‘However much I try to scrub the stench of decomposed bodies off me, it stays.’

Invisible heroes What its like to examine corpses and live with death each dayImage for representation: Ralf Roletschek via Wikimedia Commons
Features Human Interest Monday, October 10, 2016 - 17:50

This story is part of TNM's 'Invisible Heroes' series. The series aims to give voice to the people who perform some of the most thankless jobs in our society.

“Wash, cut, stitch and package,” says Govinda*, the staccato tone of his voice making the job seem boring and mechanical. That there could be other reasons for the tone only hit you when you realise that the objects Govinda is speaking of are human bodies and not cloth.

Govinda works as an assistant in the Forensic Pathology and Toxicology department of a reputed government hospital in Bengaluru. This is the department that conducts all post-mortems in the hospital, and as part of his job, Govinda has to dissect a number of dead bodies and stitch them back up each day.

Think of some of the most disturbing images you can imagine – bloodied, decomposing flesh, sometimes even covered maggots – and 47-year-old Govinda says that he has dealt with it all on the job.

"When I was transferred to the forensic pathology and toxicology department, I was initially made to handle only decomposed bodies, sometime exhumed bodies too. The first few days were difficult, because of the smell that emanated from the bodies, and the difficulties of dealing with maggots and flies. But I got used to it in three days,” he says.

Despite his claim, however, Govinda has habits that suggest he hasn’t completely made peace with all the elements of the job. For instance, he has to take a shot of alcohol after the day's work has ended, he says, if he has to keep himself from thinking about the mortuary when he goes back home. 

And although he says he has grown used to the sights and smells of his job, it all comes back to him in public or social situations, like in a crowded bus. “We take a bath after work. But however much I try to scrub the stench of decomposed bodies off me, it stays. It is like I am carrying the scent of my workplace always.”

This odour, combined with their imagination of what he and his job are like, sometimes leads people to steer clear of him. “People used to comment about the odour. Some people in my family also prefer not to talk to me. They think, ‘What will a person who deals with dead bodies talk about?’,” he says.

Lalith* a forensic pathologist from the same hospital, says the physical sensations are difficult, but it’s possible to adapt to them. What he has trouble dealing with are the negative feelings that come with the job. Over the years, he says, he has come to believe that, “Death is the ultimate truth”.

For all the hard work that goes into his job, he says, “This is not a job where someone appreciates you. We aren’t saving lives here.”

Adding to this is the misconception many people have of pathologists, says Lalith, that they illegally harvest organs from the dead. “Organs can only be removed from bodies of people who are brain-dead, and then only with prior approval. And the casualty ward would not send bodies to us, unless the person had registered himself or herself as a donor. So there is no question of stealing organs,” he explains.

Despite these perceptions, Lalith says he has never felt less as a doctor. “My job is important when it comes to getting justice for innocent people,” he explains.

But even as that feeling of bringing justice can be rewarding, Lalith, who spends three days a week in court as a forensic witness, says that it is one of the most tiring aspects of his job.

“I would have conducted the post-mortem, which would have revealed some vital evidence for the case to be of murder. I would have been grilled for a long time by the defense lawyer during the court proceedings. But everything will fall apart when the witness turns hostile,” he explains, adding that he has seen too many cases end this way.

The one thing both Govind and Lalith dread doing is conducting a post-mortem on children. Lalith says that it is most heartbreaking when children die of negligence. “Once a toddler had drowned in a bucket of water because he fell into it. It turned out to be an accident. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days.”

*Names changed on request


Also Read:

Invisible heroes: Food delivery boys and their hunger for a better life

Invisible heroes: Bearing the stench to eke out a living, men who keep public toilets clean


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