Translator Priya K Nair talks about working on the Malayalam memoir of late forensic surgeon Dr B Umadathan

Titled Dead Men Tell Tales: The Memoirs of a Police Surgeon the book looks at some of Kerala's most high profile murders
Translator Priya K Nair talks about working on the Malayalam memoir of late forensic surgeon Dr B Umadathan

In his memoir, Oru Police Surgeonte Ormakkurippukal, forensic surgeon and author Dr B Umadathan proves that reality is stranger than fiction. First published in 2010, the book has now been translated from Malayalam into English by Kochi-based Priya K Nair, who is a professor of English. Titled Dead Men Tell Tales: The Memoirs of a Police Surgeon, the English translation aims to capture, as accurately as possibly, the narrative style of the Malayalam version.

When the original was published, 11 years ago, it caused a sensation. This was thanks in part to the writing style, which is similar to that of a fictional crime novel and in part to the cases it covered. The cases described are a mix of those that impacted Umadathan as a young forensic surgeon and Kerala’s most high profile murders that shaped his career. The author may have passed away in 2019, but some of the most wanted criminals behind the death of the bodies he examined are still to be found. For instance, the Chacko murder case shook the South Indian state when it happened, back in 1984. Sukumara Kurup, who is accused of strangling and burning the body of a certain Chacko, to fake his own death in order to claim an insurance amount of Rs.8 lakhs, is Kerala’s longest standing fugitive and is possibly still on the run.

The memoir traces the surgeon’s career, from his early days in Trivandrum to his stint working for the Libyan government, and gives readers a simple scientific perspective into each case, explaining, for example, how forensic experts determine the distance from which a gun is fired just from looking at the wound and how they can tell if a wound is self inflicted or if the victim has really been attacked.

With the translation, Priya has made this book accessible to the rest of the country and the world. In an exclusive exchange, she talks about the challenges of working on the book, the cases she found most interesting and more. Excerpts:

What struck you as some of the most interesting stories from the book?
I was quite fascinated by most of the stories, especially the stories that had hit the headlines in Kerala — the Sukumara Kurup case and the Polakkulam case. The author has explained the forensic aspect of these cases using technical language but he is always humane in his concern for his fellow beings. He reads the mind of the criminal in the bodies of the victims — this, for me, was fascinating.

What were some of the most surprising takeaways from the memoir? 

I have always been a fan of detective fiction but I don’t think I have ever read a whodunnit from the perspective of a forensic surgeon. I think such books help the layperson learn more about science, and popularising science is a need of our times. This book tells us in simple language how science is used to explain seemingly unfathomable events. I feel that relating science to life is crucial to foster inclusive thinking. The human body is a fascinating subject to study and I learnt a lot about it. Another important aspect is the discussion of suicide and depression. Mental health is still a taboo topic in the public domain but it should be addressed and in this book, the author explains it in a very sensitive way.

What were the biggest challenges of working on the book?
To describe the scene of crime was the biggest challenge. He gives in-depth details and I had to make sure that I was not making a mistake regarding the position of the body and the intricate explanations. My editor was a great help as she pointed out a couple of discrepancies. Apart from this, it was a smooth process. Usually, when I translate novels, the terms that are unique to certain cultures are an impediment but in this case, there weren’t too many of those terms.

What are some of the other projects you are working on at the moment?
I just completed John Brittas’ (Managing Director/Editor of Kairali TV) novel and am working on T D Ramakrishnan’s latest novel on the Indian railways.

Rs.399. Published by HarperCollins India.

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