Raju’s 16-year-old son Abhijeet says he wants to be in the army. Does he not want to be like his father? “No,” Abhijeet gives a shy, but curt reply. His mother Raj interjects with a smile, “He does not like the idea of being a post-mortem attendant. He is not up to it.”
For 49-year-old Raju, being a morgue attendant was never a choice. “My father, Suraj, died in 1989. He was 45. The doctors said it was tuberculosis but, whatever it was, it had taken root around five years before his death; coming from his 15-years of work at the Sabzi Mandi mortuary,” Raju says.
What Raju believes is his choice, but it is not very different from what the High Court was told last week by its amicus curiae looking into the conditions at mortuaries.
Suraj is one of the many staffers who died before their retirement age. Morgue assistant in-charge Puroshottam says, “The 12 staffers who passed away are Dhulichand, Bhakri, Subesh, Rajinder Singh, Ram Prasad Fauzi, Suraj (Raju’s father), Jadeshi, Karan Singh, Sudesh, Om Prakash, Jeet Ram and Sohan Lal. The only two who retired were Iqbal and Kripal. But, they were so ill that they died around six months after retirement.”
Raju says he opted to work as a sweeper in the mortuary “because we had a roof over our heads and a regular income”. He earns Rs 20,000. “My job involves carrying and wheeling in bodies to the cold storage or out of it, as well as assisting in post-mortems and cleaning up. But I get no allowance unlike earlier, when staffers were paid a small allowance for each post-mortem and neither do I receive regular check-ups unlike earlier.”
Staffers at Sabzi Mandi mortuary say most essential goods are usually understocked. A staffer, who does not want to be named, says, “We have not been provided something as basic as soap for the last three months. We are not even given masks or sanitised clothes when we assist in post-mortems, unlike doctors and nurses in hospitals. Why do they never contract any diseases and why do we almost always do?” He adds that bodies brought in for autopsies are never tested for diseases or infections. “If the patient is HIV positive and if any of us were to suffer a small cut during the autopsy, we will be infected, will we not?”
The mortuary in-charge, Dr L C Gupta, says, “Putrefying bodies are the main cause of bacterial and viral infections. Most often AIDS and TB affect staffers here.”
Raju’s 54-year-old colleague Tara Chand is the oldest surviving staffer, but suffers from various ailments. Tara Chand, who has been working at the mortuary since 1984, brings out a cache of files and folders with medical reports, tests and prescriptions, some from 2007. “I was ill for the last 15 days. I joined work on Thursday. For the last several months I have had to take long leaves. I am no longer fit enough to work,” he says.
Tara Chand’s father was a labourer in Palam area. Tara Chand joined as a sweeper in the area near the Police Hospital (later it became Aruna Asaf Ali Hospital) when he was around 20 years old. The staffers at the hospital cajoled him into joining them, saying, “Tera naam hoga, police ki naukri karega toh (You will earn respect because you will be enlisted in the police services).” Tara Chand joined the hospital as a sweeper. Just days into his marriage and new job, Indira Gandhi was killed and riots erupted in Delhi.
“Sabzi Mandi morgue was the only one in Delhi at the time. Bodies came in by the hundreds. It was a crazy period. There were so many post-mortems to be done that we sweepers and those who could be dispensed with at the hospital were called in to assist at the morgue. That is how I came into this job,” Tara Chand recalls. His wife, Raju, is not so excited about those times now. “My husband was a pehalwan. Look at him now; he is ill, lean and suffering.”
Tara Chand shows a laminated newspaper article from Dainik Jagran. The headline says ‘Chalis Hazar Murde Katne Ke Baad (After cutting up 40,000 corpses)’. It is on a young and fearless Tara Chand, his life, his work and how he is not affected by corpses.
His wife has a different take. “Initially, the sights, the cases and the corpses he encountered did disturb him. He used to vent his frustration and beat up our son Bunty when he came home at night. It was not easy.”