the lede COMMUNITIES

Troubled Waters

Families look for their lost loved ones at a barrage in Punjab

By fiona weber-steinhaus | 1 February 2017

On 8 November, a rice-farming family from Naiwala village, in Punjab’s Sangrur district, drove five kilometres to Khanauri, a town near the Haryana border. For the past two days, they had been looking for one of their relatives: 95-year-old Kundan Singh.

Kundan’s nephew Manu told me that over the previous three months, his uncle, who struggled with diabetes and depression, had begun to talk about ending his life. On 6 November, Kundan drank his afternoon tea and hitched a ride on a motorbike to the Bhakra main line canal. He drowned himself there, leaving a slipper and his jacket at the water’s edge. A note in the jacket pocket read: No one is responsible for my death but me.

“I don’t understand it,” another of Kundan’s nephews, Dilraj, said. “He was a religious man. He wasn’t even financially dependent on his family.” In 1947, Kundan moved to Singapore to work as a bank manager. He returned to India in 2001 “because he didn’t want to die alone, in a coffin, in a foreign land,” Dilraj said. “And now, this.”

In Khanauri, which has a population of almost 11,000, a barrage stems the waters of the Bhakra main line canal—a 164-kilometre channel that supplies water to Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. Many corpses wash up at the barrage, leading locals to call it “the place of dead bodies.” A hut at the barrage is plastered with missing-person notices of people from all over Punjab. According to Kulwender Singh, a policeman who accounts for the bodies, around 30 turn up each month. On 25 days out of 30, he said, there will be a family waiting near the hut, hoping to find a relative’s body.

At the barrage that morning, Kundan’s family met Ashu Malik, who, at 36 years old, has been diving into the water to retrieve dead bodies for over two decades. He realised he had a gift for diving at age 12, after he saved a woman from drowning. The next day, his picture was in the newspaper, and he was awarded Rs 50—the same amount his father, a labourer, earned per month. At that moment, Malik decided to dive for a living. He considered becoming a diving teacher, he said, but finding the dead proved more lucrative, and more helpful towards his community. Malik brought out two folders full of newspaper cuttings and laminated photos that showed him being honoured by the police, politicians and bereaved families. “This is the only thing that I am really good at,” he said.

Malik claimed he can hold his breath for three minutes and six seconds. But finding bodies in the water takes more than just lung capacity, he said. “You need to think with the heart.” To do this, he asks various questions to determine where and when a person’s body might surface: if they were ill, how old they were, what they ate, or even if they drank filtered or unfiltered water. When Kundan’s family produced a passport photo of him, Malik predicted that his body would surface soon and travel a great distance, because it was light and therefore unlikely to sink.

From places all along the canal, informants send Malik photos of bodies they find in the water. That morning, he had received photographs of two unidentified bodies that had washed up in Sirsa, Haryana, almost 150 kilometres away from Khanauri. Kundan’s family gathered around Malik’s phone as he showed them a photo of one of the bodies, asking whether it was the old man.

Yes, the family confirmed; it was.

Malik sped off in his small white Maruti Suzuki, zooming at 90 kilometres per hour on a bumpy country road towards the hospital in Sirsa where the body was. Kundan’s family followed in a grey six-seater.

After the family arrived, they gave evidence to a policeman under a tree across from the hospital canteen. Later, a doctor accompanied them to the morgue. Once he saw how decomposed Kundan’s body was, he said that the post-mortem would have to be done at a medical college instead of at the hospital.

Together, Malik and his aide, Kafil Khan, snapped on plastic gloves, sprayed the body with insect repellent and air freshener, wrapped it up in a red plastic sheet and tied it up with rope. They then put it on a stretcher and carried it into an ambulance that stood in front of the morgue.

A few minutes after the body was loaded into the ambulance, Malik’s mobile rang. “Another family thinks this is their grandfather,” he said. “They will be here in more than an hour.” That morning, Malik had sent the photos of the deceased to different people who had contacted him for help finding their loved ones.

Kundan’s relatives sat waiting in the shade, making arrangements and calling relatives in Amritsar about the cremation. Manu showed me a family photograph that was taken about a week earlier, on Diwali. In it, Kundan held a walking stick and wore the same off-white kurta he had on when he died.

The other family arrived, accompanied by elders from their village, in about two hours. When Malik opened the plastic body bag for them, they held shawls to their noses to dampen the smell of rotting flesh. One man turned away, choking. After a few minutes, they realised that the body was not the one they were searching for, and drove off. “Their relative had long hair,” Malik explained.

Kundan’s family arranged for the cremation to happen the next day, just outside Naiwala. Malik settled the logistics of the death certificate and post-mortem. After that, he drove through the night to reach the ceremony on time. The body sat in the passenger’s seat of Malik’s car, wrapped in plastic and cloth, a seatbelt fastened across its lap.

The following morning, Kundan’s family and Malik met again at the barrage in Khanauri. There, Dilraj spoke with Anayab Singh, a 55-year-old labourer from the Patiala district, who had already spent a week at the canal, hoping for the body of his wife, Gurmeet Kaur Singh, to surface. Gurmeet, Anayab told me, had had liver cancer, for which she went to Patiala each week to receive treatment. On 2 November, Gurmeet left for Patiala on her own, after which she slid into the canal, leaving only her sand-coloured shawl on the shore.

“The diver will help you out,” Dilraj told Anayab. “He can look for the body.” Anayab replied, however, that he did not have enough money to pay for that.

Kundan’s relatives and others from their village gathered at the cremation site around noon. Malik set the body, covered in a white sheet, on the ground. One by one, people walked up to offer their last respects to Kundan, touching his feet, tucking money underneath the sheet. The women, standing together, wailed. Malik sprayed air freshener onto the cloth and smeared ghee onto the body. The family lay earth onto the pyre, and Kundan’s son set it ablaze.

Before the family left the cremation site for a gurdwara, Malik received his money: Rs 26,000 in total, he told me, of which he would be able to pocket Rs 8,300, using the rest to pay his informants and cover other costs incurred along the way, such as those of the death certificate and the objects he bought to prepare the body for transport.

After the cremation, we drove back to Khanauri, where Anayab was still sitting at the canal. “If the woman hasn’t surfaced now, I don’t think she will,” Malik said.

A week later, I texted the diver to ask what had happened. Two days after Kundan’s cremation, he said, Anayab’s wife’s body had been found.

Fiona Weber-Steinhaus is a German-British journalist based in Hamburg. She reported from India as part of the Media Ambassadors India-Germany fellowship for 2016, and is part of the German journalists’ collective Kill Your Darlings. (www.killdarlings.de/webersteinhaus)

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