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Changing Lifestyles : Living Off the Dead Is a Dying Trade in Calcutta : For decades, the Bhattacharjee family has been the skeleton merchant for the world. But the use of plastic for laboratory skeletons has driven their bone business right into the ground.

February 19, 1991|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Fineman, The Times New Delhi bureau chief, is currently on assignment in Jordan.

CALCUTTA, India — Bimalendu Bhattacharjee and his extended family of artisans and entrepreneurs once had connections all over the world. Every Christmas, they were flooded with greeting cards and toys from grateful customers in the United States, Europe and Australia. And their office, down a gritty narrow lane in a typically battered Calcutta residential district, was often filled with the foreign banter of a business that drew loyal clientele from as far away as Sydney, London and Pico Rivera, Calif.

But in this deeply impoverished city synonymous with death, dying and disease, the talk at Bhattacharjee's M.B. & Co. was not just export quotas, excise tariffs and external markets. Mostly, it centered on skulls, bones and the current profit margins on Calcutta's unknown dead.

For nearly half-a-century, Bimalendu Bhattacharjee and his family sold human skeletons to an outside world that never asked whence they came.

By all accounts, three generations of Bhattacharjees and the dozen or so other skeleton-supplying Calcutta families collectively earned tens of millions of dollars selling to universities and high schools in the West, where their wares became teaching tools as standard as biology textbooks and frogs for dissection.

For decades, Calcutta is believed to have been the world's only human-skeleton supplier. In truth, if a biology classroom had a human skeleton hanging in the corner, it was a virtual certainty that it had begun its journey here, in a Calcutta alley or morgue or floating in the Ganges River, before passing through Bhattacharjee's workshop.

Now, however, laboratory skeletons have much different origins--they are almost always made of plastic. The international trade in human skeletons, which once brought more than $1 million a year into Calcutta's economy and the pockets of families like the Bhattacharjees, is all but, ah, dead.

And the story behind the rise and fall of this unique monopoly market is as much an illustration of India's determined search for economic and national pride as it is a macabre testimonial to its sordid post-colonial past.

Indeed, throughout the world of commerce, there are few examples more stark of a long-flourishing trade with almost unlimited supply and demand that was killed virtually overnight by sheer public outrage and emotion.

For all its intrigue, though, the inside story of the skeleton merchants of Calcutta has long been as mysterious as it was controversial.

And it is only now, years after their livelihood and that of generations before them was finally and effectively banned by the Indian government in 1985, that the skeleton merchants led by Bhattacharjee agreed to open their secret world to a visiting Times reporter.

"Just remember," as one Calcutta skeleton merchant put it, "they were all people once."

Few know better than Bhattacharjee just how Calcutta's dead came back to life in classrooms--and how that trade has come to an end. He was in the business for 42 years. As president of India's Assn. of Exporters of Anatomical Specimens, he fought for it through 14 years of court battles and legislative hearings. And now, at 69, the sallow, bony, six-foot-tall Bhattacharjee said he was finally relieved to be able to discuss openly a business he no longer regards with either fear or favor.

"Still, I'm not very happy about all this. After all, it is in my blood that I took up this business," he said. "But when the government is against it, how can we do it? They will arrest me. They will seize the goods. They will put me in the dock and send me to jail. It's just not worth it anymore."

At the peak of Calcutta's human-skeleton trade in the late 1970s and early '80s, Bhattacharjee reckons that his company alone was exporting 2,500 skeletons a year. He charged about $150 apiece and made a 40% profit. His customers included a half-a-dozen American importers, all of which have had to quit or turn to plastic skeletons since the ban, he said. And each year, it seemed, there were more trying to join the trade.

"We were the biggest when we stopped," he said. "But, of course, we weren't the first."

Calcutta's human skeleton trade dates back to the height of World War II, when a London scientific-supply company could no longer find enough bodies in Britain to satisfy the demand of local medical schools and export markets abroad.

In British-ruled Calcutta, though, the company's agents found not only a ready supply of unclaimed bodies suitable for the purpose but, more important, an entire community of low-caste Hindus whose sole and ancient role in life was handling corpses.

They're called Doms, India's keepers and handlers of the dead. For centuries, the Doms have manned the Hindu cremation pyres and prepared bodies for their sacred last rites, as they continue to do at India's holiest funeral shrines and at the more modern government centers known here as "electric crematoriums."

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