‘Around 20 years ago, a stranger turned up in my office. He had an unshaven face and was wearing shabby clothes. The expression in his eyes reminded me of a mendicant I had come across in a book of fiction. In a husky voice, he told me that he wanted to thank me for saving his life. He was a bus driver who had been accused of homicide. He had been arrested by the police and kept in custody for days. The police had argued that the bus had hit a pedestrian, and killed him. This man, the driver, denied it. He had been working with the Kerala Road Transport Corporation for 15 years and had never caused an accident before. It rang a bell. The dead man’s body had been brought to my post-mortem table. It was clear in the autopsy that he was hit not by a bus, but by some small vehicle like a jeep or a car. The police asked me again and again whether I was very sure about this. They were in a hurry to establish that the man had been hit by a bus and not a jeep. I refused to make any changes in the autopsy report. Finally, the police let him free. “The doctor is adamant, you can go,” is what they told him. He had turned up in my office to thank me. A newspaper carried the story of the accident along with a photograph of a jeep, showing its registration number. The KSRTC bus driven by that man had passed through the same route at the same time. The man who was in the [driver’s] seat of that killer jeep is now a member of the legislative assembly and his father is a member of the Lok Sabha. That was the reason behind the urgency to make it seem like a bus accident.’
Dr Shirley Vasu, the senior-most lady forensic surgeon in Kerala, wrote this account in her book Postmortem Table, which became a Malayalam bestseller some years ago. She has no idea what happened in that case later. But this is only one of hundreds of such cases that she has encountered in her career. A forensic surgeon being popular for the job she does is quite uncommon. Her autopsy reports are discussed either for their meticulousness and precision or for the social and political importance of the person dead. Her reports have changed many people’s fate—some have been sent to jail and others have been freed from it.
The body of Saumya, a 23-year-old girl who was thrown out of a moving train, raped and brutally murdered in Kerala last year, was brought to Dr Shirley’s table. Her death had sent a shockwave across the state, as every passenger in the train had ignored her last cries for help. In this particular case, it was Dr Shirley herself who suddenly found herself vilified. In an unfortunate turn of events, a colleague of Dr Shirley alleged that she had not even been present at the autopsy. This statement was used by the defence lawyer in favour of the accused. Later, of course, the court found that Dr Shirley’s colleague had lied, and instructed the police to take action against him for attempting to weaken the prosecution in Saumya’s case.
Dr Shirley was initially hesitant about a magazine article on her life and work. “Who am I to write about? I am just like an astrologer scribbling horoscopes of the dead,” she laughs. “I have been living in the company of corpses for over 30 years. Is your magazine interested in the ‘life’ of the dead?”
Dr Shirley has been working in the forensic department of Calicut Medical College since 1982. She hasn’t kept count of these years, but according to the medical college logbook, she has conducted more than 10,000 autopsies. Dr Shirley recalls that her first autopsy was on the third day of her joining the medical college. “It was the body of a young woman who had committed suicide. She hanged herself. Her palm was closed and there was a pepper leaf in it. She hanged herself on the branch of a tree that had pepper vines around it.” A few women’s organisations had demanded action against those who had abetted the suicide. Dr Shirley recalls that she could not sleep that night. She writes in her book: ‘I had an illusion. That poor young woman got up and sat on the post-mortem table. In a very feeble voice she whispered to me that she was in pain. She was weeping.’ That young woman took Dr Shirley’s sleep away that night. And she was not the last one to do that. The motionless bodies of men, women and children being brought to her table—an apparent manifestation of the dearth of love, care and compassion in the world—leaves her sleepless every once in a while.
“There are many misconceptions about death,” says Dr Shirley. In 2002 in Kannur, she recounts, a young man had jumped into a well all of a sudden, with little provocation. He was drinking liquor with a few friends. The celebration was on account of peace talks between two rival political parties in Kannur. Unfortunately, this young man and his friends belonged to rival political parties. So, they were accused of killing him.
The autopsy, however, revealed that it was not murder, but suicide—for a strange and unfortunate reason. He was the victim of an unidentified heart muscle disease called cardiomyopathy, which is the gradual weakening of heart tissues. Liquor and the presence of new friends caused irregular heartbeats, which interrupted the blood circulation to brain tissues. “He jumped into the well in a moment of ecstasy caused by the irregularity in blood circulation to the brain cells,” says Dr Shirley. In a deeper conversation, she adds, his family members were able to recollect occasional moments of strange behaviour which they had never identified as symptoms of a disease. The post-mortem thus helped forestall vendetta and a probable counter attack in the political battlefield of Kannur. In medical terms, the fact that the man jumped into the well himself is a case of suicide. But Dr Shirley is still unsure what to call it.
A good swimmer can die in water, she goes on; a six foot tall man may drown in a pool with a depth of only four feet; and a stab wound need not necessarily be evidence of murder, it can also be a suicide. As far as Dr Shirley is concerned, popular conceptions of murder, suicide and natural death can be wrong. Diverse forms of heart and brain failure may result in death all of a sudden. “Death is not something that comes from outside, it is very much there inside. It wakes up one day and life surrenders to it,” she philosophises.
Her own childhood prepared her well for the rigours of her later career. She doesn’t think it was as ordinary as those of many among her peers. Both her parents were court employees, and she was often witness to heated exchanges between them on legal matters. Her mother was an employ
ee in a civil court, and father—an atheist and Communist who gave her the Christian name Shirley, though they belonged to a Hindu family, in an attempt to break walls of community identity—worked in a criminal court. “They used to argue on which court was better. My mom used to tease him by saying he was living in the company of ‘criminals’. She also claimed the civil court was a peaceful place and more ‘aristocratic’ than a criminal court as it dealt only with civil disputes. He used to laugh at her and provoke her with the argument that she was dealing only with people who were greedy. The ‘criminals’ in his court, he said, were better than those who sued their own family members for property.” Thus began her long relationship with the law.
Apart from the discourse on law, young Shirley was also exposed to public speeches by Communist leaders like EMS Namboodirippadu and AK Gopalan. Her father used to take her to political meetings. Shirley had never dreamt of becoming a doctor. “I only wanted to study well and secure a good job. It was when I completed my plus two that my father suggested that I join medical college. There were no entrance examinations in those days. Students were selected based on their academic excellence,” she says.
As for her post-graduation in forensic science, Dr Shirley says she was inspired by her teachers. “Besides, it is very challenging, and I always had a fascination for the hidden secrets and mysteries of life and death. That might be the reason I’ve spent the rest of my life in a mortuary,” she laughs.
She recalls the case that led to her first appearance in court, in the early 198os. The remains of a 16-year-old boy had been found under a waterfall in Pattuvam in Kannur. The police were able to gather only some bones. As for the culprit, they zeroed in on his cousin brother. In an eerie turn of phrase, Dr Shirley recollects that the bones were as ‘cute’ as the photograph of the boy that appeared in newspapers.
“In the beginning, I was totally ignorant of the legal proceedings in a murder case. I was instructed by the head of the department to take photographs of the bones. I had no idea how to do that. I gathered the bones, dropped them in my handbag and went to a photo studio. That was the only place where photographs were taken, to the best of my knowledge. I opened the bag, took the bones out, put them on the table and asked them to take a few snaps as early as possible. They were horrified. They rang up the police. I understood the procedure of taking photographs of mortal remains only after that incident.” Dr Shirley cannot resist laughing at her ignorance at the age of 25.
A few years ago, the body of a woman was found in a reserve forest on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. She had been strangled, the pallu of her sari was tied to the branch of a tree, and her body was found lying under the tree. The scene suggested suicide. Her body parts, including the chest and internal organs, had also been mauled by a tiger. But the tiger had not touched the neck and head, thanks to which Dr Shirley and her colleague Dr MR Chandran were able to deduce that she was actually murdered. “Dr Chandran told me that it was an intelligent tiger with fair amount of forensic knowledge,” she smiles. ‘Deadly’ jokes help lighten such grim work.
Thirty years of expertise with dead bodies has also ensured that Dr Shirley is just as curious about bodies that do not come to her table. She theorises that former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was probably killed by “close range fire”. “As a pathologist, I cannot buy the Pakistani government’s version that the force of the explosion caused her head to strike the sunroof of the vehicle. The pictures and reports suggest that she might have been wounded by a gunshot, which would easily have been exposed in a free and fair post-mortem.”