Man as Matter: On Seeing A Headless Corpse

Some thirty or so years ago, I saw a human body without a head. I was then on summer vacation, visiting family in Central India, and one day, plans were announced to attend a wedding taking place in a neighboring small town. My aunt and cousins would leave by the morning local train; my uncle, my brother and I would drive over in the afternoon. So, soon enough after sunrise, we trooped over to the station to see off my aunt. The train had pulled into the station; crowds of frantic passengers rushed about; and somewhere toward the back of the train, there appeared to be some commotion. On inquiring into the reasons for the hubbub, I was told someone had been run over by the train.

I left my uncle, aunt, and cousins behind, and slowly walked toward a small crowd that I could see gathered, both on the station platform and on the rail tracks. As I approached, the group pulled apart, and I could see what looked like a tattered, elongated sack, marked with brown and white streaks, tossed across the track. A couple of feet away lay a human head. My curiosity apparently boundless, I jumped down from the platform onto the tracks and joined the small group of men clustered around the body. There were no police or medical personnel present.

An abduction of the mishap–partially constructed from the testimony of passengers on the train– was making the rounds in the little group that stood around the corpse:  The victim had been riding the train, seated on the steps of a coach door; as the train pulled into the station, his baggy trousers had become entangled on something or the other, and he had been dragged, down and along, mercifully briefly, before his head came under the wheels.

I stared at the body, lying on its stomach. The head had been neatly, surgically, severed. There was little blood to be seen.  The eyes were sightless and white, turned up, unblinkingly gazing into the now-already-intense morning sun of the Indian summer. The only sign of violence, and it was a shocking one at that, were the bloody scrapes that ran along the corpse’s back and buttocks; they had torn off its clothes, thus inflicting one final insult to injury, and ensuring that perhaps the most distinct perception I had then was that this didn’t seem very much like a ‘person.’

Somehow, I had steeled myself through the encounter, one not-very-articulate inner voice urging me to go through with this ghastly inspection. Then, suddenly, it was over, and I was done looking. I walked back to the station platform, pulled myself up, and walked back to join the rest of my family, still waiting by their coach, waiting for the station authorities to get on with the business of their investigation so that the train could leave for its destination.

Later, during the day, I talked and thought little about the ‘man’ I had seen. But at the wedding, during dinner, I brought up the morning events in a conversation, and suddenly couldn’t eat any more.

I don’t think I had read Catch-22 then, but if I had, I might have been reminded of Yossarian’s epiphany on Snowden’s death:

Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. That was Snowden’s secret.

4 thoughts on “Man as Matter: On Seeing A Headless Corpse

  1. Life feels more precious when you realize how fragile and material your body is. Though, life feels more fun, when you forget about that 😉

    Interesting sorry, I’m sorry you saw that and I hope the memory doesn’t weight down on you too much.


    1. Lana,

      Thanks for the comment (great to see you here). I’ve not forgotten this incident just for those reasons: the fragility of the body, and how quickly persons can become sacks of meat. It isn’t upsetting anymore; just a distinctive, small, coming-of-age moment.

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