He was the Corpse Man. Savakkaran, they called him in his and their language. Some refined it to Mortuary Man. Those who knew him personally and did not want to equate him with his job called him Balan. Balan kept corpses frozen in arrays of drawers. Until somebody came to claim them. Or until nobody claimed and order was given to dispose off the body in the nearby electric crematorium which was operated by his wife, Latika. Death was their family business. He, Balagangadharan, was the keeper of corpses and Latika, his wife, was the disposer of corpses.
Both the mortuary and the crematorium belonged to the government. While the crematorium seldom experienced any discrimination between rich corpses and poor corpses, the mortuary often did. Rich corpses preferred private mortuaries, those in the hospitals meant for the rich. Government mortuaries received poor corpses. Or corpses of criminals. Or anonymous corpses. Abandoned corpses.
Who said death is a great leveller?
There are exceptions, of course. Hitler, the man who fattened himself on the corpses of six million people, had to kill himself in an underground bunker which was no better than the concentration camps he had given to his victims. That was perhaps the only thing Balan remembered from his history classes. He liked the story of Hitler as narrated by his history teacher. Hitler had forgotten to love because he was busy with conquests. Finally when he learned to embrace his Eva, he was already in a metaphorical tomb. Poor man! What did he achieve in life?
That was the only history Balan knew anyway. History matters little in actual life, thought Balan. In actual life – in life outside books, that is – the rules are different. They, the rules, depend on how much money you have and what position you hold.
But this corpse was different. Balan looked at the corpse which he was transferring to the drawer in the mortuary. This man came here yesterday. He came by a very expensive car. A car that could carry ten people. But he was alone in it. He got down from the driver’s seat. He was wearing branded trousers and shirt. Balan could easily make out that he was a rich man who should have nothing to do with the Savakkaran’s mortuary. Yet he approached Balan and asked, “Can I have a look at the mortuary?”
“Anyone of yours is in?” asked Balan. The only people who ever came to the mortuary are either the dead ones or the owners of the corpses.
Owners of corpses. Balan was stuck on that phrase for a moment. He was amused by it.
“No,” answered the man. “I just want to see it.”
Strange, thought Balan. He showed him the arrays of drawers containing corpses.
“Would you mind opening one of them?” He was very polite.
He looked at the frozen face inside the drawer that Balan had slid open. It was then Balan noticed that there was little difference between the two faces: the frozen one inside the drawer and that of the man standing beside it wearing the best branded dress.
Yesterday he stood watching a corpse in one of the drawers. Today he is a corpse in one of them.
He had gone to the crematorium too. Latika told Balan in the evening.
“He asked me how long it would take for a corpse to burn up completely?” Latika narrated his visit to her husband when they were at home. “Depends, I said. On what? He asked. On how the person lived, I said. What do you mean? He asked. Those bodies which had consumed a lot of drugs, medicines, and such things, take a long time to burn, I said. And those that come from the mortuary take an eternity, I added. When can a relative collect the ashes? He asked. Anytime, I almost blurted out. How could I tell him that we have readymade ashes for those in a hurry?”
Was that man in a hurry? He is now a corpse under the safe custody of the Corpse Man.
When Balan came out of the mortuary and picked up the newspaper for whiling away time he noticed something that had escaped his attention earlier. “Businessman dies in accident,” said the headline. Mohan Shankar, that was his name, died in his Mercedes-Benz Sprinter which had slipped off the road into a water-logged granite quarry last night. It was raining heavily. Mr Shankar might have misjudged...
The man had no reason to commit suicide, argued the report. He was rich. He was successful. It had to be an error in judgment.
The Corpse Man knew better. But what use is the knowledge of a keeper of corpses?
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