In Damyanti Biswas’ novel, a shrink has an unsettling encounter with a rape victim’s body in a Delhi mortuary

You Beneath Your Skin
Book Excerpt 

Drawing her scarf closer about her neck, Anjali stepped out of Kusum’s jeep at the Safdarjung mortuary. The sooty air made her cough, the chill about her face like the touch of a spiteful ghost—light, yet unmistakeable in its malign intent. It was far colder where she was headed.

A Harsingaar, still blooming in early November, had left a carpet of stale flowers on the ground beside the entrance. Nikhil loved to crush the orange stems of the tiny white flowers. He was the one who had taught her its name. Daylight had dwindled and at this run-down building behind the main hospital, Anjali heard no sound other than the distant chitter of roosting birds in the trees bordering the parking lot.

‘Are you all right, Anjaliji?’

Anjali liked this policewoman Jatin had sent with her. Dusky, muscular. The relaxed face of someone who slept well at night with an unburdened conscience. Kusum’s presence reassured Anjali, though the woman’s head barely levelled with Anjali’s shoulders.

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‘Sure, let’s go in.’ Anjali zipped up her fleece jacket.

‘I’m going to find the doctor.’ Kusum smiled. ‘You waiting for me?’

The temperature had dropped to six degrees that afternoon. Nikhil had smashed a vase and a few plates at lunch, Maya and the housekeeper, Ira, were struggling with the season’s first flu, and Anjali felt as if she’d drunk too much coffee and wine all at once. Each hotel-room rendezvous with Jatin ended with a crash. Her body ached and her mind struggled to numb her guilt.

She dabbed Vicks under her nose. It stung but helped fade out the stench of detergents and bleach that layered the mortuary corridor, and the butcher-shop odour lurking beneath the chemicals. That smell took her back to her childhood grocery trips with her Dad on Sundays, when they chose steak for Mom, chicken or lamb for her and Dad. She might have been American but her Hindu father had insisted she not eat beef.

Right now, she must drag her Hindu-American butt through the long corridor lined with racks and drawers, and study a corpse without flinching or throwing up. Must find her way to the killer—not think about how the body had once been a living, breathing person or how it would soon be turned into ash and charred bones. The cold afternoon seeped into the narrow corridor and Anjali drew her scarf tighter. Her gut told her to upchuck her lunch and run, but she needed to go through with this. For Jatin.

She wanted to hold his reassuring large hand while she walked down the corridor. Kusum stood in front of her instead, with the doctor in charge—a balding, soft-spoken old man with a straggly beard. He wore a lab coat over his sweater, no other barrier against what could be a whole host of infections. He offered them coats, masks, and gloves, and while Anjali accepted, Kusum waved hers away. Along with all the protective gear, Anjali donned her listening ‘shrink’ face and followed the other two into the morgue.

‘We’ve had it for forty-nine hours,’ was all the warning the doctor gave them before asking an orderly to drag out one of the drawers in a wall cabinet.

Years ago, on a college trip to Europe, Anjali had visited an exhibition of preserved human bodies: sinew, kidney, lung, blood vessel, and bone all turned to plastic, then placed inside glass cases. She’d felt a shiver go down her body, goosebumps on her bare arms. That backlit lace of blood vessels, the swirling weave of nerves, the bulge of muscles, the vacant eye sockets, and the grinning teeth—all of that worked inside of her, too. She’d half-expected a whiff of decay but detected none. No formaldehyde either, that funk which clung to her through modules during medical school.

No such luck now. Under the white glare of halogen bulbs, the plastic-sheet-covered body on the slab smelled like meat past its use-by date. Anjali clenched her jaw but no amount of preparation could have contained her gasp. She stared at the face, if you could still call it that, stewed away, leaving behind a slick mess with stubs of bone poking out. The body had bloated to almost twice its normal size, like an alien from a B-grade sci-fi movie. Anjali shoved her hands into the pockets of the lab coat and dug her nails into her thighs. The Vicks protected her somewhat but she saw Kusum raise her knuckles to her nose.

‘What happened to her face?’ The question shot out of Anjali before she could stop herself. Jatin hadn’t warned her about this.

‘Tests show industrial-grade sulphuric acid,’ the doctor said.

He lifted the green plastic sheet to just above the chest. The acid had found its way to the woman’s chin, her throat; it flowed down into her chest in mottled pink-brown tracks.

Anjali looked at Kusum, who pulled off the entire sheet. The old doctor’s jaws went slack.

‘Are you sure?’ He hurried forward and reached for the sheet.

Most Indian males, especially the older ones, treated women either like doormats or fragile fairies.

‘Yes.’ Anjali raised her hand to reassure him. ‘I need to see it all for me to be of any use.’

‘Blood work shows traces of Propofol.’ He cleared his throat and regained his professorial air. ‘Physical examination indicates vaginal bruising from repeated rape but no evidence of any seminal fluids. Condoms may have been used. Other bruises on the body and bite marks from more than one individual, but with the decomposition we can’t be certain how many. Maybe two. The acid was used after death.’

‘Propofol? Isn’t that…’

‘Yes, it is one of the drugs used to induce general anaesthesia before surgery.’