A few years ago, a doctor poisoned her friend in a waiting room at a railway station in Ooty. She cut the body into several pieces and packed it into a box. She called a taxi to go to Kodaikanal, and put the box in the boot of the car. The foul odour made the driver suspicious and he informed the police. The lady was arrested. During the investigations, one question that came up was whether she had taken anyone’s help to commit the crime. However, it was felt that as a doctor, she could have cut up the body by herself. Recently, in Madurai, a widowed mother constantly tortured by her son, had killed him, then cut him up and stored the pieces of his body in the refrigerator. Even though she confessed to murdering him, the police believed that she had an accomplice.

Such crimes that almost look like they have been committed by someone with extraordinary powers always make investigators suspicious. I will tell you about one such incident.

Docking his boat beneath Marthandam Bridge on Aluva River, Joseph spotted a sack just as he was about to tie the rope next to the concrete platform. He thought he could smell ripe jackfruit from within the sack. When he opened it, instead of jackfruit though he found the torso of a man, sans head or limbs. Twelve kilometres down the river, Govinda Pillai of Chemanganad village was out for his morning walk when he saw a pair of legs jutting out from behind a culvert. Hearing his scream, people began to gather, and thinking that someone was lying behind the culvert, they pulled at the pair of legs. To their shock, they found only the pair of legs, cut off from the thighs downwards.

Thus, the torso was found in the jurisdiction of Aluva police station, and the legs in the jurisdiction of Chemanganad.

Anyway, the formalities were completed in the specific police stations and the parts of the corpse were taken to the General Hospital Ernakulam. As the body had been found in pieces, investigations began in earnest and the search to find the head was launched in all the areas that fell within the Aluva circle.

Whose body?

Sri Gopinathan, the SP of rural Ernakulam, was an efficient police officer and a good friend of mine. Upon receiving his telephone call, I proceeded to Ernakulam the day after the torso had been found. Dr Sathish Babu, the forensic surgeon, had started examining the torso. As the head was missing, we could only examine the parts of the body found and kept in the mortuary’s cold storage. The internal organs appeared pale upon examination and we understood that profuse bleeding had caused the death. But to have conclusive evidence, we needed to examine the head. The abdomen showed traces of alcohol. The liver was enlarged and this was a sign that the person was a heavy drinker. When I came out of the mortuary, I was informed that the head and arms of the corpse had been found in an empty compound in Chemanganad.

When the head and arms were brought to the mortuary, we could find no clues that would help us to identify the man.

The face was swollen and decomposed. An examination of the skull bones led us to estimate that he might have been around sixty years old. His teeth were stained indicating that he was a chain-smoker. He had greying hair that was unusually long at 45 cm; this was a peculiarity. He also had a long grey beard. The way the body parts joined perfectly made it clear that they belonged to the same body.

Recreating the face

I have already written about recreating the face using the skull; I had already done so in two other cases. To repeat the procedure in the Chemanganad case, I asked them to send the skull, jaw bone and hair to Trivandrum. I recreated the face in my office, spreading paper pulp over the bones. When I placed a 45-cm long wig and attached a beard to the face, I felt that there was a striking resemblance to a well-known journalist. His newspaper was no longer being published, and I knew he had many enemies. I told the special branch about my suspicions, but enquiries revealed that he was alive.

The police had been investigating missing people complaints that had been filed in and around Aluva, and found that one Yohannan was missing from Chemanganad. He was a sixty-year-old quarrelsome drunkard who worked as a labourer.

He had long hair and a beard. When the face I had recreated was shown around, some people said that it bore a resemblance to Yohannan.

Yohannan lived with his only daughter, Maria, who had separated from her husband. When the police went to the house, they found that it was locked. The neighbours told them that Maria was at Kottayam Medical College Hospital undergoing treatment for a thyroid disorder. The police decided to search the house nevertheless. It had a thatched roof and the floor had bloodstains on it. The upper layer of floor had been recently plastered with cow dung. Maria sold jackfruit for a living, but her knives were all stained with blood.

The murderer is revealed

When the police inspector met Maria at Kottayam Medical College Hospital, she confessed everything to him. Maria, who had lost her mother when she was a child, lived in fear of her father. He had attempted to sexually assault her several times and she had managed to escape. He had come into her room while she was sleeping. In self-defence, she cut his neck with her kitchen knife. He fell down, blood gushing from the wound.

Maria could only look on helplessly. It was then that the repercussions of her deed struck her. Maria was quite emaciated due to the thyroid disorder, and couldn’t bury the body or get rid of it. She decided to cut his body up and hide the pieces in different places. Since she used to buy jackfruit from the farmers and sell it in the market, she had a selection of sharp knives. That night, she cut up her father’s body. She was weeping while she spoke about this to the police officer. It wasn’t difficult to cut the neck and torso, and put it inside a sack.

She left the sack containing the head and arms in an empty compound nearby. The legs she placed behind a culvert a kilometre away. By the time she returned home, it was midnight.

She put the torso, which was as big as a jackfruit, in a sack, but blood was dripping from it. So she put the sack in an aluminium vessel and waited at the bus stand with the vessel balanced on her head. As she used to sell jackfruit, no one paid her much attention. She got into a taxi and got off near Marthandam Bridge. There she placed the sack on the concrete slab and went back home.

Dead Men Tell Tales

Excerpted with permission from Dead Men Tell Tales: The Memoir of a Police Surgeon, B Umadathan, translated from the Malayalam by Priya K Nair, HarperCollins India.