It was one evening in 1983 that 17-year-old Abdul Azeez Madathil heard sudden shouts. Then he got a glimpse of a small hand on the surface of the water in the Chaliyar river which was in spate. Without a second thought he jumped into the water. After much effort he reached the bank with the three-year-old child who had fallen into the river.
Even after 36 years Azeez still remembers the weak pulse of the child, who died later in his hands. He couldn’t sleep that night. But he and four of his friends were appreciated by the locals and given a lunch as gift. “It was after a long time that I was having a proper meal. Those days, I used to struggle to have at least one meal a day,” Azeez recalls those poverty-ridden days he decided to dedicate his life to social service.
Since then Azeez has taken at least 3,000 dead bodies in his own hands to the hospital for autopsy from accident spots, suicide spots, rivers, roads and so on. Azeez, a panchayat member of Olavanna in Kozhikode district, is a rescue volunteer who has saved umpteen lives from various accidents. He retrieves and cleans shattered and decayed dead bodies when others don’t even dare to look at them.
He gets emergency calls from the police, locals, NGOs and organisations across Kerala wherever there is an accident or a life-threatening situation. These days he gets a call almost every day.
Day or night, Azeez rushes to the spot and takes part in the rescue operation, retrieving dead bodies and returning without accepting any remuneration. His presence was noticeable during the rescue operation after the Kadalundi train disaster in 2001, where four bogies of the Mangalore-Chennai Mail plunged into the Kadalundi river killing about 52 people; the Pookkiparamba bus accident, the biggest road accident in Kerala that happened in March 2001 in which 40 people died after a bus collided with a car and caught fire; and during the Nipah outbreak in Kozhikode and Malappuram districts.
When there is a dead body that has been recovered after a long time or broken into pieces or in a decomposed state, police or the people around inform Azeez. “I have taken numerous dead bodies, decomposed and many days old and maggot-ridden, with my bare hands. Initially I was hesitant, but later on I realised that someone has to do this,” Azeez tells TNM.
He believes that every living being has the right to be buried or cremated in a respectful way. “When we take out days old corpses from rivers or ponds, it will be partially decayed. We may not even be able to identify whether it is a man or a woman. People who gather around to watch me during the rescue usually do not even like to give me a hand to help me out of the water. Cannot blame them, people are disgusted looking at such bodies. But I cannot show disrespect to dead bodies even in that state,” he says.
Recently a Dalit woman’s partially decayed body was found in her house in Kozhikode’s Peruvanna. Nobody touched the body until Azeez reached the spot. “There is no caste, religion or race for dead bodies. Human beings are equal in front of death, we should realise it when we live,” Azeez smiles.
Bodies from train accidents are the most horrible, he says. “The body parts are usually in pieces, we have to find and collect them. Once a young man assisted me in retrieving a body from the railway track. After that day he stopped volunteering saying who can bear to see such sights,” he recalls.
Usually in such cases police will outsource the work to people who can handle decayed bodies and reward them with money or other things. But Azeez doesn’t accept anything from the police or the public for his service.
“There was a time when I struggled to get food for my family. After my father’s death in my childhood, my younger brothers were sent to an orphanage as my mother couldn’t provide for all of us. I’ve done all kinds of jobs to earn a living. I have done daily wage work in farm lands, cleaned wells, worked as a headload worker, driver and so on. Even then I didn’t accept a penny as remuneration for this service, not even travel allowance,” Azeez, who is a contractor now, says proudly.
“Once I got a call from Malappuram about a woman who had killed herself by jumping into a well. I reached the spot and got into the well when I saw a tiny hand. When I pulled it up, it was the body of a little girl not more than three years old. I brought her out and continued the search and got one more child’s body, maybe five years old. Finally I got their mother’s body. It was heartbreaking. Whenever I retrieve corpses the only pain that haunts me is why couldn’t I save them from death,” he says.
Similar incidents involving the death of children disturbs Azeez badly. “Few years ago I rushed to a house after I got information that a woman had hanged herself. Inside I saw her two children also hanging at different spots,” he says, adding, “Another sight that haunts me was retrieving the dead body of a three-year-old in an autorickshaw accident. I still remember his white shirt with a blue overcoat, his shoes and socks.”
Hayarunnissa was warned by many not to marry Azeez, that he worked with dead bodies. “But she was happy to marry me. Since she knew what I did before we got married, there were no objections later. My sons and daughter are also happy about what I am doing,” Azeez, who is also a grandfather now, says.
Azeez keeps a tool kit in his vehicle wherever he travels. “It has some tools, gloves, an extra pair of clothes and some equipment that helps in rescue missions. But if I get a call when I’m out for a function, I will have to rush without my tools. I have to retrieve bodies bare-handed,” he says.
People ask Azeez whether he is afraid of ghosts as he deals with so many dead people. “In the last 36 years no ghosts have come to me, even in my nightmares. There are people who are scared to touch me thinking some ghost would attack them,” Azeez laughs.