Postmortem, Amitava Kumar

Nov. 2010 WLT
Nov. 2010 WLT

The nurse left work at five o’clock.

She had seen the dead woman’s husband sitting, near the entrance, under the yellow sign that Doctor Ahmed had hung some months ago. “While You Wait, Meditate.” He was sitting with his arms crossed, elbows cupped in the palms of his hands, and hadn’t looked up when she passed him on her way out.

Just after lunch, a convoy had come from the Army camp. Two uniformed soldiers carried in the body on a stretcher. One soldier, a small rifle in his left hand, threw open the office door and announced the Colonel. Doctor Ahmed had automatically stood up.

The Colonel was plump. He looked calm and extremely clean, the way bullfrogs do, gleaming green and gold in the mud. He put his baton on the table and asked the nurse to leave the office.

When Doctor Ahmed rang his bell, the nurse went back in and was told to get his wife, Zakia, from their home on the top floor. Usually, he just called her on the phone. The nurse hurried up, guessing that she was also to give the news about the Colonel.

Doctor Zakia was a pediatrician but she immediately understood why she was to do the postmortem. The soldiers put the stretcher in the operating room and left. The doctor removed the white sheet and then, choking, recited the Fatiha. It was difficult for her to continue the examination – she had a grown-up daughter.

Then the nurse was alone with the young woman for over four hours, cleaning her of the blood and the filth, and then stitching her up. The abdomen and thighs had turned green, but this was expected. There was a pronounced swelling of the tongue and lips. 

The nurse wondered whether the body would last till the funeral. If there was a protest, it would take the entire day in the sun for the procession to reach the cemetery.

A year ago, a doctor in the north had announced that the corpse brought to him was of a woman who had been gang-raped. This was a mistake. The Army put out the story that the woman used to come to the camp for customers and that her husband found out and had probably got her killed. 

In the warm and stuffy room, the nurse realized that her teeth were chattering. She stopped and for a long while stared at the back of her gloved hands. Then she turned them over, as if she were praying, and studied the film of dark coagulated matter on her fingers.

There was no slippage and still it was hard work. Doctor Zakia would probably tell the family that the body had been washed thrice. The women would nevertheless insist on doing what was proper. How was she to save them? No one teaches you in nursing school to cover cigarette burns on the privates or to stitch torn nipples.

When she finally stepped out of the room she was startled to see a dozen soldiers in the hallway. She met the eye of the one closest to her and flinched, but he was quiet, even shy, like a dog that has brought in a squirrel and dropped it on the carpet.

At six, she was sitting in front of the television in her tiny living room. And there she was, the young woman in her wedding photograph. The newsreader said the body had been found in a ditch after the woman had gone missing for twenty-six hours. She had been struck sometime at night by a speeding vehicle. 

Amitava Kumar is a writer and journalist born in Ara, Bihar, who grew up in the nearby town of Patna, famous for its corruption, crushing poverty, and delicious mangoes. Kumar is the author of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb (2010), Home Products: A Novel (2007), Husband of a Fanatic (2004), Bombay-London-New York (2002), and Passport Photos (2000). He is also the author of a book of poems and the scriptwriter for two documentary films, Pure Chutney (1997) and Dirty Laundry (2005). Currently, he is Professor of English at Vassar College. He lives in upstate New York with his wife and two children.


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