In the makeshift morgue on recent days at the government hospital in Rajahmahendravaram in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, it was hard to tell which was worse: being dead or waiting for the dead to arrive.

The place felt depleted of air; the stench of death pervaded the entire place. It stuck to your nostrils, cemented at the back of throat, with a recurring sensation of nausea and a desire to throw up. It fastened on to the policemen collecting details and writing reports; it coated the grass and trees. The breeze carried the stench far and wide. Rain turned it into an enveloping blanket. Everybody had napkins or nose masks tied on, their tired eyes visible over it. In this place even the living stank of death.

Relatives and friends of the dead sat on plastic chairs or wandered about, waiting for the bodies to arrive. The people followed each ambulance coming into the premises and wondered if this one might be carrying their dead. When an ambulance stopped, workers opened the door, and gently placed the body on a stretcher, and transferred it to metal tables covered with palm-leaf mats arranged in the tent, with a concern bestowed on fragile things.

No furrowed brows, no disgust at the rotting corpses. They sliced the pockets in clothes, picked up cell phones or cards, if they were there, and  gave them to relatives standing two, three feet away, to check if the things belonged to their loved ones and if the body was, indeed, theirs. Once the relatives confirmed it the wailing began.

“See what he looks like,” a woman wailed near her husband’s body, to no one and to everyone. Her relatives and friends held her. The body was bloated after two days in the water, eyes bulged like tiny balls, iris and pupil bigger. The drowned usually float on water, backs up and arms askew by the sides; on the tables, though, workers placed them on their backs, all of their knees stuck up and hands akimbo, dangling in the air, so that faces, whatever remained of them, were visible, for identification.

After placing the body on the table, the workers, wearing orange vests and gloves, waited in the gloom and stench for the next ambulance to arrive. Ranging in age from youngsters, the early twenties to the fifties, they were familiar with death and the stillness that comes with it, even as motorcycles, cars, buses, lorries and people honked, cut in front of each other, to relentlessly move ahead, to move faster, in time or before time, to destinations of their own, on the road outside the gate of the hospital. After post mortem and inquest, bodies are handed over to the kith and kin.

In groups of two and three, or five and six, people congregated under the trees, wrapped around the trunks, stooped over ambulances and other vehicles, or strained against each other, and mourned their loved ones, quietly or loudly. “Tell me where my son is,” was the constant refrain of one distraught father, drained and on the verge of collapse.

“I want his body,” cried another, referring to his relative.

“How long does it take to retrieve bodies,” said another from a village near Warangal. He and his friends had been here, to carry back the bodies of people who drowned, to their place.

In this part of the hospital, separated by shamianas and sprinkled with bleach, life and death are close, like a seamless continuum. The bodies on the tables and the bodies standing near could as well, in time (usually) or any time (mostly), be swapping places. Breathing never felt so important, the only effective thing in life; the rest, whatever it is, is the beyond pale, beyond peripheral.

The doomed boat, Royal Vashista, reportedly carrying 77 tourists and crew, sank in the middle of the day, around 12.30 p.m., in the middle of the Godavari, on a Sunday, September 15, near Kachuluru Mandam. The initial toll was placed at eight. Twenty-six people were saved that day by fishermen and youngsters in nearby villages who converged on the spot in their boats and pulled up people who were floating just above water with the help of life jackets. The rest were notified as missing. According to the latest reports, searches so far have unearthed 36 bodies. The search for the remaining 15 is still on.

The vessel had an air-conditioned dining hall below. It’s not clear how many got stuck there when it sank. Until it is salvaged, reports say, the remainder missing won’t be accounted for. (The exact number of people on board, including crew, however, remains hazy, with authorities and politicians quoting different figures.) The government has announced ₹10 lakh each to the family of the dead, from insurance.

The passengers on the doomed Vasishta were on a cruise from from Gandi Posamma in East Godavari district to Papikondalu.

People in the thousands make it a point to visit and experience journeying upstream on the river, immersing themselves in the mesmerising vista as the Godavari, which ranges in width from a few hundred metres to much more, wraps itself around the forested hills as it meanders across the countryside. The rush to experience it has increased in the last few years as the Polavaram dam is nearing completion. When construction is complete many of the areas around these hills will be submerged.

In recent weeks and days, the river has been in full flow, swollen by the heavy rain, flooding and inundating many areas. On that particular day, it was said to be carrying five cusecs of flood water. Only one or two from the Godavari districts boarded the vessel, since they were aware of the river’s sudden rages in the monsoon. So most of the people who boarded Vasishta were from places far away and knew little about the Godavari’s moods. As many as 22 from Hyderabad and 14 from Kadipikonda village in Warangal urban district, Telangana. Nine died. At the place where the boat capsized the river is about 300 metres, which is relatively narrow, and extremely deep, about 107 metres (350 feet). That made the raging river still more treacherous. The place bristles with eddies, whirlpools and crosscurrents making that stretch extremely dangerous. Experienced pilots bank to the side of the West Godavari there, avoid the roiling currents, and proceed upstream where they ease their boats into smoother water. This pilot, however, had been on sea-going vessels along the coast. He had no experience whatsoever with the river in the monsoon, knew nothing about the currents or the riverbed, and went straight into the maw of the roiling eddies.

One survivor said the boat tilted rightwards and toppled over. People, whoever was able, scrambled to the bottom of the overturned boat. Then it arced about 180 degrees sideways, came back up—deck up and keel down—and went down in moments.

Local newspapers dredged up several causes for the tragedy: allowing the boat journey in the first place at the time of flood, poor licensing mechanisms, regulation and oversight; worthiness of boats plying in these areas; persistent lack of life jackets; lack of coordination among the government departments, police, tourism, and water; dearth of information about weather; utter lack of safety, and a host of others.

None of that means a thing to Rajendra Prasad, at times sitting and other times wandering restlessly in the morgue. He is from Hyderabad. His nephew Pavan Kumar and his wife, Vasundhara Bhavani, a government teacher of mathematics, and their son Sushil Gokul, Pavan’s youngest sister, Jyothirmayi and her husband, Janaki Ram, were on that boat. Janaki Ram, a retired Railway employee, is the only survivor, his left shoulder fractured. Jyothirmayi’s body was traced on September 16. The rest were listed missing. 

Prasad is a retiree from the mechanical engineering department, 66, about six feet tall, stooping under the weight of his grief, eyes bloodshot, in lalchi and pyjamas, a towel on his shoulder.

“I don’t know what to do here,” he says, dazed. He came to know from the TV news that the boat sank. Pavan and his family were on it. His parents are sick and bed-ridden—both above 80, father drifting in and out, wavering, mother suffering from cancer. They were in no position to move. Moreover, Prasad raised Pavan as his own, had him educated, got him a job, and married him off. Both uncle and nephew were close and friendly.

“I cradled him in these arms,” he says.

The party of five came to Rajahmahendravaram on September 14, after visiting some places nearby. They had booked tickets on the boat earlier. They got a message that the journey had been cancelled due to floods in the river. In the evening, however, a middleman appeared and said the journey was on and gave them five tickets. Pavan’s son Sushil Gokul had completed his B.Tech, passed the GRE, and was preparing to go to the US for his MS in October.

I want to die,” he says. “Our children have gone before us.

Amid these little bits of future impinging on the present, they thought they should take this journey for they knew not when their son might return from the US, when they might all get a chance to make the same trip, or perhaps it would not be possible if the landscape changed after the dam was completed. Moreover, the Godavari forever beckons, whether it is to float or take someone to her depths.

The family, with a number of people knit together, would often go on similar trips. Recently, Pavan and family had been to Nashik and Shirdi. They returned to Hyderabad, and ten days later came here. On September 16, Jyothirmayi’s body was found. Prasad and his family let their parents, sick as they were, know only dribbles. That she had sustained injuries. That doctors are treating her. As the body was being taken to Hyderabad, they told her parents that she fell seriously ill and was in hospital. Doctors were saying there was no hope and that she eventually died.

As for Pavan and his wife and his son, Prasad held out some hope until Monday, September 16. Pavan, 52, was a joyous person, finding happiness in the happiness of others. He graduated from the polytechnic, and after that he went into repairing and servicing TVs and machines. As the work took him around Hyderabad, he developed spondylitis and had to give it up. Instead, he started a stationery shop at home, which became an adda for his numerous friends. He would distribute milk for sick persons in his colony. He would assist the elderly and sick. He was good at interpersonal skills, taking in all others along. Recently, Prasad says, his college alumni met at Mahabubnagar. Pavan and his friends gathered their former classmates, collected money and gave it to the college to provide more amenities for students, especially toilets for girls.

Pavan was a good swimmer. Prasad felt that might save him. On September 16, Prasad felt some hope that they were alive, adrift on water, thrashing to keep their heads above it, or might have latched on to some rock, wet and cold and scared, surviving nonetheless, or pushed up by a tree near the river, or somewhere onto a sandbar, where villagers may find them and tend to them.

As Prasad watched the ambulances coming in bearing bodies picked up from the river channels in different places, he said, “Now I have no hope.”

“I want to die,” he says. “Our children have gone before us.” His eyes fill. His lips quiver. He is not dying, though. Not here, waiting for his loved ones’ bodies to arrive.

One body, unidentified, lingered on the table. Prasad was not sure if it was Pavan’s or Gokul’s. He asked for a DNA test, which the collector granted. He felt distraught that it was not being carried out, he tried to harm himself next day by hitting his head with a bottle. The police dissuaded him. Prasad could not ever remember being like this. He had volunteered in cyclone rescue efforts in Diviseema when a 20-foot wall of water hit Diviseema like a bomb in 1977, crashing into the island and killing more than 10,000. He had picked up dozens of bodies then, more than he could count.

For a man who had seen so much carnage, “I am not able to bear this.”

The unidentified body was, in fact, Gokul’s.

One man recognised a body as that of his loved one, but would not accept the reality, saying, “No, it’s not that. It’s somebody else’s.”  Reality, for all its physical and metaphysical accents and nuances, doesn’t register in minds deranged by grief at this death so unexpected.

The word ”missing” throws relatives and friends off. “Dead” has a finality about it, however painful. But “missing” has no beginning or end; it is a suspension of one’s own being, of stasis and drift, one split screen inside the head showing life and movement, and another a disfigured, lifeless body at the mercy of the crosscurrents working in the river. Time stretches on forever and condenses into small moments. Death comes as the end for all those waiting for the moment of truth.