I feel my mobile phone vibrating under me and wake up with a start. I see the caller name and groan in frustration. The clock on the wall opposite to my bed shows the time as 3 AM. Another early start. My partners will be furious when I go bang on their doors. I do not answer the call. I know he’d call me back – the Inspector was 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 in her general vicinity.
She mutters a curse, drops the blanket with which she was covering her naked body and goes to pick the note. I stare at her for few seconds before gathering her clothes and dump them in her hands. She glares at me with unadulterated hate in her eyes as I brusquely ask her to leave. We both know that this will happen again, this was nothing new. She’ll be back, I know that. Somewhere, in the corner of our warped minds, I guess we like each other. But we have kept our relationship strictly professional till date.
I look at her retreating figure, sigh and make the calls to my partners. They are not happy, to say the least. We agree to meet at the Suicide Point in half an hour’s time. 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 aforementioned 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. We share the cigarette as we make some jokes about the gutless cravens who decide to end their lives. I have no respect for these losers, even though they put food on my plate. There is a perennial fog hovering over the hillside, Tony mutters that the spirits of the dead still roam around these parts, their wishes eternally unfulfilled. I think he is spewing crap.
We reach the suicide point around 4 AM. Karuppu and Mustafa, our other partners, are already there. Karuppu looks like he’s already started on the arrack. He grins at us and shows his backpack which is stuffed with plastic sachets of the country liquor. Mustafa is in deep conversation with the Police Inspector. He 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. It was a couple who had jumped because of their failed romance. Couples are the best, their families tip us generously over and above the fixed rate for retrieval. There are 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. I have a strict rule that the rates have to 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 raise their hand, ‘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 ten thousand. No negotiations.’
The father’s head shoots up, ‘Ten thousand? It’s too much.’
‘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! Get my son in one piece, and you’ll get your ten thousand.’
I laugh at his ignorance, ‘One piece? You’ll be lucky if you get few pieces of him. The valley is two thousand plus feet in depth and full of rocks and coniferous trees. Imagine 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 money out of the fat moron’s wallet. I light another cigarette and walk over to the girl’s family. A mousy looking woman looks at me with pain in her eyes. She looks 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.’
This moment, 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, ok? That will be our payment, how much ever they are worth.’
Somewhere, I think I hate myself as well.
We start preparing for the descent. We apply salt on our hands and necks and spray tobacco-soaked water on our clothes. The valley is full of bloodsucking leeches and we had no intention of bringing them breakfast. We check our inventory – machetes to cut the vines and stubborn branches of trees in our way, ropes, dark canvas shrouds and wooden poles to carry the bodies, once we located, collected and bound them in the shrouds.
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 start our descent. We walk briskly, talking about stuff like the T/20 cricket tournament that was taking place in the country, the upcoming state elections and how we needed new prostitutes in our 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.
The deeper we descend, the less frequent our conversations become. Death and despair was 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 pair of gigantic boulders, like a perverse modern art. His right leg was sticking out of the backside of his throat. His left leg was nowhere to be seen. Vultures had already started to sample his flesh. We 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 broth prepared by Mustafa’s wife. We drink some more arrack and start our search for the girl. Five hours later, we are ready to give up. In my experience, if a body is not found after ten hours, it cannot be found at all. 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.
We prepare to leave with only the boy’s body. Karuppu and Tony are disappointed. I’m sure they were having plans with the money we would have got by selling the girl’s jewellery. Mustafa takes the lead and I bring the rear with other two carrying the body. We switch our head torches again as the last rays of sun bids us goodbye for the day.
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. Was it the failure to spot the girl’s body? Was it her mother’s tears or her dignified plea amidst the pathos? I don’t know. What makes these young people, with their whole lives ahead of them, to jump to their gruesome deaths? What would have been running through their minds as they leap into nothingness? Do they think about their families? Do they even care about what they will be putting 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. I shake my head and continue walking.
Maybe, once I reach the top, I’ll call Rani.
Written in response to #Writephoto hosted by Sue Vincent.