I feel my mobile phone vibrating and wake up with a start. The caller’s name displayed in the tiny screen of my cheap phone makes me groan. Inspector Devadas! The clock on the wall opposite my bed shows the time as 3 AM. Another early start. My partners will be furious when I go banging their doors. I do not answer the call. I know he’d call me back – the Inspector is persistent if not anything else.
I switch the mobile to loud, get out of my bed, and walk naked into the kitchen for a glass of water. As expected, the mobile starts ringing again, and this time it’s followed by a shriek. Again, as expected. I grin and return to the bedroom where Rani is scrambling to cover her modesty. I wink at her, open my wallet, retrieve a five hundred rupee note, and fling it towards her.
She mutters a curse, drops the blanket covering her body, and goes to pick the note. Money – the antidote to all inhibitions. I stare at her for a few seconds before gathering her clothes and dumping them in her hands. Unadulterated hate glows in her eyes as I tell her to leave my place in a rather brusque tone. We both know that this will happen again, this iniquitous tango was nothing new. She’ll be back, I know that. I needed her company, and she needed the money. Our relationship has been strictly professional till date, demarcated somewhere between the boundaries of lust, want, and need. Yet somewhere, in the remote corners of our warped minds, I guess we like each other. Well, if like is too strong a word to define the feeling between Rani and I, maybe “tolerate” works just as fine.
I look at her retreating figure, sigh and make the calls to my partners. They are not happy, but they are not unhappy either. After all, our business did demand us to be ready at all sorts of weird hours. We agree to meet at the Suicide Point in half an hour’s time. Our clients would be waiting for us there, well, not exactly there but a few thousand feet below. That’s what we do for a living – we retrieve dead bodies of the idiots who commit suicide by jumping off the famous Peace Valley View Point, more commonly known as the Suicide Point.
I lock my doors, though there is nothing worth stealing inside, light a cigarette and start walking. Tony joins me after half a kilometre. He is wiry and has an exuberance that comes with being young. Unlike my other partners and I, Tony is not from around here. He was a city boy who went astray. He told us that he used to peddle drugs and smuggle electronics from Singapore and Taiwan. After his boss sold him out to the police, he rotted for a few years in the jail, and it was there he discovered Jesus, or so he claims. Somehow, he made his way to our idyllic town atop the mountains six years ago, and due to a complete lack of knowledge in any other trade, he joined us soon after.
I take a deep drag of my cigarette and pass it over to Tony who accepts it gratefully.
‘Jesus! What a cold night, eh?’
I shrug and walk ahead, ‘I’ve seen worse, city boy!’
Tony takes a drag of the cigarette and blows the smoke out in a perfect circle, ‘Still, look at this fog. It looks quite unnatural.’
I have to agree, the fog looks unusually dense, like a miasma of despair. I don’t share this with Tony, he was already looking scared anyway.
“Anna,” Tony says with hesitation laced over his voice, “I told you about my friend na? I have asked him to come to the suicide point. Shall we take him along today?”
I shrug again. “I don’t mind. But can he withstand the descent?”
For first timers, the descent into the looming valley beneath Suicide Point is a daunting task. Climbing down into the yawning void with its multiple rows of jagged rock teeth and crevasses that are not easy to spot has made many aspirants give up after half an hour. Tony had developed a serious case of the jitters half an hour into the descent. We had to take a break to calm him down; the arrack helped, obviously. But credit to Tony, he didn’t give up and, now, is a vital part of our team.
“Sure, Anna,” Tony passes me the cigarette. “He used to clean windows of high-rise buildings. He’s not scared of heights – you might have seen in the foreign movies na? They stand on steel platforms that are hanging several hundred feet above the ground and clean the windows. Poor fellow lost his job due to Corona. People are not going to offices these days na? So, the cleaning company that employed him dismissed him without notice. His mother is old and there’s a sister waiting for marriage.”
“It’s not just the climb,” I say, taking a drag of the cigarette. “Will he be okay once we reach down?”
“Hopefully, yes. We have seen a lot of blood, anna.”
“Okay, then. But whatever we earn this time will still be split into four,” I say. “Your friend gets paid from your share, alright?”
Tony nods, and we share the cigarette as we make jokes about the gutless cravens who decide to end their lives by jumping off cliffs. I have no respect for these losers, even though they put food on my plate. We walk at a brisk pace, the chillness is invigorating, towards Suicide Point.
“I think the spirits of those who meet their untimely deaths hover around here in the fog,” Tony mutters sagely, “They sometimes moan about their wishes which remain eternally unfulfilled.”
I shrug and nod. I think he is spewing crap.
We reach the Suicide Point around 5 AM. Karuppu and Mustafa, our other partners, are already there. Karuppu looks like he’s already started on the arrack. A heavy-set man with wide shoulders and a wider gut due to his fondness of the arrack and mutton biriyani, Karuppu is someone who could be described as the quintessential gentle giant. As his name implies, he is dark as the night. Karuppu grins at us and shows his backpack, which is stuffed with plastic sachets of the acrid-tasting country liquor. For doing what we do, the quick intoxication provided by the arrack is essential.
Mustafa is in deep conversation with the police inspector. Short and reedy, Mustafa is the de facto leader of our group. He is well into his fifties, but he can climb the hill like a teenager even today and knows all the safe paths into the overgrowth, the watering holes and the animals that frequent them. Even though the locals call us ponam thooki behind our backs, they respect Mustafa. Ponam thooki means carriers of corpses, though what we do is much more than just carry the dead. Mustafa turns and shows two fingers followed by a heart symbol he makes by joining the thumbs and forefingers of both hands.
I grin and nod. A failed romance and a couple who plummeted to their deaths. Couples are the best; their families tip us generously over and above the fixed rate for retrieval. Maybe, the families of the dead think that paying us to retrieve their dead relatives’ bodies would help them get a bit of closure. Maybe, they honestly believe that this would atone for their act of making the lives of those who had jumped, miserable when they were alive. At least, that’s what I like to think. I have no complaints, the more there are of such people in the world, the more money I stand to make. Like everyone else in the world, I too like to eat good food, drink liquor, and afford a warm body to keep me company in the cold nights.
I see a few people standing near the police jeep, unmoving, as if they are in a trance – the families of the fallen. Mustafa comes over and nods at me. It’s my cue to go talk to the families. We have a strict rule that the rates must be agreed before we take one step into the canyon.
I approach them and grunt, “Who’s the boy’s side, and who’s the girl’s side?”
An obese couple raises their hand as if they were answering a roll call. I stare at them. The man is clothed in a white Nike T-shirt and a blue and red chequered lungi. His pock-marked face sports a bushy, white moustache that tries to compensate for his bald pate. Gold chains of varying thickness surround his neck like a clew of worms feasting on his flesh. He doesn’t look sad; I think he’s more annoyed and a bit angry. The woman looks sullen, her mourning has started already. But she is wearing a designer saree and diamond-studded earrings. So, what the hell do I know?
The woman is the first to talk. “Please get our son from there. We don’t want him to lie dead near that witch who snatched him away from us.”
I shrug, “Okay! We’ll get him out if possible. The rate is twenty thousand. No negotiations.”
The father’s head shoots up, “Twenty thousand? It’s too much.”
I light myself another cigarette and make a show of savouring the process. “Your problem. We have to risk our life and limb to go down there. If you are not interested in paying, we are not interested in going.”
He nods with resignation, “Alright! Here’s ten.” He hands me five crisp two thousand-rupee notes, “Get my son in one piece, and you’ll get your balance ten thousand.”
I laugh at his ignorance, “One piece? You’ll be lucky if you get a few pieces of him. The valley is two thousand plus feet in depth and is full of sharp rocks and coniferous trees. Do you know what happens to a human body when it comes into contact with those rocks? Try imagining smashing a melon against a stone, but only a thousand times worse. You look like a shifty character, no wonder your son jumped. I need the cash upfront – son or no son.”
He looks ready to strangle me, but I don’t care. I call Karuppu over and task him with extracting the rest of the money out of the fat moron’s wallet. I take a long, deep drag of the cigarette and walk over to the girl’s family. A mousy-looking woman looks at me with pain in her eyes. She seems well and truly defeated.
“Sir!” She squeaks, “We are very poor people. We don’t have the money you demand. We have only two thousand. If I give that to you, we won’t have anything to conduct my only child’s funeral.” She folds her hands in a silent plea, “Please help us. I will pay you every month, bit by bit. I don’t intend to cheat.”
I hate her for being poor. I hate her for being very dignified despite her predicament. I hate her daughter for jumping and putting the old woman in this predicament.
“Was your daughter wearing any jewellery?” The old woman nods. “The jewellery is forfeit, okay? That will be our payment, whatever the worth.”
Somewhere, I think I hate myself as well.
We start preparing for the descent. Tony comes over with his friend in tow. He introduces his friend as Stephen. Stephen looks physically fit. Whether he’s mentally fit enough for the task in hand remains to be seen. He is tall and gangly; I’m reminded of a giraffe. We apply salt on our hands and necks and spray tobacco-soaked water on our clothes.
“Why are we applying this disgusting liquid to our clothes, Anna?” Stephen asks, his eyes wide as saucers and his puckered nose crinkled in disgust.
“Leeches,” Mustafa says, and Karuppu nods.
“The valley is host to bloodsucking leeches. Tobacco water will keep them away. If you are smart and are not interested in donating your blood for the leeches ‘breakfast, you’d better start following suit.”
Stephen nods and applies the tobacco water to his clothes.
“Have you come across the bodies of accident victims?” I ask Stephen. He nods, though his eyes tell me a different story altogether.
“These bodies will be similar,” I say, lighting myself another cigarette. “We are taking you only because Tony requested. Okay? Since this is your first time, you will see a lot of unpleasant things; you will be asked to do a lot of unpleasant things. You will be asked to collect scattered body parts and tie them up. If you are ready to do that, come along. Else, you can leave right now.”
“I’m ready, Anna.” Stephen says and clenches his jaw.
We check our inventory – machetes to cut the vines and stubborn branches of trees, nylon ropes, plastic sheets and dark canvas shrouds, and wooden poles to carry the bodies – once we locate, collect and bind them.
The early morning cold bites into my skin. I zip my windbreaker up and pull the hoodie over my head. We consume copious amounts of arrack, switch on our head torches and begin our descent. The birds have started their chirping, getting ready to welcome the dawn of yet another day. The birds are lucky, I like to think. They don’t have to worry about anything other than their next meal. In a way, I’m like these birds.
We climb down the valley in silence. It is essential to set a rapid pace during the initial phase of the descent. The sun sets quite early in the hills and we would ideally prefer to wrap up our work before sunset. Otherwise, we might end up camping the night in the wilderness, a prospect none of us were looking forward. Mustafa is in the lead, walking at a brisk pace, hacking a shrub here or a thorny branch there. Karuppu is next, moving in a way that belied his considerable bulk. Stephen and Tony are walking almost side by side, murmuring between themselves and I bring up the rear.
Karuppu breaks the silence first, “Did you see the match yesterday? Dhoni has become absolutely useless. Every bloody match, I shit you not, he tries to take it to the last ball. He thinks that he’s still in 2010. I have lost count of the number of matches he has lost single handedly.”
There is no point in arguing about cricket with him. Karuppu was a fanatic, and you don’t argue with one. We talk about CSK’s heart-breaking defeat for a while and then I zone out; Frankly, I don’t have much interest in cricket. Instead, my mind wanders towards the mousy old woman and the fat guy atop the hill. Two people from completely different walks of life brought together by their dead children. Fate is funny that way.
My ruminations are broken by Tony mentioning Rani’s name. I’m sure he’d have seen her scurrying away from my place today.
“I was telling Karuppu and Mustafa that I saw Rani this morning,” Tony chuckles and continues, “She is your favourite, right?”
I show him my middle finger, and he starts laughing. Karuppu joins in, “I think you are in love with her!”
Mustafa, who is walking ahead, shakes his head. I’m sure that there’d be a grin on his face now.
“Shut up, Karuppu! I don’t love her. I just hire her professional services from time to time.”
“There are quite a few talents in the town, yet you seem to have a soft spot for Rani. I think it is love.” Tony can be an ass.
I shake my head, “The talent in our town is not up to scratch. Rani is just the best of the lot. You know what, we should petition the local MLA to get more prostitutes for our town.”
Karuppu guffaws loudly and says, “Yes! We should ask him to import some from China.”
“Yeah! As it is, most of the stuff we use comes from there only na? Last week I bought a Ganesha statue, and that was made in China as well. Imagine that.”
“Don’t you think we’ve had enough of imports from China?” Mustafa says in his mildly amused tone. “I thought, after Corona, everyone would be wary of Chinese stuff.”
I’m inclined to agree with Karuppu. Maybe, we should get some new girls in the town. I, in particular, am tiring of seeing familiar bodies on my bed. If I wanted that, I would have married a long time ago. Still, in some deep and dark corner of my mind, there’s an image of Rani branded quite strongly. Why? I don’t know.
The deeper we descend, the less frequent our conversations become. Death and despair were hovering over the valley like a bilious cloud. Three hours into the descent, we spot the first body or what remained of it. It is the fat pig’s son. We find him smeared over a gigantic boulder like a perverse surrealistic art piece. His right leg was sticking out of the backside of his throat and his left leg was nowhere to be seen. Vultures had already started to sample his flesh. Stephen takes one look and pukes all over the body. We laugh and then chase the birds away with our poles and get to work.
We set a perimeter of 30 feet from the body and search for the remaining parts. Tony finds an arm dangling from a tree a few feet below the boulder. We give up after half an hour and set about parcelling the body. We mutter a small prayer and wrap the canvas shroud around the remains and hog tie it with the rope.
We have a meagre meal of bread and chicken salna prepared by Mustafa’s wife. We drink some more arrack and start our search for the girl. Five hours later, we give up. In my experience, if a body is not found after ten hours, it cannot be found at all. There are cracks and crevices all over on the mountain side into which a body might slide and vanish forever. The sun is about to settle down for the day and the birds are already shrieking. We have at least seven hours of solid climb, which would be tougher with the added weight of the body. At least, these are the justifications that we gave ourselves for abandoning the search for the girl. The mousy woman’s face flitters once again through my mind and I resolve to give the above-mentioned reasons with a tiny bit of gentleness to her.
We prepare to leave with only the boy’s body. Karuppu and Tony are disappointed. I’m sure they had plans for the money we would have got by selling the girl’s jewellery. Mustafa takes the lead once again and I bring the rear with the other two carrying the body. We switch our head torches again as the last rays of sun bid us goodbye for the day.
“Anna,” Stephen whispers, “Why do young people, so full of life, decide to die in such gruesome ways?”
Mustafa says, “Sometimes, life becomes too painful that even a violent death might seem like a merciful release.”
Mustafa shrugs and says, “I enquired around. The boy’s father is a local politician belonging to the higher caste and the girl belongs to the lower caste. Trust me, he would have gladly hacked his son and that girl to pieces. I’m pretty sure that the man is sour that the couple managed to defy him by snatching their deaths from his hands.”
I walk in silent contemplation. This is not my first retrieval of a suicide victim. Heck, it is not even my twentieth. But something is weighing down in my heart. Is it the failure to spot the girl’s body? Is it her mother’s tears or her dignified plea amidst the pathos? I don’t know. I ruminate on Stephen’s question and Mustafa’s answer. What makes these young people, with their whole lives ahead of them, jump to their gruesome deaths? What would have been running through their minds as they leap into nothingness? Don’t they think about their families? Do they even care about what they put their loved ones through? I wish Tony was correct in saying the spirits of the dead still roam these parts. I would like to talk to them, just to understand.
I turn back and spot something red down in the distance. Was it a piece of garment? Was it the girl? Will her mother understand when we return empty-handed? Will they mourn for her after a year or two? Will someone mourn for me if I slip and fall one of these days to my death? I guess it’d be good to know that you are loved.
We reach the top. As expected, no one’s waiting for us. The parents might be either at the police station or at the hospital.
I get this sudden urge to call Rani. Not for company, but to just talk. Maybe I should get her something nice.
Maybe, she’ll like that.
Anna – Elder Brother
Salna – broth
Varadharajan Ramesh is an entrepreneur, author, aspiring saxophonist, and raconteur. His short stories have been published in multiple anthologies. Presently, he’s putting the finishing touches to his debut novel.