In A City Accustomed To Seeing The Dead, Bodies Remain Unknown And Unclaimed : The Unknown Dead Encountered Regularly in Delhi

The Delhi police register the discovery of more than 3,000 unidentifiable bodies a year… It is an extraordinary number…Families often abandoned terminally ill relatives at the nearby Hanuman temple because they are unable to get them admitted to Government hospitals…But most of the unclaimed dead appear to come from another group: men from distant villages, sent to the city in their teens or 20s to earn money as rickshaw drivers or casual laborers, and broken down by harsh conditions and brutal extremes of temperature…


the-unknown-dead-encountredThe most lost of the lost people of Delhi end up here, in a cold metal-sided room at the Sabzi Mandi mortuary. They are lying on every available surface, including the blood-smeared floor, some with body parts flung out in the position of their death, protruding from the white plastic bags that are used to store them. The smooth, sharp curve of a man’s naked hip, all bone and no flesh. A jaw, with teeth. Hands folded over an abdomen as if at rest, or extended in some last intercepted expression of feeling.
In a corner, the bodies are crowded together on the floor. The mortuary attendants say it is so difficult to procure supplies as basic as disinfectant from the Government that workers bring soap from home so that they can wash their hands after handling the bodies, many of which are infected with tuberculosis. So it would be unrealistic for the unidentified dead to expect a metal shelf of their own. “You’ll find them one on top of the other,” said the mortuary’s chief doctor, L. C. Gupta. “Where are we supposed to put them?”
On average, the police in this city register the discovery of more than 3,000 unidentifiable bodies a year — unidentifiable not because they are unrecognisable, but because they carry no documents and there is no one who knows them. It is an extraordinary number. New York City buries as many as 1,500 homeless or poor people in trenches in its potter’s field on Hart Island every year, but of those, according to an official from the medical examiner’s office who recently spoke to the NY1 news channel, the number who remain unidentified averages around 50.
In Delhi, one regularly encounters the unknown dead: By law, photographs of their corpses must be published in newspapers and posted in police stations, under the Dickensian heading “Hue and Cry Notice.” Protocol requires the mortuary to hold each body for 72 hours so that relatives have a chance to spot the announcements and claim the dead, but Dr. Gupta said they rarely do. “Nobody reads them,” he said. Police officers are also expected to investigate. Asked about this, Dr. Gupta gave a small, dry smile. “They may or may not try,” he said.

Harsh Mander, a social worker and activist who led a 2010 analysis of unidentified bodies in Delhi, found that the average age of men who died alone here — it is almost always men — was around 42.
Police records offer the vaguest of explanations. Most often, the cause of death is given as “natural,” but others are marked as “illness/weakness,” “due to hunger or thirst,” “due to extreme cold or heat,” “accident,” “tuberculosis,” “suicide,” or, peculiarly, “beggar type.”

This is no city for the poor. Drive around New Delhi at night, and great numbers of men, women and children can be seen curled up on the sidewalks sleeping, or trying to sleep. These people — “pavement dwellers,” they are called — figure in occasional newspaper articles about drunken drivers whose vehicles jump the curb and plow into a row of sleepers. The most desperate gather around temples, where observant Hindus are encouraged to distribute food to the poor after a death in the family. Mohammad Yamin, an investigating officer at the Kashmere Gate police station, said families often abandoned terminally ill relatives at the nearby Hanuman temple because they are unable to get them admitted to Government hospitals.
But most of the unclaimed dead appear to come from another group: men from distant villages, sent to the city in their teens or 20s to earn money as rickshaw drivers or casual laborers, and broken down by harsh conditions and brutal extremes of temperature. Harsh Mander, a social worker and activist who led a 2010 analysis of unidentified bodies in Delhi, found that the average age of men who died alone here — it is almost always men — was around 42. Police records offer the vaguest of explanations. Most often, the cause of death is given as “natural,” but others are marked as “illness/weakness,” “due to hunger or thirst,” “due to extreme cold or heat,” “accident,” “tuberculosis,” “suicide,” or, peculiarly, “beggar type.”
The police usually find the bodies around the railway tracks or on the side of the road. Often the bodies are entirely naked. If a police officer, for some reason, makes a sincere attempt to discover the identity of a body he has found, Mr. Yamin said, he will swiftly find himself overwhelmed in the days that follow, as the number of unknown bodies in his custody mounts. Once, Mr. Yamin managed to discover the identity of a man whose corpse he had found and took it all the way to the man’s native village, where his uncles still lived. They gave him a two-line response: “He sold off his home and his belongings many years ago, as a young boy, and his parents are no more. You can do what you deem fit with his body.”
All this is a familiar story for the mortuary workers, and they do not find it especially tragic. Dr. Gupta recalled, with distaste, going to the Hanuman temple to distribute 50-rupee notes — about 80 cents — after his brother’s death, and being rushed by so many beggars that he needed to be rescued by the police. On the streets, he said, men become addicted to drugs and engage in gay sex, rendering them “useless to society.” “They are of worse nature, and it is their karma,” he said. “They do not want to help themselves.”
One of his workers, Purushottam, vigorously agreed. He recalled that for a time he would buy bananas every day to distribute to the “vagabonds,” as he called them. But then he was rebuked by police officers, who told him the men were selling his bananas at the market and using the money to buy drugs. “So we stopped feeding them,” he said. “We feed the birds instead,” said Parveen Sharma, another mortuary worker. “At least we know they will eat the food.”
( Suhasini Raj contributed reporting. )
-NYT

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