The book, a translation of Dr B Umadathan’s Malayalam book, has many cases written like short murder mysteries, with simple science and compassion.

A book with a white cover opened and kept over a maroon blanket. The title is Dead Men Tell Tales, written by Dr B UmadathanAll images from Dr B Umadathan's 'Dead Men Tell Tales'
Features Books Saturday, April 17, 2021 - 19:49
Written by  Cris

A long time ago, three small bones were found from an unused well in a village in Egypt. The villagers thought these were human bones and gave them to the police. The police sent it to renowned forensic expert Sydney Smith. He studied the three bones and told the police the following: it belonged to a woman aged between 22 and 24 years, who had given birth at least once, had a limp and was fired at from a gun by someone standing three or four feet away to her left, and that the death occurred a week after that. She’d have died a few months ago, he added.

The police at first thought he was crazy, but every little finding came true and they found the killer – the woman’s father who accidentally shot her while cleaning his gun. Scared, he didn’t take her to the hospital, and when she died, threw her into the unused well. When the villagers decided to clean the well a few months later, he climbed in and took out what was left of the dead body – skeleton by then – but unknowingly left three bones behind.

He wouldn’t have dreamed so much could be inferred from just three bones. But that’s the power of forensic science, late Dr B Umadathan explains in his book Oru Police Surgeonte Ormakkurippukal, which has now been translated into English as Dead Men Tell Tales – The Memoir of a Police Surgeon by Priya K Nair, an English professor.

Sherlock Holmes of Kerala

Umadathan, whom newspapers called the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Kerala’ in his obit of July 2019, was the former director of medical education in Kerala. He was once a medico-legal advisor to the Kerala police, and a police surgeon. He also worked as a professor, heading the Department of Forensic Medicine, at several government medical colleges and later became principal of the one in Thiruvananthapuram.

He wrote like a mystery writer about the cases he worked on. In Dead Men Tell Tales he created in his mostly short chapters, an air of mystery and suspense before the revelation of truth. The science of it all had brought him into the picture every time. To his readers, he explained the science in the simplest of terms, the technical jargon never jutting out to sway your attention off the humane side of the story.

For these are real life stories of suicides and murders, man's cruelty on man, and Umadathan often sheds his surgeon's robes and stands there as the human he is, helpless and pained. 

Watch: Umadathan at the Kerala Literature Festival, 2019

He was a child when he witnessed his first death by hanging at a neighbour's house. He had nightmares for several days after that. "I have also had to witness several such deaths during my career, and have never been able to remain stoic about them," he writes.

During his younger days as a medical student of the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College, Umadathan got drawn to forensic science, mostly by the influence of Dr Kanthaswamy, head of the department. It was under the latter's training that Umadathan began performing post-mortems of his own, and later began appearing in court. 

Humane side

From the first post mortem that he writes about, Umadathan brings the victim alive with a story from the past. Like a quick flashback in movies, he rebuilds a scene for the reader to imagine the person alive — a conversation, an anecdote, a characteristic. He writes sadly about recognising a young woman's face in the mortuary, months after she had come to him, crying, about an unplanned pregnancy. He could do nothing to help her back then for abortion was still criminalised in India (the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was passed in 1971). He writes also of the five month old baby in her womb that died with her. 

"Though a forensic surgeon is not supposed to be affected by death, I still carry painful memories of many suicides," Umadathan writes. 

In 2010, before depression became a topic of discussion in mainstream media, Umadathan stressed on the significance of mental health. He lamented how in India people are embarrassed to consult psychiatrists and do it covertly if they have to. 

Suicides and murders

But suicides are not always suicides. In many cases, murders are made to look like suicides for obvious reasons. But the reverse has also happened — suicide made to look like murder. Umadathan writes about farm labourer Gopi who was believed to have murdered his wife Shantha and their two-year-old child. Gopi was an alcoholic and had many quarrels with his wife, even on the day she and the child went missing (they were later found dead in Periyar River close to the house). A fisherman told the police that he saw Gopi throw the bodies into the river. But the police were still unconvinced and came to Umadathan for a second opinion (it was another doctor who did the post-mortem).

Exhumation process / Photo courtesy - Dr Rajaram / Dead Men Tell Tales

Umadathan writes how he was initially irritated that the police was accusing "one of his clan" but later realised that the suspicions were not unfounded. In the second post-mortem it was proved that it was a suicide, and the witness admitted later that he lied because of a previous enmity for Gopi.

Famous cases

Many such exhumations and re-post-mortems are described in the book. One of the most famous ones is that of Miss Kumari, a film star of the 1950s and 60s Malayalam cinema. It was a controversial case of the time and Umadathan, fresh out of medical college, took part in his first exhumation. Dr Kanthaswamy, his mentor, and Dr Jayapalan did the post mortem. Umadathan does not go into the details of the findings, except mentioning that "the abdomen still contained traces of a foul-smelling pesticide" and that the investigations did not "yield any signs of murder."

Read: Knowing Miss Kumari: The 1950s Malayalam film actor who never chose stardom

Other famous cases however have whole chapters dedicated to them, the Chacko murder case (more known by his killer Sukumara Kurup's elusiveness), and the Panoor Soman case among them. The former tells the planning of a small group of men led by Gulf-returned Kurup to stage his death in a car accident and win the insurance. The initial plan is to find a dead body of his proportions to take his place in a burning car. But when that does not work, they find a living man randomly on the street outside a theatre, pick him up, kill him, and then put him inside the car they burn. After many lies and concoctions, other accused in the case finally end up in the police's web. But Kurup does not. Which is why his story is still legendary today, 36 years after the horrific incident. 

The Panoor case is of a policeman Soman whose death by three gun shots was for long thought to be murder until clever forensics revealed it was suicide. Here Umadathan describes with pictorial representations the effects caused by different gun shots, the distance of the guns and so on, which helps them decide if it is a suicide or murder. 

Interesting terms

An interesting concept he discusses in connection with suicides is of hesitation wounds. Often in suicides, people make several wounds, hesitant to inflict hurt upon themselves, either to build courage or after knowing the pain of the first strike. 

Umadathan's casual dropping of these terms do not make the stories too technical or distant but all the more interesting. Another time, he talks about rigor mortis, when a body stiffens within hours of death due to chemical changes. This helps them understand the time of death. Decomposition begins soon after the whole body stiffens — why funerals are conducted within 24 hours of death. But in some cases, the body, unexposed to sun or light, remains undecomposed for a much longer time. Miss Kumari's has been one such case. 

Then there is wet drowning and dry drowning — water entering lungs as you fall, and water entering the trachea when you fall headlong. 

“There was not the usual challenge of searching for the right words to translate the work. It is science and the translation was smooth. Otherwise you fear if you get the cultural nuances right. I could finish the translation in four months of the [COVID-19] lockdown,” says Priya.

When she read and wrote them out, it really felt like dead men were telling the tales. There was just so much you could get out of a dead body.

Beyond all this, what he really appears to have found pride is in his ability to superimpose images of an unidentified skull over the enlarged photo of the suspected individual to confirm the identity of the dead person. Quite a few cases have been solved by this technique and the element of a scientific thriller intensifies every time he explains it. In one case he recreates the face of a dead woman from her skull, years later, using paper pulp and clay. An anonymous letter comes four days after the police published the recreated image, identifying the woman. 

Umadathan does not approve of all methods used to investigate deaths. He calls the dummy experiment used by the police in a case in 1986 unscientific. A hotel receptionist called Peethambaran fell to his death from the hotel that year, and the investigations had become much discussed. It was a suicide which was at one point thought to be murder. A police official used dummies of Peethambaran's weight to decide if he was pushed or fell on his own. The method was also portrayed in the famous Mammootty movie Oru CBI Diary Kurippu in 1988.

Read: 'Oru CBI Diary Kurippu': Why Mammootty's detective film is unsurpassed

Killers not by choice

In some cases however, you wish Umadathan had not found the truth, when the helpless strike back for self-defence or stop an unending torture. Sons of wife-beating husbands protecting mothers, teenage girls striking back to protect themselves from a sexual assault. Perhaps they find mercy in the court, you hope. And possibly, Umadathan did too, considering the sad adjectives he uses to describe these individuals.

He ends the book with two painful experiences he has had in the job, when he was falsely accused in two cases. One of these is the famous Abhaya case of a nun’s death, where another doctor had conducted the post mortem.

Read: Sister Abhaya murder case: Is it really justice delivered?

Nearly all the stories reassure you with a certain faith in the policing and legal system. These may be a fraction of the resolved cases but justice, nearly thought denied, had been served, thanks to efficient police officials and surgeons like Umadathan. You have to wonder what he would have continued to contribute especially when stories of mass murders continue to emerge.

Umadathan's book mentions two cyanide poisoning cases, one of which eerily resembles the Koodathai case of 2019, which came up only months after his passing in July.

Watch: The Jolly Story: Decoding the deaths that shook Kerala

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