By Kripa Krishnan Sep. 23, 2016
Scarlett Keeling first came to Elroy Noronha days after her death in 2008. With a touch of foundation and a hint of blush, he breathed life into her body.
It was 2012. Scarlett Keeling’s body returned home to Devon, days shy of her twentieth birthday. She was 15 when she was found washed up on a beach in Goa. Every single angle of her short, short life had been spliced and diced by tabloids, much the same way her body was hacked into by many probing autopsies. Piecing back the remains, after the mortal coil was shuffled, was one man’s job.
Scarlett Keeling first came to Elroy Noronha before she became a metonym for the seamy side of sunny Goa, days after her death in 2008. She was whisked right back into the tortuous justice system. A week later, her body was returned to the embalmer, bearing the scars of a second post-mortem, the face known from prime-time news, but barely recognisable, not just from the post-mortems but also from the prolonged water damage. The victims of drowning, according to Noronha, are the toughest cases.
“If the body washes up on the beach within a day, it can be easily salvaged. Sometimes the current carries them to the backwaters and by the time the bloated body is fished out, parts are usually missing. Then it spends another day with the police and often reaches us a week after the death.”
It’s an unearthly 4:30 am, and the top aroma note at Bhabha Hospital is a complex chemical funk, layered on a base of rotten socks, with a whiff of tobacco, and a light, playful pong of piss. Noronha wiggles his fingers into white latex gloves. He’s getting ready to “do” another one.
His “clientele” is often foreign nationals; young people whose holidays ended horribly. He doesn’t remember to ask their names, but their faith he can usually surmise. White shrouds point to Islam, while a select style of long-sleeved blouses signal Patel.
Noronha doesn’t remember how many bodies he has worked on in his two-decade long career but he remembers Scarlett. He remembers how sad her end had been and the way her body was mistreated after her death. This is why he prefers not knowing anything about the lives of the people he embalms.
He looks disturbed not just at the memory of her death but at its power to affect him. Because apart from Scarlett, Noronha Elroy, embalmer to the dead and gone, is fairly death-proof. He stopped feeling anything after his first few. He even embalmed a friend recently, but failed to muster even the obligatory lump in the throat. The dead are just bodies for Noronha.
As he speaks to me, he grabs his tools from a plastic bag that looks like it once held baingan bhendi, and gets busy, running a firm finger over mottled, wrinkled skin, testing texture and give.
Inside the morgue where they are interred, the air’s so frigid that even fragrance dies soon. The 38-year-old picks one aluminium handle from 50 – seemingly at random, but actually with deliberation. With an officious rattling clank, a large steel drawer slides open, and reveals a tiny bundle inside.
It’s a shrunken corpse of a 90-year-old woman. She’s only been gone a few hours, but her face bears the evidence of death: grey skin, a cinched mouth, and eye sockets that appear to have been emptied. Her body is draped with colourful rosaries, and hands tightly bound with gauze. I’m fascinated by those white handcuffs. Was she handcuffed right before she passed in peace, at her Malad Hospice? “She’ll travel to the Lord with her hands folded in prayer. We clasped her hands before rigor mortis set in,” Noronha says.
Hands are the most important part of a deceased’s body. When the living view the departed, their eyes dart around and hands are where they come to rest, because no one likes to stare death in the face. Noronha knows this; he’s known it for about 20 years. The business of making the end presentable runs in the family. He started out as an errand boy at the funeral home run by his uncle and his elder brother. Now his team handles over eight bodies a week.
As he speaks to me, he grabs his tools from a plastic bag that looks like it once held baingan bhendi, and gets busy. He runs a firm finger over mottled, wrinkled skin, testing texture and give. “I’ll have to smoothen out the skin with foundation,” he informs me. Noronha uses wax and pigments to craft the parts and he imports all his tools from the UK, where he trained as an embalmer for a year. A true product snob, he declares that he only uses cosmetics from a brand named Dodge, which he claims brings out the pretty in everyone.
Noronha uses wax and pigments to craft the parts. All his tools are imported from the UK.
Illustration: Punit Hiremath
Noronha knows his work isn’t really about death but preserving the impression of life, a temporary reprieve for those who didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. “The family want their favourite lipstick, dress, or perfume to be used.” He refuses the perfume since the alcohol speeds up decomposition, but he accommodates all other demands of vanity.
I’m eager for him to start on the process of transformation but just as he is about to begin, I’m asked to leave. I protest that I’m not squeamish and it turns out it’s not me he’s worried about. Noronha’s profession comes with its own privacy code. No stranger will witness the dead woman’s final touch-up.
Half an hour later, the lady is ready to receive guests. Her relatives have chosen to bury her in white. The transformation is amazing. Under Noronha’s ministrations, she seems to have come back to life. A colour-correcting yellow ointment has removed the deathlike pallor. His fingers massage her arms and face, and her wrinkles look softened. The family has requested no other maquillage and after Noronha is done, the lady in white somehow does not look so dead anymore.
Noronha is finishing a touch-up of the hands. Once he’s done with them, he vigorously soaps his own at a large steel sink. He has an early morning swimming class to rush to. The idea of an ordinary swim somehow tugs Norohna away from this macabre business at this ghostly hour, back into the world of the living. It takes the chill off his brusqueness.
As I stand inspecting his handiwork, I ask, “So, Scarlett was pretty in the end?” Somehow it seems important to me that the violated girl went looking intact.
He looks at me as if I haven’t understood a word he’s said all morning.
“How,” he asks dejectedly, “Can a corpse be beautiful?”
Kripa Krishnan is a Delhi girl living in Mumbai, she is a hunter-gatherer of information and has spent the past decade justifying her love of both Germaine Greer and misogynistic rap.