This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
‘It’s always cold in here,’ the old man replied as he walked amidst the rows of corpses. Chaitan did not question any further. His hazel eyes scanned at the covered bodies trying not to hallucinate a movement. It was a big hall, full of corpses. All covered in the brightest white cloth. ‘If you are bit scared’, the old man said further, ‘… you will get used to it.’
They went further into the next hall, which was filled with huge cabinets. ‘And this is where the unclaimed bodies and… you know… other bodies are stored. Some of them have locks. If it is an important dead body which has a possibility of being tampered to wipe out evidence, you should put them in one of these.’
‘Yes sir.’ Chaitan tried to answer as coldly as the man.
The old man looked at him. No one had called him sir in all these years of service, and today being his last day at the morgue a total stranger who he will never be meeting again greets him so. The old man looked at him for the first time. Probably, this was the first time he studied a standing man after decades. The lad was tall, fair. Deep sensitive eyes, which looked as if he was in constant search for something. A little lean, but otherwise a good personality.
‘Soon your sweetness will rot like these bodies,’ the old man hushed as he turned towards the exit, ‘all you have is the company of the dead. No one speaks much here.’
Chaitan did not understand whether to take it as a compliment or warning. He decided not to reply. It is always good to keep quiet when you don’t know what to say. It creates an illusion of intelligence.
As they stepped out, the old man locked the door from outside over which there was a huge MORGUE labelled in bright red letters. ‘We are at the canteen.’ He told the watchman and began to walk. Chaitan took a while to decide whether to stay back or follow him. Then he decided to go with the old man.
The noise increased with every step they took towards the hospital canteen. Everyone was busy. Some were conversing. Some arguing over the seat. Some waiting with bunches of green white papers. Some were new. Some had enough to make a file out of it. Some were smiling, some crying. Others just worried. Chaitan looked at them and they quietly stared back. Many of them looked as if they knew what was about to happen. They passed by a horde of people standing with receipt. It could be mistaken to be a stock market – The pharmacy. And then they finally reached the canteen. It was crowded too. But the old man did not frown. He quietly walked past the line of desperate who were waiting for their turn. He dodged under the counter table. The busy staff did not seem to mind or probably failed to see him, it was difficult to tell. He turned suddenly, ‘Come in. You will have to wait out there forever.’
Chaitan quietly followed, avoiding much of the stares. The old man made himself comfortable at a table which was filled with groceries. ‘Anup! Two chais and one plate of samosa.’
‘I don’t drink tea.’
‘Get used to it then,’ the old man said tearing of a sachet of gutkha, ‘You need energy. You have to be fresh.’ He put all the contents in his mouth. ‘You are going to be alone… as long as you are going to be working in there. Though occasionally doctors, police and lots of weeping people will be paying visits.’ He taunted.
The tea and samosa came in. He sipped the tea right away. Chaitan was disgusted. He never saw anyone mixing tea with gutkha. He didn’t even feel like touching samosas anymore.
‘How much did you study?’
‘You don’t look like you are less educated. You could take up any job.’
‘There is no job in Mumbai for educated people anymore sir.’ Chaitan replied, ‘Either one needs to be skilled or have influence – money or high profile people. I had none. I used to work as a salesman until I got this job. It’s a government job and my uncle took lots of trouble to get me in.’
The old man nodded as he sipped the tea cup empty. ‘Eat the samosas and tea.’
To keep the old man’s heart, Chaitan went to grab the triangle.
‘Well, you can leave the samosas if you don’t want, but you must drink the tea.’ The old man snorted as he got up, ‘They don’t give refunds to that. Hey, take this! We don’t want the samosas.’ He handed a ten rupee note to the waiter. Chaitan followed him quietly.
As they walked back to the morgue, ‘Your shift is for 12 hours, that’s till 9 pm. Every alternate week it is night shift.’ The old man said as they walked along the long corridor occasionally giving way to squeaking stretchers and hurrying people. They stopped at the end of the corridor which led to three more corridors. ‘I hope you know your way back to the room.’
‘Aren’t you joining me, sir?’
‘No!’ the old man admonished, ‘I am going home. I am done taking care of the dead.’ He began to walk away but returned back, ‘You know I was delayed retirement because no one was ready to take up this job. Bloody educated young generations! All they run after is money. Who says there is unemployment in India? Aaicha gho! They don’t want to work.’ He looked at Chaitan for a while, ‘In a long run, this might be a boring job and kind of taboo if you disclose it to your friends. And all you have to do is sit, make notes, sit, bring out corpse, sit, take in corpse, sit… hmm… Good bye.’
He walked away without turning back.
13th January 2014
It was my first day in the hospital. And I don’t think I will ever be able to say it was a good day working because all I will be doing is greeting and registering corpse every day. The old man (I forgot his name) who got rid of the job as I came in seemed to be very pleased to quit, but during the last moments before he left, I saw sorrow in those eyes. I think he was already missing his morgue. Haha.
I am thinking to consider the advice of the old man about not to tell anyone about this job. May be I will just say I work in the hospital as a supervisor in the security dept. Oh! And by the way I registered three new dead bodies today and two went out. I saw one of their faces. Its face was very peaceful unlike they show in horror movies. Haha…. err… I am thinking something weird now. I don’t want to believe it. I had been reading a few occult books past few months in the library. About life after death, astral body and even palmistry. THE LAW OF ATTRACTION! Did I attract this kind of job towards me? Well, it was better than just spending hours of giving interviews, selling books door to door and then reading random books in the library. But did it really… It scares me now. I don’t want to think about it further. May be I should read hanuman chalisa before sleeping. I hope to say one day that I like this job though I would not know for how long I am going to stick to this work.
It had been a week and he was already getting bored. Although he was still a bit scared every time he entered the morgue room to handover body or to receive them. Today was his night duty and it added to the silence of this corner of the hospital. No one comes much here. The watchman had told him. Chaitan was very bored. He wanted to do something.
This part of the hospital didn’t have mobile range so he couldn’t surf or use phone. Take any CDMA connection. His reliever told him. Chaitan was considering Tata Indicom network or Reliance would be a good option too. Even this topic lost interest. He decided to download some e-books next time. May be some occult books or mystic romance like the twilight series. He took out his phone: 12:13am. Chaitan frowned. He opened the register book and began to count the number of bodies that came in and went since his posting. 46 in and 51 out. That was quite a number. Chaitan couldn’t believe he had passed on almost a hundred dead bodies. He looked at the smart phone. 12:15am.
He then checked their ages. Most of them were above fifties. Most of them were males. But 11 among them were youths. Accidents, Addition or suicide. 70 among them were Hindus. Others Muslim. 2 Parsees and 5 Christians. Death skips no one.
Chaitan grabbed the keys and unlocked the morgue door. He peeped in. Not knowing what to do. Then he switched on the lights, stepped in and closed the door behind him. It was quieter in here. Chaitan could hear his breathing, and then his footsteps no matter how hard he tried not making sound. He thought of taking a walk till the end of the room. He could see a lot of feet. Most of them with tags. It seemed like it would take him forever to reach the end. He saw a hand. He froze.
These compounders! Chaitan cursed them. He walked to it. Animals and ghosts can sense fear, he had read. He picked up the cold hand and slowly put it back in the white cover. He waited there for a while. Then he removed the top of the sheet to see the face. It was a mid-aged man. His face was scarred but otherwise peaceful. Why did no book tell him that – Dead is in peace. He analysed him. Chaitan had read ‘How to Read face.’
Lots of wrinkles on the forehead, suggesting he was a tensed man or was involved in study or research. No wait. He had vertical wrinkles too. Concentration. He had depression on sides of his nose meaning he wore spectacles most of the day. So that meant he was probably doing a lot of reading. He had an oblong, woody like face. An athletic physique. This meant he was practical, methodical and overworked. He also must have made a problematic relationship. He had small eyes though which was odd. This concluded that he was an opportunist, mischievous and cunning. He had a snub nose showing tendency to dominance, misbehaviour but highly literate. Flat chin. He forgot what it meant. He went down to his feet and read his tag hanged on the toe. No.862- 21/01/14.
His foot was fair and soft. His palm was thick and soft too. But the scars on his face? It didn’t make any sense. He checked his palm. It was his left hand. His first finger had developed a hard skin- he was left handed. A square hand with speculate fingers. A long life line but with a sharp cut in between. His heart line told that he was selfish at times. The ends of the palm told him that he was wealthy but always in need of more. His mount of venus suggested…
The door opened. Chaitan looked on, ‘What is it?’
‘A body has come,’ It was the watchman. Chaitan looked at the face of Tag No.862. He still was unbothered by all the research done on his past life. He smiled at him and covered his face. As he walked out he looked at his phone. 2:03am. I should do this often, he thought.
Next morning at home, Chaitan’s mother told him that his grandfather had died. All his childhood memories were associated with him. He did feel sad but unlike his mother he didn’t cry. Just another dead body. He will be born again somewhere. He did good things so he will be having a good next life. Or maybe, he will get moksha. He quietly laid on his bed while the mother’s silent sobbing could be heard from the main hall. She will be leaving shortly to their native village Sawantwadi. Chaitan can’t go.
Chaitan closed his eyes. And as he did he was back in the morgue. Everyone was sleeping. Chaitan was looking for someone. He walked swiftly among the sleepers. He passed by… and walked back to a body. The tag on his feet read Tag No. 862. He went to him and opened his cover.
‘Hell-o.’ The man had a south Indian accent.
‘Oh,’ Chaitan was startled, ‘I didn’t guess you would be from south. Where are you from, Andhra?’
‘N-o. Davangere. Near-a mysore. Karnataka,’ he replied with a decent smile.
‘You are very polite Sir.’ Chaitan said.
‘Pleas-e don’t call me sir-e.’ The man said, making space for Chaitan to sit, ‘You-a can call me Mani’
‘Ok. Hey don’t bother. I will just sit here.’ Chaitan sat on other stretcher.
‘Why-a you come to me Chaitan?’
‘I was curious. Did I bother you?’
‘No No-a, not at all,’ Mani cut him short, ‘No-a-body was interested in me-a when I lived. I have had-a very lonely lifetime-a.’
‘Well I guessed that right. What do you do… I mean used to do for living?’
‘Have you guessed that too?’ Mani asked funnily.
‘No,’ Chaitan said with a smile, ‘But I know you do something which requires lot of concentration. But it is not physical hard work… I mean it’s not site work. You should be working in office or something. Highly creative or technical work. And you have glasses so that just adds to it.’
Mani laughed, ‘You-a are this close.’ He raised his left hand to show his fingers close enough.
‘And I also guessed you are a lefty.’
‘Oh-w my dear lord. You-a got to be genius. I will give it to-uh you. I am a sound engineer-a. I mean I was-a.’
‘Wow. I didn’t see that coming.’ Chaitan was surprised. Now everything linked together. ‘How did you die?’
‘I am sorry. It’s ok if you don’t want to tell.’
‘No-a, I need to tell you,’ Mani said, ‘May-y be that way I will be liberated.’ He kept quiet for a while. ‘I was-a drunk. I slipped-d in the bathroom and f-h-ell. I brok-e my spinal. I couldn’t-a get up. I couldn’t-a move anything. I just couldn’t-a do anything.’ Mani wept. ‘Nobody came-. For like 36 hours-a I was just there. Bleeding inter-nally waiting for dea-th to come-e. By the time I reached-d the hospital I was dead.’
Chaitan sat quietly.
‘Nobody came for me,’ Mani wept, ‘Wh-y would they come? I betrayed-d everyone for money. I divorced-d my wife f-h-or another woman. That woman-a… stayed with me till I had the currency, then ditched me with all my savings. I couldn’t-a see…’ Mani wept for a long time, ‘You-a know? She loved-d me when I was nothing. She just loved-d me blindly… amma… for what I was. She came from a high-er caste and very rich family. She was the O-only one who believed in me and my music-a and I betrayed her. I put her away with my daughter-a… amma… I… She had nowhere to go… Our families did-d not accept our marriage. Where would- she have gone? How did she survive with a child in this merciless-s city? Oh God! Oh Subramanya… Forgive my sins.’
Chaitan caressed his shoulders, ‘Its ok. We all make mistakes Mani.’
‘I wish-a I had a chance to correct my doings.’ Mani sobbed, ‘I would-a have begged for her forgiveness by washing- her feet and drink that water. You-a know I have a life insurance cover of 1-nd Crore which should-a be claimed within a month-a. Oh Subramanya… I wish she would forgive me and I would get peace… amma… Maybe this body will be burnt in that electric oven like a stray body. I-a deserve it.’
The bell rang.
Chaitan opened his eyes. The fan was switched off. The clock said it was evening. Her mother must have left long back. It was his mobile. A sms- GET LATEST BOLLYWOOD NEWS… Chaitan puffed and deleted it. He needs to get back to work.
The interns needed a body for an autopsy. Chaitan cross checked the register. The oldest unclaimed body. Tag no. 783. Two weeks old. Or 801. It was almost two weeks old too and it occupied a locker. Chaitan walked out and asked the two compounders to follow him. He walked in to search the tag. Found it. Tag No.783.
‘Take it.’ he told them. He went on to stroll towards the cabinets. He stood there in front of them. Each square looked like they held a secret. 801 was in the locker A13. It would be gone in a day or two. The bodies aren’t kept for more than 14 days unless there is any judicial notice. He walked on to it and pulled the container. It slid out. Chaitan was mesmerised. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. It was…. He felt, for a moment that she was just sleeping. Because there was a natural smile on her face. ‘How can someone so beautiful like you be dead?’ He told her, and he felt like she could hear, pretending to be asleep, as if she blushed. Did she?
Chaitan looked away and then stared at her again. She still looked beautiful. More now. She had a round face. Big lotus eyes. High forehead. Lips that still looked red though pale. The cold had made her skin go white, but it couldn’t take away her glow. She had symmetry on her face. Chaitan admired her. How can someone so beautiful be dead? Did she smile again? Chaitan pulled the container out more and stopped, looking away. ‘I am sorry’ she was naked. Everyone is kept naked in morgue. Chaitan tried to reassure himself that it was just a body, a dead body, but this lady, her rotting body was demanding the respect from him for how beautiful the nature had created her. Chaitan just slid the container back in the cabinet. He waited in front of it for a while and walked out.
Can dead bodies be appealing too?
Outside, Chaitan was just thinking about her. He opened the register. 783: Sheetal meaning pleasant cold. She was just 20 years old. How did she die? he wondered. She must have looked more beautiful alive. How can someone die smiling? Her smile… Her hair was straight, jet black. I should buy her a dress. ‘What?’ he shocked himself. He started laughing. The watchman who was passing by stared at him.
‘Nothing. I remembered a joke,’ The watchman smiled showing his crooked reddish teeth and walked on. Another gutkha addict. Chaitan did fantasied girls. Even some of his married neighbours too, but this was way beyond limits. Sheetal. Hm. Will he get addicted to her? Like they show in movies. He will do whatever to keep her there or even worse, bring her back to life. Back to life. It sent chills all over his body. He laughed again. Or maybe she is the snow white princess with the poisoned apple stuck in her mouth.
26th January 2014
There is a very surprising thing which I have noticed. People die less when there is a public holiday or when the doctors are on leave. Isn’t that strange?
Every time I pass through that corridor and canteen I see many faces but the most happy faces are those of the doctors and interns. They have not only got used to seeing pain and death, but also, I have heard, been betting on who will live and who will die. That’s so inhuman. Sometimes when I see the faces of some bodies I feel sorry for them. There is so much innocence in their face. So much peace. And the funny thing is that you feel like they should stay. I am getting a bit worried about myself since I have started dreaming about some of them. I should stop spending time in the morgue. I should read some happy e-book instead. Take in positive energy. In discovery channel today they showed a museum somewhere in Europe that has the world’s largest collection of mummies. All displayed and hung on the wall. It was spooky. But the fun is they preserved a body of a five year girl and she looked so lively. I wonder if I should do the same to Sheetal.
I don’t want to be a mental.
In the canteen, there was no place to sit.
‘Hey come here?’ waved a muscular uniformed man making place besides him.
‘You the new boy huh?’ the man said as he ate. He had a normal security uniform, only with many stars. Chaitan smiled back and quietly opened his tiffin. The man studied his food item. ‘No fish?’
‘I am veg.’
‘Oh, really? What a pity? That’s why you are so bony.’ He laughed along with others. ‘You should eat fish or at least egg ha. Young men like you should be hard as a rock…’ Chaitan smiled back, ‘you don’t know me, do you?’
‘Sir? Call me Rafiq bhai. Ha!’ he said patting Chaitan’s back with loud thuds, ‘I am the security in-charge of this Block of the hospital.’ Chaitan almost choked with his first morsel. He gulped it in and drank water.
‘You have the scariest job of the hospital,’ Rafiq lowered his voice, ‘Staying with the dead ha.’
‘It’s like the fish market,’ Chaitan replied likewise, ‘Just bigger dead bodies… and we don’t cut them.’
‘Funny and smart ha,’ he admired, ‘You believe in ghosts?’
‘I believe in souls.’
Soul. Chaitan had read it is embedded deep within the heart. 1/1000th the size of a hair. It is a battery that runs the physical body. When the body is worn out, it leaves to take a new one. But sometimes the soul is forced out of the body before time. Murder. Suicide. Accident. It can’t go anywhere as its next body isn’t ready or at other times it simply doesn’t want to go because it’s infatuated with attachments. Such is the yearning that it assumes the shape of the same body. Ghost. But Rafiq won’t understand it. They like to just get scared and be in fear. They just want the thrills. And that’s the same with most of humans. Ignorance. Chaitan continued with his food.
A woman was waiting before the table. Chaitan walked on and packed his tiffin back in his bag.
‘I wanted to…’
‘It’s only 1:30 pm now. Lunch time. The compounder will come at 2 pm. Just wait.’
‘Actually, I have not come to take the body.’ The woman fumbled. Chaitan looked up at her. ‘Excuse me.’
‘I just want to look at him one last time and go.’
‘I can show you at 2pm if you have the papers.’
‘No, bhau. I don’t have any paper. I just want to see him. Please…’
‘We are not here for exhibition. If you have the proper papers then only we can show you the body.’ Chaitan said rather sternly without paying attention to the woman.
The woman nodded and slowly turned away. Chaitan’s heart was melting. How could he be so harsh? Was the bitterness of loneliness taking over him as the old man had said? ‘Wait!’
The woman turned back. She was in her early thirties. Dark skinned. High forehead. Clad in chudidar. Beautiful. Troubled.
‘What’s the name?’
The woman was almost in tears, ‘Shrikant Gowda.’ Chaitan checked the name in his register. Tag No. 862.
Chaitan was a bit surprised to find a woman come to see 862. She would certainly be a wife or a sister. But the way Chaitan was watching her hugging and crying over the almost stinking body he was certain she should be his wife. The different name comforted him. Chaitan looked at his phone- 1:55pm.
‘You will have to leave now,’ Chaitan told her politely. The woman gathered herself up and walked out. Chaitan covered the body and pushed the stretcher through the door that lead to the morgue. He kept him in place and walked out of the hall and locked the door. The woman was still there. Sitting calmly as if some burden was taken off her. She looked up at Chaitan and stood up.
‘I just waited so as to thank you.’
Chaitan smiled robbing his eyes off her and sat on his table. The woman passed by as he dropped the keys in his drawer. ‘He was your husband?’
The woman turned, ‘No. Just some acquaintance.’ Chaitan nodded. She began to walk again.
‘What did he do for living?’
The woman stared at Chaitan. ‘I have to fill up the form. Thought you would know. It’s ok…’
‘He was a sound engineer.’
Chaitan skipped a heartbeat. The woman got nervous finding Chaitan in shock. She began to hurry.
‘Wait.’ She walked on. ‘I know you are his wife. Stop.’ Chaitan chased her and blocked the path.
‘I can’t take his body.’ The woman burst in tears, ‘I have no one. I have a daughter to take care of. I don’t have the money.’
‘Did you call him Mani by any chance?’ they just looked into each other’s eyes, each hiding a secret. ‘How do you know?’ Chaitan tried to be strong. He just walked back and took some support of the wall. The woman did not move. ‘You should claim the body… Come…’ Chaitan’s head was spinning, ‘I will tell you the procedure.’ He turned back at the woman who didn’t move any inch, ‘If you claim his body and get his death certificate, you can apply as the benefactor of his life insurance.’
‘You knew him?’
Chaitan wanted to shout at her, ‘Just… come.’ He controlled it.
The view before him was spinning rapidly. Cold air was blowing over his face. Sounds of cutting tracks were making a rhythm with his confusion. He was in local train full of crowded people. Any other person would have puked. They might have screamed and the body would be boiling in high fever. But Chaitan was under perfect self-control. Hanging on the rod in the open bogie his mind scanned through every event that led to the incident today. That dream was Truth. He spoke with the dead. But can the dead speak? This question was twitching his heart. Is this why the saints call the world an illusion? His mind, opened up yet narrowed, turned inside out. Mani, she will forgive you now.
Astral travel, he reminded himself. A way by which your soul steps out of the body to explore the world, the universe. Like a soul you could run through walls and fly past the limits of earthly boundaries. Yet you are always attached to your body by a string like an umbilical cord; a way back to body. There have been cases where people have not found their way back. It has a medical term- coma. Not that all coma patients are doing astral travel now.
But how did he meet Mani- a dead man during the Astral travel? He had read about the procedure. Tried a few times in the past but never succeeded. Did he travel subconsciously to morgue? Chaitan had read a book that decoded the meaning behind the dreams. When he had the dream of Mani Chaitan thought it was his boredom, the need for company at the morgue that came out from his mind that way. Now all those interpretations seemed just another trick of modern science to cover up its crippled knowledge of universe and mind. Modern science of the west has blinded most of the Indians of the science based on Vedas. Mimicking the westerns they too discarded these ancient scriptures terming it as superstitious and godly, not knowing that this scribbling on animal skins was written in India at the time when the rest of the world was living in Iron Age.
Chaitan was thinking too much. He was proud of his culture and tradition, but as someone said tradition and culture is like water. It should keep flowing, then only it will stay fresh. If still, it becomes stagnant. The ancient knowledge had to pay its price due to eccentric pundits who poisoned the society with filths of caste, lowering of women and untouchability.
At home, Chaitan was requested by his mother to take her to a Babaji. She wanted to ask whether his grandfather’s soul is in peace. For the first time Chaitan did not object.
He quit the job.
Sometimes that beautiful girl talks to him in his dreams.