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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 01, Dated January 09, 2010
SPECIAL ISSUE  
original fictions 2

Morgue Keeper

CHARU NIVEDITA

(Translated from Tamil by Pritham K Chakravarthy )

image

All characters in this story are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, either living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

THE SEVERED head of a man, about 37, lay by itself on a table. On examination, it was determined that the head had been cut between the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae; the hyoid, the surrounding nerves and blood vessels, the oesophagus and the medulla oblongata had all been cleanly snapped.

I was introduced to your writing very recently. We have become best of friends — our friendship is one that can never be broken. I still can't believe that I can count you as my friend. Sometimes I pinch myself to make sure it's not a dream. The first time I saw your letter, it was like I lost myself.

Laceration 1.5 cm x 1.5 cm, bone deep, about 3 cm below the eyebrow on the right cheek. Several other deep incised wounds nearby, cutting through nerves, veins, and muscle.

Contusion in left medial periorbital region. 2 cm laceration below right eye. Above and below right eyebrow a bell-shaped abrasion with a base of 1.5 cm and 1.25 between base and dome. 1.5 cm laceration adjacent to superior medial margin.

In Chenthatti, a tiny town in Sankarankoil district in Thirunelveli, there is a Muppitathi Amman temple, which Dalits are not allowed to enter. Two Dalits who demanded to be let in were subsequently murdered. An exhaustively researched report on this was prepared, and when it reached the editor’s desk, the editor decided to flesh out the story by digging up further details on the murder of Melavalavu Murugesan. Murugesan was a young man who had been hacked to death 12 years earlier in Melavalavu, a village near Madurai. Perumal thought it would be wiser not to rake up the case at this point; at most, they might publish the old post-mortem report.

I was telling my friend about what was going on at the newspaper. The next day he came down hard on me. He was complaining that I had scratched him like a cat and that his body was covered with my nail marks. That I had broken through that fair skin of his and drawn blood. Poor fellow! He can’t even pronounce your name. He is a green-eyed Dutchman. We looked at each other for a while, full of sorrow. Miserably, he asked me, “Are you developing a soft corner for Perumal?” I couldn't answer right away.

In PTA meetings, she nods her head vigorously to what the teachers say, like one of those fortune-telling bulls, to the beat of a drum

Deep laceration on the left side of the neck, 5 cm below the jaw, about 4 cm long.

“His writing is like flowers,” I told him, “It's more beautiful than tulips. It's almost as beautiful as the aurora borealis.” He just stared at me for a while; then he smiled his special smile and said, “No problem, dear.”

After four rounds of Absolut vodka, Perumal was sloshed. In his drunken stupor, he wasn’t quite sure where he was — whether he was still in his office, or fast asleep in bed at home.

It started in a chat room. She introduced herself as Chandini, a first year college student. Shit! Yes, she said she was only 17. Fuck, people will start calling me a paedophile! Really. That’s what she said her age was. Perumal lacks the imagination to have made all this up himself. Whatever he wrote, whether it was reportage or fiction, it was always based on the truth. Perhaps, if he had waited a year before writing this story, he would have escaped blame.

Despite her youth, Chandini already had a boyfriend. Perumal was her second. He had been honest with her from the start. Listen, he had told her, I'm even older than your father.

Who cares how old you are; I want you, came her melodramatic reply, and nothing more was ever said about the issue of age. He guessed that she was probably really more like 35, deceptions of this sort being quite common in the era of hi-tech. You never knew how old an online acquaintance would turn out to be until you saw her in person. But when he finally did meet her, he realized that everything she had said in her chats with him was absolutely true.

Meanwhile, Perumal’s wife Meera was “healing” a 17- year-old boy. She held her magic wand, touched the end of it to the boy’s head, and began to chant. She went on for a good five minutes. Then she removed the wand. But the boy no longer seemed to be conscious. For over half-anhour he just sat there, still as a Buddha statue, and Iswari, the boy’s mother, began to panic. She had never seen him sit this quietly for even five minutes. Iswari’s heart beat fast, and she prayed that he would regain consciousness before he suffered some sort of permanent damage.

What does an Indian middle-class housewife do with her day? Make frequent trips to the ration shop. Bargain for vegetables at the street vendor’s cart. If she’s a working woman, then she stands at the section officer’s desk, sheepishly explaining her late arrival to work. In PTA meetings, she nods her head vigorously to anything the teachers say, like one of those fortune-telling bulls that bob their heads to the beat of a drum. She does the same thing when her husband is verbally abusing her. Perhaps she can pick a quarrel with him once in a while; there’s no ban on that.

Imagine if 4,000 such women were gathered together, made to sit through one of Acharya's spiritual training programmes, then put on a stage and told to preach to an audience. How many of them, after that, would have any respect left for the institution of family? Perumal had no doubt that if all the middle-class housewives were introduced to this eminent spiritual leader, they would all run off behind him.

THE WAR was drawing to a close. The last remnants of the liberation force were using thousands of civilians as human shields. The military advanced, firing. A mother stood in a narrow street, clutching a child to her breast in desperation. The child was already dead. The mother knew she would not be able to make it all the way to her home; but she did not want to abandon the child here in the street, either. She did not know what to do.

There were lakhs and lakhs of people scrambling to rush out of the town. Finally, she discarded the child on the street and was carried off with the crowd. She had to leave the body behind and go. She had no other option.

Though he had sworn that he would never resort to spirituality, Perumal finally did arrive at it in his fiftieth year. He could have at least kept it to himself, you might think, but no; instead he told Meera about his spiritual guru. And that was it. In an instant, Meera converted to spiritual activism.

He zealously tried to get his first wife to drink deeply of the essence of communism. The moment she tasted it, she left him

Activists — whatever kind of activists they are — have no concern for individuals. Once, Perumal was down with viral fever, and there was not a soul around to care for him. When he messaged Meera at the ashram, she messaged back saying, “Pray to god; he will take care of you.” But neither came, neither god nor Meera, and he had to wait to recover.

imageTwenty-five years ago, Perumal had been a communist sympathiser. He lost faith in the cause later, but that was a different issue. Back then, he zealously tried to get his first wife to drink deeply of the essence of communism. And the moment she tasted it, she became a communist activist, and left him.

Eventually, he realized that activism — whatever sort of activism it was — had the end result of separating himself from his partner.

Today, his mindscreen was bursting with images of corpses. There was the leader of the Tamils, his face shaved clean, the back of his skull split with an axe. This was the same leader who, to chase his promise of an independent Tamil homeland, had consumed the lives of thousands; but the second he felt the shadow of death flash across his face, he had shaved his cheeks and gone to surrender, carrying a white flag.

In 1996, the presidential post of the village panchayat was reserved for Dalits. Murugesan and others had filed their applications for the post on 10.9.96, but had later withdrawn them because of threats from the upper castes. Then there was a peace meeting. But in the elections that followed, several ballot boxes were stolen. There was a re-polling on 31.12.96. The upper castes boycotted. Only the Dalits cast their votes, and so Murugesan was elected. On 30.6.97, a gang of thirty people murdered six Dalits, including Murugesan. The one who chopped off Murugesan’s head forced the other Dalits to drink the blood that spurted out from it.

Perumal, I get the same pleasure spending time with you as I do playing in a gentle drizzle: the same peace, the same beauty, everything. Sometimes your flawless love, affection, and truth infuses me with the beauty of nature bathed in rain.

It’s the same ecstasy I felt walking in rain while strolling through the tulip gardens.

Tamilarasan was an old friend of Perumal’s. Twentyfive years ago, they had both been so penniless that they had to beg for money to buy a single cup of tea. That was around the time they translated Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge together. After that, Tamilarasan joined a political party and made it as an MP in his very first attempt. A rumour began circulating around the state media that he had earned over 800 crores in a single political deal. The deal was actually worth 10,000 crores, and 800 crores was his kickback — or so they said. Of course, there was no substantiating evidence of corruption, so it wasn't presented as actual news. It just stayed a gossip tidbit.

Hacking wound at the level of the umbilicus, 5 cm x 1.5 cm and slicing through the intestine. 1.5 cm x 5.5 cm laceration with contused margins, 4 cm below the umbilicus, curved at the left end, piercing through to the bowel. Stab-wound triangular in form, 2.5 cm x 1.5 cm, in the left lumbar region.

This generated some animosity against Tamilarasan among the senior politicians of the party. They had been politicking their entire lives, but had never reaped anywhere close to this amount. “Look how much this chap made in a single deal!” they fumed. But the party president and the chief minister had a soft corner for him. “He drops unpronounceable names like Foucault, and writes articles in the Economic and Political Weekly. Doesn’t the party need a person like him?” they said.

Before an actress’ body could be handed over to the family, many people
were desperate to have sex with it

On Saturday, the military raided Valignarmadam, Mullivaikaal, Irataivaikaal, Amabalavan, Pokkanai, Maathalan, and Idaikaadu, attacking mercilessly and relentlessly. A seventeen-year-old boy, Santhan, was huddled in a trench with corpses raining down on top of him. The corpse of a child, the corpse of an old hag, a man, a woman… after a point he couldn’t tell the difference. He stayed there squashed between those corpses for a whole day and night, until the relief team arrived and saved him.

MEERA WAS admitted to a government hospital. She had been caught in the crossfire when a gang that had it in for Perumal had broken into their house. Luckily, Perumal’s dog Writer had started barking and creating havoc; otherwise Meera’s story might have ended that very day. Those thugs were massive mountains of muscle. But Writer was not a people- friendly dog. Even when friends dropped in, he would bark away, loud enough to quake the street. He had torn the thugs apart.

She had a large bruise on her neck. One of the thugs had banged her roughly into the wall.

An incised wound 8 cm x 3 cm x 2 cm over the back of the right side of the chest. First and second right ribs chipped in many places.

The air conditioner in the morgue would often stop working. Just the day before, instead of presenting this fact in its own column — for he did not think it very important — he buried it in at the bottom of a page in the classified section. He never imagined that he would feel the effects of this carelessness so early. Meera was attacked the very next night. As it was a police case, she had to be treated in a government hospital.

There was an unbearable stench emanating from the morgue, so Perumal decided to check it out. There he met Kadiravan. Perumal had known him back when he was a communist sympathiser. Kadiravan had stayed in Perumal’s room once, when he had gone underground because he was suspected of involvement in a bank heist.

Perumal knew that Kadiravan had later been nabbed and sentenced to five years, but after that he had lost track of him.

imageNow, he learned, Kadiravan had two kids. His family was staying in the village. He had driven an auto for a while; then he'd got this job in the morgue, through the recommendation of a former comrade, and had stuck with it. There was a time when he had digested all of Engels and Mao, when the revolution was all that he lived and breathed for. No matter what he started talking about, he’d end up with dialectic materialism. Perumal was in despair, seeing his comrade now reduced to a morgue keeper.

Was this a sacrifice, and if so, for what? Perumal had no objection to sacrificing one’s life for human freedom. But, he thought, so often, we spend our lives on the wrong path, and then we look up to find we’ve already reached our middle age. Here was Kadiravan, ten years younger than Perumal, a mere forty-six years old. And yet to look at him, he seemed ten years Perumal’s senior.

Laceration 7 cm x 3.5 cm x 2 cm over the outer side of the left elbow.Kadiravan told him he sometimes wished he had kept driving an auto. The morgue room could properly accommodate only thirty corpses, but there were around a hundred in it: accident deaths, suicides, anonymous corpses... and several other types, he said. Apparently accident deaths were the majority.

First, decided Perumal, let me figure out how many zeros there are in ten thousand crores. Then we can discuss poetry

“But when actresses commit suicide... things are different. I think maybe I should keep this job just for that, Perumal…”

What he said was, before an actress’ body could be handed over to the family, he would come under pressure from many people who were desperate to have sex with it. “They come here with approval from the dean of the hospital, and offer me bribes in thousands… it’s hard to refuse.”

Perumal, I have seen the world. I dream about going to the moon and watching the earth rotate on its axis. That's the reason I’ve been studying and earning… Valentina Tereshkova, the documentary camera-woman, circled the earth 48 times.

We should see it, this blue globe, glittering in the darkness. What an incredible experience it would be, to gaze on the only place we know as ours! Let’s go around it once, visit its satellite — the moon — and then return.

Are you beginning to suspect she’s loony? Because she talks about seeing the aurora borealis, or orbiting the earth in space?

BUT IT wasn’t Tamilarasan’s writing skills that had made him the darling of the party higher-ups. It was simply the fact that he would happily lick the bum of anyone who happened to be in power. He would shamelessly fall at their feet. He had fallen at the feet of the chief minister so often that people started calling him the chief minister's adopted son. Tamil politics abounds with adopted sons; they are seen as some sort of cultural necessity.

Yes, the leaders were on his side; still, it doesn’t help to make enemies of the seniors, does it? Tamilarasan realized that his 800 crore windfall had sparked envy in everyone’s eyes. He tried to stay away from active politics. He dusted off his fossilised poems and soon had them published in an anthology.

He started nagging Perumal over the phone to attend his book launch. Irritated, Perumal demanded, “Are we intellectual prostitutes?” Just because he entered politics and made it rich and now he’s publishing his poetry to give himself intellectual credibility, I’m supposed to go there and speechify for him? First, decided Perumal, let me figure out how many zeros there are in ten thousand crores. Then we can discuss poetry. So he dismissed Tamilarasan’s invitation. To avoid Tamilarasan, who didn't seem to tire of calling, Perumal asked for a donation of one lakh for his website. After that, the calls from Tamilarasan stopped.

imageDusk scatters
at the sound of our whispers.
The ears of night,
fearing our fierce kisses,
seek the comfort of dawn...
at the dreams of
the snail-paced day, and celebrate…
Nudging time with
a single finger,
Love
makes our world
beautiful.

Millions of words like this from Chandini — or maybe a zillion. Perumal didn’t know how to react to it all. She told him she was born and grew up in Norway. Perhaps teenage girls from all over the world send the same sort of messages.

Suddenly, one day, an urgent call came from Chandini. He went to see her, and found that her hands were trembling violently, like the hands of a drug addict. The doctor said it was a symptom of SMS addiction. He even had a name for it. Only I forget it, now…

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 01, Dated January 09, 2010

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