The first time Anthony Das came face-to-face with a corpse, it was a cloudless September morning in 1972. “As a man, you never forget two things in your life: your first love and the first time you see death,” he says, underlining the irony in his words with a wry smile that has now made itself known at the corners of his nicotine-stained lips.
The first thing that you notice about the leanly built 72-year-old are his eyes—deep set and marble black yet soft with the glazed expression of someone who has endured so much hardship that nothing can seem out-of-the-ordinary anymore.
A native of the town of Kodaikanal, a popular hill station in Tamil Nadu, India, Das had always been the go-to man for the local police. They called him whenever they needed help retrieving cameras, wallets and other tourist-related paraphernalia from the valley below that had been misplaced by accident or by the mischief of the area’s grey langurs.
Having traversed the virtually impassable footpaths and treacherous mountain-trekking routes since the age of six, his unrivalled knowledge of the mountains is the stuff of legends—so much so that forest rangers still seek his advice when plotting paths around the area.
But all the wisdom in the world could not have prepared him for the arduous task that lay ahead of him on that fateful day in 1972.
He pauses politely to clear his throat of a cough that has been tugging at his chest. As he traces back to the events of the day, his piercing gaze further exaggerates the frown lines on his forehead. “I don’t believe in signs and premonitions,” he says, “but there was just something about that day that didn’t quite feel right.”
He recalls the first signs of trouble as the sight of two open-top police jeeps screeching to a halt in front of his house. The officer-in-charge—who had previously liaised with him to help tourists retrieve their belongings—pulled out a black-and-white photograph. Without wasting any time, the officer told him that the young lady in the photo had jumped to her death in the valley, before adding that they needed someone with the technical know-how to help extract the body.
Das’ usually stentorian voice is now blanketed by an unsaid stoicism as he slowly averts his eyes to the damp gravel beneath. “As soon as I saw the photograph, I knew who she was,” he whispers. He immediately recognised the face that was looking back at him as that of his neighbour: 23-year-old Rohini, a familiar face in the area who was always known for her affable nature. The unthinkable had just happened. Das wasn’t looking for a corpse; he was looking for a friend.
A promising government servant based in the city of Madurai, Rohini had fallen head-over-heels in love with a colleague. But theirs was a love that was never meant to be, as her lover got himself betrothed to another woman, leaving her to wander the limbo of abandoned lovers.
Suffering from a broken heart, she proceeded to adorn herself with ceremonious wedding jewellery and an exquisite blood-red silk sari. But not before pinning a fresh bundle of jasmine flowers to her hair and anointing vermillion powder across her forehead—proceedings usually reserved for brides-to-be according to Hindu customs.
Then, she drove up to the top of Green Valley View, parked her car by the roadside, and plunged 2,357M to her death—an elevation equivalent to about 10 Singapore Swissotel The Stamford’s stacked vertically on top of each other.
After an 8hr-long hike to the base of the mountain, Das, along with his team of five other men, finally located her remains, which lay in a horrific, mangled mess. But it wasn’t the state of her body that haunts him till this day. Rather, it was the way that her face looked even in death.
“In all my years of extracting bodies, I’ve never come across a face as peaceful as when I found her,” he says, with a silent tinge of sorrow weaving through his words. “What made it more painful was that it looked like she was fast asleep. As if she would wake up any moment.”
The end has no end
Kodaikanal is a town stuck in colonial limbo. Established in 1845 by the British, and meant as an idyllic escape from the asphyxiations of everyday life, the city is a by-product of the Empire’s attempt at recreating paradise. Located 426KM from Tamil Nadu’s capital city of Chennai, and nestled 2,367M above sea level, the city’s icy climate, picturesque mountain views and serene lakes feel like a world away from the mind-numbing traffic and sweltering heat elsewhere in India.
A perennial fog hovers over the town—as if to preserve it from the vices of time where the ghosts of yesteryear shuffle wearily across attractions named after white colonial masters like Coaker’s Walk and Bryant’s Park, trying to find their place in a country that has long moved on from 400 years of lordship.
The colonial ghosts of yesteryear saunter through makeshift teahouses that line the street corners and flutter amidst neatly pressed linen left out to dry by the Indian dhobies—desperately clinging onto forgotten glories of an empire’s past.
But beneath this exterior of elegiac mountains and rain-caressed mornings lies a place notorious in its repute for claiming the lives of those willing to end their existence on their own terms—Green Valley View, infamously known as Suicide Point.
Standing 2,437M above sea level, Suicide Point feels like prose straight out of an Edgar Allan Poe novel. The mournful crooning of howling winds permeates the frigid air, accompanied only by the billowing fog that taunts and teases the senses—ominously gaining in voracity as one moves towards the cliff edge.
Like a miasma of despair rising from the ground below, the hovering clouds are quick to dissipate any glimpses of the bilious black abyss below—almost as if to veil the nakedness of her beauty from perverse, prying eyes. Even on a clear summer day, the foggy conditions mean that an unobstructed view of the ground below is something of a rarity.
Adding to the phantasmal acoustics of the area is the psychedelic opus of crickets and other wild insects that seems to come to life under the cloak of darkness. Here, the spectre of death looms among the trees and takes refuge within the wild berry shrubs—patiently awaiting anyone willing to place both feet off the ledge.
According to Kodaikanal District Forest Officer Krishna Menon, Suicide Point’s notorious reputation stemmed from its indiscriminate claiming of lives. Star-crossed lovers, debt-laden businessmen, scandalised celebrities and students unable to cope with the high expectations of a fast-evolving society—the indifference was vast.
The mild-mannered 58-year-old grandfather of five explains that the real tragedy here lay in the aftermath, when the families and the loved ones of the deceased learned of their horrific endings. Struck by utter disbelief at the ghastly nature of their demise, more often than not, they would go into an indefinite state of shock—entranced for days on end by grief. At times like these, their only form of closure and consolation was being able to retrieve the bodies of the deceased to see them through their final funeral rites, he adds.
With the bodies lying in the abyss below, it took a special breed of men to bring them back up for one final reunion with their families. A unique coterie of men possessing the type of tenacity that comes along with being able to extract mangled bodies from 2,357M below, where a single misstep could mean certain death.
Straddling this macabre backdrop of death and despair was a rag-tag team of six men. Led by head honcho Anthony Das, the men extracted the bodies of suicide victims from the abyss for almost 28 years until 2000.
Natives to the town of Kodaikanal and having known each other since childhood, the six men shared an inseparable bond. A bond forged out of the time-honoured gentleman’s creed of getting the job done regardless of circumstance.
As the only source of hope for families of the deceased seeking closure, and as the only group of civilians trusted by the local authorities, these men played witness to unspeakable atrocities on a regular basis that most people would never have to encounter their entire lives.
Into the abyss
“Upon impact, the knees would have usually shot up through the shoulder blades, dismembering both the arms. Once, we found a young teenage boy with his right knee pierced through the front of his face and sticking out from the back of his skull,” says 63-year-old John David, almost matter-of-factly, as he goes through a mental rolodex of suicide victims whose bodies he has helped to extract—detailing their individual backstories with the punctiliousness of a seasoned sculptor.
Standing a little over 5FT and blessed with the stoutness of a Ceiba tree, David is one of the four sole surviving members of the body extraction team. Of the original crew of six, two men have since passed on, with two others having resettled in nearby towns, leaving Anthony Das and John David as the only two sole surviving body extractors still residing within Kodaikanal.
Their reputation as body extractors notwithstanding, all of the members held full-time jobs. A teashop owner, a tourist guide, an eco ranger, a security guard, a tailor, a dried-goods seller and a farmer—hardworking family men, whose lives would be intertwined forever as Kodaikanal’s Suicide Point body extractors.
The men would pack up and leave their respective posts for the day upon being notified of a suicide by the local police. This meant losing a day’s worth of wages of about INR1,000 (SGD20)—a sizeable fee considering that they lived on day-to-day earnings to get by as sole breadwinners of their families.
Armed with a compact inventory of two machetes, a pair of 1m-long wooden poles, a thick, white cotton shroud and a 1l bottle of water, they would set off for the extraction. Lasting a total of 12 hours from start to finish, each extraction entailed a five-hour hike down to the bottom of the mountain, followed by a two-hour search for the body and concluding with a five-hour hike back up to the top.
“Before each extraction, we usually offered a silent prayer to the gods above for our protection. For our sanity, we had whisky,” Das explains with a dry sense of humour. He adds that all extractions began with the team downing copious amounts of local whisky—in hopes that the stupor would help to take the edge off and ease them into the arduous task ahead.
Contrary to popular belief, the sight of the mutilated bodies wasn’t half as bad as the stench that emanated from them, David says with a slight grimace, adding that the nauseatingly acrid smell of dried blood is something that still sends a shrill down his neck. To combat this, they usually masked their noses by tying a cotton handkerchief around their faces—a purely aesthetic solution that did nothing to help the situation.
With wind speeds of up to 25KMH, the weather in Kodaikanal can turn from bedlam to mayhem within minutes. But, as Das explains, regardless of the weather and wind conditions, body extractions went ahead as planned because the longer the corpse was in the open, the greater the chance of it being eaten or taken away by vultures and wolves that thrived in the nearby area.
“Depressing. Utterly depressing,” Das opines when asked to describe the abyss below. According to both men, trekking is as dangerous as getting to it because of the ubiquitously large, jagged rocks found below. A lack of sunlight means poor vision and clarity—making an already daunting task seem even more improbable. With no proper water source or flat vegetation to set up camp, the abyss is an uninhabitable area. This meant that the men had to return to the top and head back down again the next day if they couldn’t locate the body on the first attempt.
Once the main bulk of the body was located, the crew would conduct a 20 to 30M-sweep search of the area, combing nearby rocks and bushes for limbs and extremities that might have spattered close by. Once all the parts had been gathered, they would place the remnants into the white shroud and tie it into a bundle, leaving a loop at the top. The two wooden poles were then skewered through to help carry the bundle. As a mark of respect for the deceased, the crew gathered around to pray for the soul and to ask for protection on their journey back up to the top.
Almost like a royal palanquin, four men helped to carry the load, with two at each end of the pole. The remaining two men would then use the machetes to help clear the vegetation in front and create a more trek-friendly path for the expedition back up.
“The entire process from start to finish was done in complete silence,” says Das. “I don’t really know if it was out of sadness or respect, but we didn’t say a word till we reached the top.”
Upon handing over the body to the local police at the top, the extractors were paid a paltry sum of anywhere between INR2,000 to INR4,000 (SGD40 to SGD80) by the families of the deceased. This stipend, which was split equally among the six men, was a rare occurrence given the fact that, most of the time, the families of the deceased were poor and financially incapable of forking out a fee.
In times like these, the men did the extractions for free and pooled whatever funds they might have to hand over to the families to make sure funeral proceedings went ahead uninterrupted.
“Man is the greatest evil there is. If anything, the spirits should be afraid of us, not the other way around,” Das replies, when asked if he encountered any supernatural experiences over his years of extracting bodies. Family and religion play an integral part in both men’s lives, giving them the grit to carry on.
A hot shower and a hearty meal were two things that Das looked forward to after each extraction. He goes on to add that the ablution acted as a way for him to wash away the fatigue along with the memories of the day, allowing him to start the next day afresh no matter how traumatic the extraction might have been. “Most of the time, the victims would appear in my dreams to thank me,” he says. “It was scary at first, but I got used to it.”
Both men recall their last extraction as a particularly traumatic case that occurred 16 years ago. A case so harrowing, it brought the entire city to a standstill and turned Suicide Point into a dormant monster.
In December 2000, a young family of four committed mass suicide by jumping off the valley together. The victims: a father, his four-year-old daughter, his three-year-old son and his wife who was eight months pregnant. Unable to deal with the humiliation of a failed business venture, the family took the plunge, sending shockwaves throughout the entire nation.
Since then, state-endorsed pre-emptive measures have helped to deter suicide attempts with zero recorded cases. Round-the-clock guard posts near cliff drop-offs and strategically erected fences remain in place. This is quite a feat considering that the town has had a reputation as suicide central since the early ’70s.
But the last case also revealed the intricate social fabric of the town where service to others is viewed as a duty more than a chore. Shopkeepers from around the city who depend on their daily earnings to survive shuttered up for the day to help Das and his men bring the family back—a kind of camaraderie that is virtually unheard of in modern times.
Although the suicides have long ceased, the stories of the men who used to extract the bodies live on, shrouded in the same veil of mystery and intrigue as folklores often are.
The folly of man
For Kodaikanal District Forest Officer Krishna Menon, the suicides are merely the tip of the iceberg of what is the real social calamity plaguing modern-day India—overpopulation and the lack of empathy that comes along with it.
Apart from suicides, Menon details a slew of other sinister occurrences at Kodaikanal that largely goes undocumented—the rising number of cases of the elderly being abandoned in the wilderness by their families on the pretext of a holiday; married couples who visit the hill station with the intention of staging their spouse’s death to look like an accident for monetary gain; and the countless organised syndicates that prey on young, unassuming holidaygoers.
It’s been 16 years since Das and David have had to recover a body, but their contributions have left an indelible mark. After leading his team in over 60 extractions, the question begets: what would Das say to someone if he saw that person on a ledge, ready to jump?
“I wouldn’t say a thing. I’d listen instead. That’s probably what no one did.”
First published in Esquire Singapore's October 2016 issue.