Forensic Diaries | Book Review — Dead Men Tell Tales: The Memoir of a Police Surgeon by B Umadathan

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May 30, 2021 2:30 AM

A police surgeon exchanges his saw and scalpel for a pen

Just 50 pages into the book is the chapter Misleading Evidence, which is about a section in forensic medicine that deals with ‘self-inflicted and artificially created wounds’.Just 50 pages into the book is the chapter Misleading Evidence, which is about a section in forensic medicine that deals with ‘self-inflicted and artificially created wounds’.

B Umadathan has worn many hats during his four-decade-long career as a well-known forensic medical expert in Kerala. He was a professor of forensic medicine, police surgeon, medico-legal adviser to Kerala Police, principal of Government Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram, and director of medical studies of government of Kerala, to name a few.

With 40 years as a forensic medical expert under his belt, Umadathan’s memoir was supposed to open a window to the world of crimes and criminals, and inspire generations of young doctors to take up the saw and scalpel for rendering justice. Sadly, Dead Men Tell Tales: The Memoir of a Police Surgeon fails to do either. Instead, it fills its 337 pages with a narrative heavily loaded in favour of law enforcement, giving the police one clean chit after another.

Just 50 pages into the book is the chapter Misleading Evidence, which is about a section in forensic medicine that deals with ‘self-inflicted and artificially created wounds’. “Our police officers have good knowledge about this subject. But they find it difficult to discern between true and false complaints. There are people who are experts at making false accusations and creating evidence,” explains the author before going on to narrate a case titled The Truth Behind a Sexual Exploitation Case.

The case is about a complaint by a mother who had accused a 40-year-old man of raping her 14-year-old daughter. “The mother had complained that her daughter had been raped by a man who ran a tea shop near their house. The girl was also with her. They told the police that the rape had occurred in the afternoon, when the girl was alone and both parents were away,” writes Umadathan. “Despite repeated questioning, he (the accused) refused to admit that he had committed the crime. He told them that the girl’s mother had borrowed Rs 100 from him and they had an argument about it. The policemen brutally beat up the accused,” he writes.

“After recording her (the rape survivor’s) statement, I examined her. I was taken aback to find that there was not a single bruise on her body or her genitals. And her hymen was intact. I realised that she had been lying. The blood stain on her skirt was also clearly fabricated, as she didn’t have a single wound on her body… I warned the young (police) officer, who had attended my session on forensic medicine during his training period, to be careful of fake complaints in the future.”

In another chapter, Deaths in Lock-Up, Umadathan talks about the three autopsies he conducted on people who had died in police custody. In all the three cases, the author’s expert opinion rules out police torture. “I think the number of people who die suddenly in police stations is increasing. The police can play a role in reducing the number of incidents of stress cardiomyopathy (broken heart syndrome) at their stations,” he writes. “People should be able to enter a police station without fear. If the police speak politely and treat people in a dignified manner, they will gain people’s appreciation.”

Umadathan writes about “a young man, who had hung himself using his dhoti” in a police lock-up. The post-mortem examination was conducted at the Kollam District Hospital in the presence of senior doctors to ensure transparency. “He had been accused of theft and the inspector had told him that they would have to retrieve the stolen goods the next day. Perhaps fearing torture, he had committed suicide,” adds the author.

Dead Men Tell Tales contains the author’s recollections of several cases of murder that dominated the headlines in Kerala in the second half of the last century, including the infamous Sukumara Kurup case in 1984 about a man who staged his own death to collect insurance benefits. First published in Malayalam (Oru Police Surgeonte Ormakkurippukal) in 2010, the English translation of Umadathan’s memoir was published posthumously.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

Dead Men Tell Tales: The Memoir of a Police Surgeon by B Umadathan;
translated from Malayalam by Priya K Nair

HarperCollins
Pp 337, Rs 399

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