dene ka.”

The primary purpose of the Y-incision is to separate flesh and skin into three flaps, which open up to grant access to the body cavity. Here, the body is opened down the middle, from the base of the neck to just above the sex organs. Out comes a cheeni hathodi (hammer and chisel) to split open the sternum and chest bones. After that, it depends on varying degrees of sobriety and a bit of luck.

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Procedure states that a post-mortem needs a cutter, a mortuary assistant to handle delicate organs, a pathologist, a PMA and safai karamcharis like Balu kaka. Bureaucracy has streamlined this operation to exclude the cutter, the mortuary assistant, and sometimes, the pathologist: the three people who know the difference between a clean cut and a jagged tear.

This is where some of the most macabre work known to man happens. His response to “What goes on in your mind when you work on a body”, makes me dizzy. “Kuch nahi, jyaada sochneka nahi, bus kaam khatam karneka, taaka maarne ka, aur body ko bhej dene ka.”

This skill of tuning out is critical for a certain kind of work and the people who do it. Count conservancy workers and rat-catchers in the lot.

Kaka is reluctant to swap job details, and what little he does is too graphic to share. But there’s a hint of loathing. Loathing for the dead, some of whom have met ends so violent, they no longer seem human. Loathing for his lot, the job that pays him ₹8,000 every month, the equivalent of what a rich kid probably spent on his Tinder date last night. Loathing for life.

The money can get augmented, slightly. To locate a body for someone through all the stacks — ₹200. To stitch up the incision so it’s slightly less visible — ₹500. These small courtesies provide the dead with a modicum of dignity, and somewhat defray the rising costs of living and drinking. But even with a wife who works as an ayah and a son who drives garbage trucks, the money doesn’t add up to anywhere near a decent life.

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When Balu kaka started out, he would bring up his lunch or dinner every day. It was simpler to just not eat. A little later, alcohol came to the rescue. His initial impression that the job would be to mop up blood and handle bloody sheets was false, like most first impressions. He dealt with more than just blood with his bare hands. In these nine years, Balu kaka has stayed where he started. Although now, he does have thin latex gloves.

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