Corpse Keshavan

He hated both – his job and his name but could change neither. Keshavan carted corpses for a living, interring unclaimed bodies irrespective of their religion. They were those who lived and died as numbers in the census records. Most of them succumbed to starvation or disease while some had tortured faces or burnt limbs. This was no reason why stray dogs should maul them as well.

Keshavan ensured that these unfortunates were secure at least after death.

He didn’t go searching for bodies; that would be arduous in his big, bustling city. Instead, the police summoned him or the railway authorities or even a stranger reluctant to get involved any further. Keshavan didn’t mind accepting the death certificate and walking out with the remains of the man, woman or child in his arms. The corpse went into a grave and the certificate joined others in one of the two sacks in his hut.

On an average, he carted two or three bodies a day. He had no competition, no tension – except once when he had slipped and fallen into a deep grave, corpses toppling over him. It had happened after a terrible railway collision that had left him overworked and exhausted. No! He didn’t want another such catastrophe even if it compensated for his ‘rest’ days.

He was old enough to have grandchildren but Keshavan lived alone thanks to his peculiar vocation. It hadn’t mattered earlier for he was a quiet man and a woman would have nagged him to change his profession. Now he wondered what would happen to him if he fell ill. Would he die on the street and lie there to rot? Who would bury him when he had neither kith nor kin? Keshavan had no answers, only more questions.

‘It’s all because of father. How often have I accompanied him on his rounds, helped him lay the stiffened body in the cart and taken it to the burial ground! But why couldn’t he have done something else? Who ever heard of this bizarre job? No wonder people avoid me. I remind them of transience. Where there is death, there I am. What kind of livelihood is this, earning twenty-five rupees a body? Is it worth the anguish of having to pick up a limb here and head there along a railway line? Yet, no corpse, no money!’

Keshavan was on his way to collect the body of a beggar woman, his first in a series of calls. It was going to be a busy day. He broke off his sullen thoughts, bought a few inexpensive marigold garlands and hastened to the morgue.

A small boy in an outsized shirt stood outside the door. His lips quivered every time he peeped in but he couldn’t lament anymore. Tears had left tracks on his cheeks and his nose blew bubbles. Keshavan tucked the death certificate into his shirt and took the body.

‘So light, definitely a starvation case’, he thought, wheeling the handcart.

The boy followed, sucking his thumb and whimpering sporadically. For the first time Keshavan’s bier had a follower and he felt helpless.

‘Corpse Keshavan’ placed the body in the grave, put a garland round her neck and shoveled back the soil while the boy watched. To ward off bad luck he left the cemetery quickly without looking behind.

Again the little boy followed, trying to match the pace of the older man. When the distance grew, he panicked and ran, his shirt flapping around him. He then quietly slipped his hand into Keshavan’s and they walked, pushing the cart together.

USHA RAJAGOPAL. Won the Regional Prize for Asia in the Commonwealth Foundation Short Story Competition 2001.

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Won the Regional Prize for Asia in the Commonwealth Foundation Short Story Competition 2001.

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