Friday, 11 July 2014

The Body Cutters

The Dom community in Bakshiganj follows Hinduism, the eternal religion. Believing in the Krishna adoring prophet Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, some of whose ancestors lived in Sylhet, it is natural that Radha and Krishna feature at their home shrine.

Abinash Dom believes the soul remains

The corpse has found the cold metal of the dissection table. It’s the time to place the brick-like body block under the small of the back. The arms and neck will fall behind; the chest will stretch and rise. It’s easier for the cutting.

“The body is impermanent,” says fifty-year-old Abinash Dom. He’s not speaking from the morgue but from his home in Jamalpur’s Bakshiganj. The morgue is where he’d rather be – the work he’d choose. “Cutting bodies is our ancestral occupation,” he says, “I’d not be scared.”

“We live in the Kali Yuga,” says Abinash rather cheerfully, referring to the last of the world’s four cycles according to scripture. Thought by many to have started in 3102 BCE the Kali Yuga, named after an apocalyptic demon not the goddess, is the age of vice. People shall be consumed with avarice, wrath, lust and addiction. Vows shall be routinely broken; unjustified murder common.

It’s the routine question: which concoction of Kali Yuga sins brought the body to the morgue this time? It’s the question for the scalpel and the saw in a Dom’s hands to investigate.

From each body bag the autopsy cycle starts. Weight and measurement, age, sex, hair colour, eye colour... a life becomes a series of observations duly jotted in a pathologist’s notes. Each birthmark, scar tissue anomaly and prominent mole is recorded: there are many means to categorise a corpse. Maybe there’ll be hair and nail samples. It depends on death’s known circumstance – but in every case when death reaches the morgue it brings life to the tradition of the Doms. It’s good work if you can get it.

Abinash Dom. The Dom community is scattered across South Asia and beyond

“The Dom community follows the eternal religion,” Abinash continues. “Only the soul remains. Death is inevitable and final but the good soul will rest with Bhagawan. If not, then rebirth continues... the deceased returns in the shape of their last thoughts. If they thought of a deer, they shall come as a deer.”

As he explains the five great elements – earth, fire, water, wind and ether – from which all creation is made, as he tries to recall whether ‘water’ in Sanskrit is correctly ap or op, his relatives busily direct the fan towards the newcomers. It’s hot in the crowded living room. They’ve sent for bottles of Sprite which must be a modern incarnation of that ancient guest cycle.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was their last prophet, Abinash says, though he calls him Gauranga – which comes from the Sanskrit word for golden and refers to his legendary fair complexion. The messenger’s paternal grandmother was from Shrihatta, now Sylhet, and he promoted Krishna worship until his death in 1534. “Salvation is through worship,” says Abinash, “Mantras bring us close to Bhagawan.”

There are various cutting systems. It can be a Y-shaped or T-shaped incision – or a single vertical cut from the middle of the neck, near the adam’s apple on a male body, down to the pubic bone, making a deviation to the left side of the navel. The ribs are sawn to reach the chest cavity and the sternum with attached ribs is then lifted from the body. After that, the heart and lungs are examined. The pathologist provides the exact instructions.

The Doms of Bakshiganj. Body cutting has been a traditional occupation of the Dom community for many generations.

There are ten Dom families in Bakshiganj and one more in Madarganj. According to Abinash their ancestors were brought there to do body cutting by the local zamindar more than a century ago. Legend says Raja Hari Chandra Dom, the ‘king’ of the Dom community, led them. “My grandfather Mokhlal Dom came here,” Abinash mentions – what he knows for sure.

Indeed the Dom as an ethnic or social group are scattered across South Asia. In India they sometimes maintain a nomadic lifestyle. In Pakistan’s Shina Valley 500 speakers of Domaki were counted in 1989. It’s believed the Domi people of the Middle East are related, having been taken there as musicians and servants during the Sassanid Persian era. It’s also considered the word ‘Rom’ – meaning the Romani people of Europe who in Bangladesh are still more often called by the less savoury name of gypsies – may originate from Dom.

The term Dom itself may come from ‘drum’ in Sanskrit and relate to their advanced musical skills – some still follow such traditions, which may have declined after Islam’s arrival. Abinash is not sure where his ancestors came from. He recalls they used to speak Nagri – which is actually the traditional Sylheti script.

Abinash Dom at the household shrine in Bakshiganj. He was not expecting visitors and asked not to be photographed in his wonderful Goni Miah gumchha from Jhalakathi. Unfortunately the camera slipped.

“My father Kuala Dom was also a lash kata – a body cutter,” Abinash recalls, “He worked at DMCH morgue, including during 1971. He used to stay for several weeks and then come home. He didn’t talk about it much.” Abinash’s younger brother and one cousin, Rathan Dom, are the lucky ones of his generation. They work as body cutters elsewhere.

Belonging to the scheduled castes, some government jobs – not only for body cutters but also cleaners and sweepers are reserved for the Dom community. “But even where it is gazetted the rules are often violated,” says Abinash. “Both Jamalpur and Sherpur morgues employ Muslims.” As a result, many Doms are unemployed. Moreover, not every Dom is duly registered on the list of vulnerable groups entitled to social safety net assistance. “About 80% of us should be listed,” says Abinash, “for food supplements. But we don’t all get it.”

Life is not always straightforward in other ways. “In my father’s time there was a large gap between us and mainstream society. They did not mix, socialise inside a room or share food and drink. The situation is better now. My two girls attend school with no problems and their friends visit our home. But there are still two hotels in Bakshiganj that won’t give a seat to a Dom.”

Jamalpur's Bakshiganj. Unfortunately due to prejudice there are still two hotels (local restaurants) where the Dom are not permitted to eat.

With a corpse’s only blood pressure produced by gravity, bleeding during autopsies is usually minimal, except perhaps in drowning cases. When it’s the brain to be examined the incision starts from behind one ear, moves over the crown of the head to a point behind the other. The scalp is pulled away from the skull.

While Abinash can only dream of their profession, Rathan Dom knows. For the past twenty of his twenty six years as a body cutter he’s worked at Narsingdi District Hospital. “I think everything finishes after death,” he says. “I’m not very religious. Body cutting is good work and what you really appreciate is how precious life is. When a dead body comes, his everything in this world is finished.”

“When people are born of course, they know they will die,” Rathan contemplates, “but they don’t think much about it. Suicide cases are so tragic! Life means more than that! And when relatives arrive to identify a body in a murder case, when they’re crying I am also crying inside. Those who kill humans, what horrific creatures they are! If we have a dead body – many lives can depend on one – what will his family, his children do?”

Rathan also feels pain, he says, when he sees youngsters – five or seven year old children whose bodies were thrown in a rice field. And it’s not pleasant to work on a ten to twenty day old corpse, when he has to take out worms and insects. “It is human,” he says, “but it does not look human. That is hard.”

Yet it is his profession. With the corpse sewn back together to be presented for burial, the body cutter’s work is complete. But ultimately an autopsy is surely about details. The cause of death is always life – the sweet, precious gift of life – knowledge which might be best understood by the Doms.

Afternoon reaches Bakshiganj. The Dom community was likely brought there a century ago by the zamindar (local landlord) to pursue body cutting

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: The Body Cutters

No comments:

Post a Comment