Friday, December 07, 2007

In the cold zone

P.M. Karthikeyan handles dead bodies at the freezer at the General Hospital with calmness

By Shevlin Sebastian

When handler P.M. Karthikeyan, 40, opens the freezer at the General Hospital, a blast of cold air shoots outwards. In the lighted interior, one can see three bodies placed on metal racks: one is an elderly woman, with straggly black hair, wearing a green saree, while the other two are emaciated old men, with sunken cheeks and grey stubble on their faces. One man’s eyes are open: they are large and black and fathomless. “They fell ill on the road,” says Karthikeyan. “The local people must have brought them to the hospital, and they have died without family or relatives around.”

As soon as they die, the police are informed. Following an investigation, the police will get the photo and address published in the newspapers. “If somebody comes forward, he or she will have to prove they are related to the deceased person,” says K.N. Omana, the medical superintendent. “It could be through identity cards or rations cards or photographs. When it is confirmed, the body is released to them.”

If nobody claims the body within eight days, the Hospital Development Committee will arrange for the cremation. “Sometimes, if the body is in a reasonably healthy condition, it will be sent to a medical college,” says Omana. “There are many pending requests.” Incidentally, the cold storage section is run by the Dhanwandhari Service Society and the fee is Rs 400 per day.

Asked how people react when they come to collect the bodies, Karthikeyan says, “Most people do not cry because the family might have thrown out the deceased for various reasons. They come in order to do the last rites.” However, there is an emotional reaction when people die suddenly, like in an accident.

Kartikeyan remembers the case of two middle-aged brothers who were traveling on a motorbike near the High Court two months ago. “Somehow, the bike hit something and the younger brother flew off and landed under the wheels of a bus coming from the opposite direction,” he says. “He died instantly. It was a traumatic experience for the family.”

For Karthikeyan, death is no longer a trauma. “I treat the body like I am handling a piece of furniture,” he says. “That is the only way I can survive in this job.” However, despite so many years of experience, this father of two young daughters is unable to face the death of a child. “It is a painful sight,” he says. “When children die, it seems as if they are sleeping. They look peaceful. There is no struggle. There is no change on their faces.”

On the other hand, he says, when adults die, it seems as if they have waged a terrible struggle, before succumbing to their fate. “Sometimes, the fists are bunched together, the jaw is clenched and their eyes jut out,” he says.

Asked how people die, Karthikeyan says, “Most die through accidents, illness or old age. And, of course, there are suicides.” Some die by hanging, or poisoning, or burning or drowning or by throwing themselves in front of speeding trains. “Sometimes, the head is severed from the body, and we have to store the different parts in the freezer,” he says.

Karthikeyan does a 24-hour duty, then gets the next day off. His family stays in Parur. His wife does not like the job he is doing, because he is dealing with dead bodies all the time. “But she knows that this is my bread and butter, so she does not say anything,” he says.

His salary is low, but he gets the occasional tip, around Rs 100, from people who come to collect the body. When asked whether handlers extort money from relatives, as is the widespread belief, he says, “It is not true. I am a God-fearing man. I cannot ask for money from people at such a difficult time.”

Yes, indeed, it is a difficult time when a death happens. So, does the man who faces death every day remember a particular death? “Yes,” he says, and tells the story of Balan. He was a bachelor who would hang around the hospital. “He was not employed by anybody, but would lend a helping hand to us in the cold storage section and make some money,” says Karthikeyan. Sometimes, he would accompany the police when they had to collect a body or go to the crematorium to help dispose off a body. “He did this job for 35 years,” says Karthikeyan. “He was a nice man, but he had one vice: he drank heavily.”

Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, he died one day outside the cold storage section. “Since he had not been officially entered as a patient in the hospital, the police had to be informed,” says Karthikeyan. “So, we had to place him in the freezer till the investigation was done. Think about it! The man who had put so many bodies in the freezer ended up being there himself.”

That night, Kartikeyan slept outside, while Balan was inside. “I remembered the many nights when Balan and I slept next to each other,” he says. After the post-mortem, Kartikeyan and another colleague washed Balan’s body, dressed him in good clothes and took the body to the crematorium for the last rites.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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