The idea of a physician-turned-writer may remind readers of
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, especially when the genre is crime fiction. The description
fits well for renowned forensic surgeon, Dr. B. Umadathan who died recently.
Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes at a point in his life when he had no
patients. In fact, medicine was the only field where the multifaceted Doyle
failed to prove his merit. In Dr. Umadathan’s case, however, the medico-legal
field is likely to remember him as one of its greatest practitioners. Even more
remarkably, he seems to be assured of literary immortality as well, for his
books based on his career. Unlike Doyle, Umadathan’s literary works and
professional career are inseparable.
Born in 1946 in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, Umadathan completed his MBBS and MD from Thiruvananthapuram Medical College and began his career in 1969 as a tutor in forensic medicine at the same institution. He was inspired to take up forensic science—the branch of study that deals with the application of medical science in crime detection—by Dr. Kanthasami who taught the subject in his third year. Later, he served as a police surgeon, the medico-legal expert of Kerala Police, principal of Thiruvananthapuram Medical College, director of the medical education department, medico-legal consultant of the Libyan-Arab Republic and director of forensic medicine at Amrita Institute of Medical Science.
His first book, Oru Police Surgeonte Ormakurippukal (The Memoirs of a Police Surgeon) was published in 2010. It is an anthology of cases he was involved in during 40 years of professional life. Although it is not an autobiography, the narrative includes references to key moments of his personal life as well. It became a bestseller and continues to be one with eight editions already sold out. In the years that followed, he published three more books: Kuttanweshanathile Vaidhyashasthram (Medical Science in Criminal Investigation, 2014), Crime Keralam: Keralathinte Kuttanweshna charithram (Crime in Kerala: The history of criminal investigation in Kerala, 2016) and Kapaalam (The Skull, 2019).
Each book is written in a style that is crisp and direct, with an emphasis on making domain-specific technical knowledge accessible to readers outside that domain. The acuity of facts in his descriptions is skilfully imbued with the charm of fiction. In the foreword written to The Memoirs of a Police Surgeon, retired Chief Secretary C. P. Nair writes: “Umadathan’s carefully chiselled sentences are an excellent narrative feature. The writer is able to maintain the readers’ curiosity till the end due to the quality of this vibrant style.” Nair notes that Umadathan might have learned “the mystery of sentence construction” from his father who was a Sanskrit scholar.
In his essay “Two Cultures”, the British writer C. P. Snow argues for the necessity of bringing together scientific and literary cultures, producing writers with a scientific temper and scientists with a literary sensibility. In Malayalam, C. Radhakrishnan and Anand are two writers who exemplify this vision. Umadathan can perhaps now be considered its finest exponent.
etective fiction in Malayalam has not received much attention from critics, most probably because of their unabashed bias against any form of popular literature. For several years, the most famous exponents of the genre were Neelakantan Paramara, Kottayam Pushpanath and Baton Bose. However, their novels were mostly serialised in weeklies, which meant they were more often than not hastily written without sufficient attention paid to the scientific veracity of methods used in the detection of crime and the resolution of its mystery. Readers, too, usually did not care much about accuracy of facts. There were even detective novels that for no rhyme and reason took a supernatural turn as the narrative progressed.
Kanthasami described the process of extracting evidence from cadavers as an act of storytelling: Dead men tell tales. You have to listen carefully.
It was only through a few translations that Malayali readers
got acquainted with the science of deduction and ratiocination. Except for a
few notable attempts in the 2000s—T. P. Rajeevan’s Paleri Manikyam: Oru
Pathirakolapathakathinte Kadha (Paleri Manikyam: Story of a Midnight
Murder) and G. R. Indugopan’s Prabhakaran Series, a trilogy featuring
Prabhakaran, an amateur rural sleuth, being the most prominent—there weren’t
any works in mainstream Malayalam literature that addressed popular themes.
However, there were no follow-ups to these books. It was in this context that “The Memoirs” was published in 2010. It instantly broke the barrier between the watertight compartments of “popular” and “real” literature, resulting in a change in the attitude of publishers who started to include more crime fiction in their catalogue. It also made sure that writers of the genre could no longer shirk the responsibility of accurately mirroring police work. Some of the recent best-selling detective fiction in Malayalam—Coffee House and Hydrangea—exhibit remarkable detail in their descriptions of forensic processes.
he job of a forensic surgeon is unpleasant to most. Even now, it is not a popular option for medical students because of its inextricable connection with the institution of law. To counter the complex and unique demands of this profession, stalwarts like Dr. Kanthasami and Dr. Umadathan seem to have prefered an artist’s temperament. Dr. Kanthasami described the process of extracting evidence from cadavers as an act of storytelling: Dead men tell tales. You have to listen carefully. As his student, Umadathan maintained the same approach. He writes: “The lives and deaths I saw, the attempts to solve their many mysteries , and the experiences I collected in the process…What I am trying to do is to turn the pages of those memories.”
The true nature of the psyche of a society is better reflected in its criminal activities than in charitable ones. The Memoirs offers an opportunity to trace the psychological nature of Kerala’s society.
Narratives of crime, especially those centred on murder,
have always fascinated people. Even before the advent of detective stories in
the modern sense of the term, people used to tell tales of suspense. The
Memoirs of a Police Surgeon begins with a quote from The Book of Genesis in
the Old Testament (4:8-14), which speaks about the murder of Abel, one of the
earliest fratricides in the history of human narrative.
There are several reasons for the appeal of a whodunit. The motive and manner of executing the crime, the oddness of the act, the psychology of the criminal and the detective, the ordering of events in the narrative and the power of the climactic revelation are among them. Umadathan often makes use of the techniques of crime fiction. Even when we are aware that case studies in The Memoirs are based on fact, the book still reads like an anthology of detective stories told by the same detective. Each case study, as any good work of art ought to, reminds us of the complexities of human nature.
The book’s relation with crime fiction starts right from the titles of chapters like “The death of a caretaker”, “A tinge of cyanide”, “The professor’s death”, “The psychiatrist who killed himself”, “Gone girl”, etc. But there is also a fastidious insistence on avoiding all forms of sensationalism. Umadathan prefers short sentences with eight or ten words. He begins most narratives by stating a simple and universal principle capable of piquing the reader’s curiosity and then goes on to describe the case as an interpretation of this principle. In between, he takes detours from the main narrative and introduces scientific concepts like ballistics, superimposition, various methods of exhumation and other aspects associated with autopsy.
Family becomes a scene of crime in Kerala. A lot of them are crimes of passion. Umadathan uses the cases to highlight aspects of gender inequality and the degree to which patriarchal values hold dominance.
It is said that the true nature of the psyche of a society
is better reflected in its criminal activities than in charitable ones. In that
sense The Memoirs offers an opportunity to trace the psychological
nature of Kerala’s society in a particular historical period. For instance,
consider the high suicide rate. The reasons are not new: financial
difficulties, love failure, broken families, exam failure, incurable diseases,
etc. But Umadathan points out that these are merely “triggers” that lead to the
fatal act. The real cause is depression which in turn is a consequence of
existing social conditions where the needs of mind are often ignored. “Fever or
cough or any disease, we consult the doctor. But mental illnesses are not
counted seriously. Even those who are aware of the condition hesitate to
consult a psychiatrist.”
Many of the case studies describe murders with profit as the sole motive, pointing to the perils of financial disparity in society. These include impulsive murders for a meagre sum as well as carefully planned murders for huge amounts of inheritance or insurance money.
Often, family becomes a scene of crime in Kerala. A lot of them are crimes of passion sparked by sexual jealousy or infidelity. Umadathan uses the cases to highlight aspects of gender inequality and illustrate the degree to which patriarchal values hold dominance. Women in villages, towns and cities are attacked for forced sex. Several cases in the book highlight the mores of Victorian morality that govern the state’s sexually repressed psyche. The chapter titled, “Disused Wells and Wayward Lives”, for instance, speaks about recurring cases of people in rural areas of the state dying after accidentally falling in wells. Most of these fatal journeys were made as part of their “wayward affairs”.
ne of the cases discussed in great detail is the sensational “Polakkulam murder case”, 1983. Peethaambaran, a receptionist at Polakkulam Tourist Home, was found dead in the courtyard. He had fallen from the terrace of the building at 4.30 a.m. The case was first investigated by the crime branch which came to the conclusion that it was a suicide. Later, the case was handed over to the CBI which found it was a case of homicide.
The crime branch had consulted Umadathan for his expert opinion. Of the 18 wounds on Peethambaran’s body, the 13th one on his right calf caught his attention. It proved the fact that the body had hit the ground vertically with the calf bearing the primary impact. This indicated that Peethambaran had jumped from the terrace, and therefore, the crime branch ruled out the possibility of a homicide.
The case was reopened in 1986 and handed over to the CBI. They argued that the body was found more than 10 metres from the building which suggested he was thrown from the terrace. To prove this, the CBI conducted a Dummy experiment, a method that acquired cult status after it was shown in the 1988 blockbuster movie Oru CBI Diarykkurippu (A CBI Journal Entry), starring Mammootty. A humanoid dummy of the same weight as the deceased was thrown down from the terrace and a second was dropped as if it fell by itself. Since the first one was away from the wall of the building, CBI concluded that Peethambaran was murdered. Umadathan, however, argued that as the height of the building increased, the subject could jump to a distance of more than 10 metres. Here, the terrace was at a height of 20 metres, which explained the location of the body.
Umadathan writes: “The experiment conducted by Mr. Varghese Thomas was ruled out by many forensic surgeons as unscientific. Some of the experiments conducted by Fujiwara and Christianson have pointed out that a dummy cannot be considered a substitute for human body as it always falls on its back. These experiments were conducted using live subjects and proved that the distance covered in the fall increases with the height of the building.” However, the charge sheet was submitted for homicide and the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment by the High Court of Kerala. But the case was reopened once again in the Supreme Court and the possibility of homicide ruled out. The accused were set free for lack of evidence.
In Oru CBI Diarykkurippu, the plot revolves around a murder made to look like suicide. The CBI team led by the now iconic detective Sethurama Iyer employs the dummy experiment to resolve the case. The cinematic portrayal of this method became a rage with the public and lent it great credibility. As is often the case, a colourful lie was preferred to a matter-of-fact truth.
uttaanweshanathile Vaidyashaastram (“Medical Science in Criminal Investigation”) was published in 2014. It is more than 800 pages and meant primarily for doctors, lawyers and police officers whose professional needs demand a more than basic knowledge of forensic science. Usually, books on forensic medicine are written for those in the medical field as its readers are expected to have a basic understanding in medical science. Such books, however, may not be intelligible to lawyers and police officials.
Umadathan’s ability to present complicated concepts in an accessible language is even more evident in this book, which will reward any reader willing to conduct a self study. Instead of case studies, this is a reference book that presents various theoretical aspects of forensic science. It is divided into sections that deal with inquest, evidence, post mortem, examination of skeletons, wounds, ballistics, accidents, death by burning, by suffocation, by drowning, by poisoning, by electric shock, and sexual crimes. Justice K. T. Thomas writes in the foreword that the book will be quoted in various court judgements in the future.
Crime Keralam: Keralathinte Kuttanweshna Charithram (2016) (“Crime in Kerala: The History of Criminal Investigation in Kerala”) is located in a context quite different from those of his early works. DC Books, one of the leading publishers in Kerala, had launched a series of books as part of the 60th anniversary of the formation of Kerala. They approached Umadathan to document the history of criminal investigation in the state. During the 40 years of his professional life he had been part of some of the most controversial cases of the era, and was acknowledged as an authority on criminal investigation. But in the preface, he points out the challenges involved in the task of documenting the history of his own domain of expertise as he was not trained in writing history. This book is not based just on his professional experiences. On the contrary, it describes various systems that were formed to protect law from the inception of the state to the present. It is structured as a document of the social and cultural history of the state in conjunction with its history of crime and policing.
The last chapter, “Milestones in the history of Kerala Police”, deserves special mention. The public and the media are interested in a crime only till the arrest of the criminal. For the police, however, constructing the chain of evidence and forming a narrative that will prove the crime in a court of law is the most challenging task. Umadathan places special emphasis on this aspect when he chronicles the details of several successful investigations carried out by Kerala Police from 1956 to 2016. What is also impressive is the command he has as a writer over a third person narrative voice.
here are certain features that are common to all detective fiction. A crime is committed, the detective visits the crime scene and using his powers of deduction, the detective identifies the criminal. One of the prime attractions of great detective fiction is the portrayal of the detective, and the personality the author gives that character. A time-tested formula is through the perspective of a biographer. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot are among the great fictional detectives presented in this mode. If Umadathan’s case studies, in which the investigator is minimally represented in first person, had such a sleuth and biographer, they would have had all the features of a conventional detective story. Perhaps his publisher, too, was aware of this fact.
After his death in July 2019, DC Books published a collection of his short stories, Kapaalam (“The Skull”). In the preface, Umadathan writes: “I felt that a book written in pattern of The Memoirs of a Police Surgeon would be repetitive and boring. So, I decided to give a fictional aura to fifteen of my cases.”
In his works, Umadathan is keen to draw attention to the folly of an idea of truth in absolute terms. He notes that one cannot conduct an investigation on generalised notions of truth.
The stories in the collection feature a forensic surgeon Dr.
Unnikrishnan, modelled unsurprisingly on himself. He is accompanied in his
investigations by Harikumar IPS, a Crime Branch officer. As one is confined by
constraints of length, the craft of a writer is more rigorously tested in a
short story than in a novel. Not many writers in Malayalam have attempted
popular themes in their short stories. Umadathan, however, has produced a
masterpiece with his very first book in this genre.
He employs several modes of storytelling. One narrative device is that of the inverted detective story invented by the British writer Austin Freeman. If conventional detective stories mostly deal with whodunits, an inverted detective story is a howcatchem, indicating the shift in focus from who to how. The story, Kaalapaasham (“The Deadly Noose”) is a classic example of this method.
In all his works, Umadathan is keen to draw attention to the folly of nurturing an idea of truth in absolute terms. He notes that one cannot conduct an investigation on generalised notions of truth, and often emphasises that it is the context which provides meaning to evidence. While he always stresses the significance of autopsies in finding the cause of death and its necessity in cases of suspicious deaths, he also points out the limitations of scientific criminal investigation.
“A good detective should not depend on a single piece of evidence to prove the crime. If the medical evidences do not tally with the facts collected from investigation, do not hesitate to discard them. There are occasions when science and scientist can go wrong.”