A 77-year-old German lady who’d made a Kochi hotel her home for the past eight years died last month. Her body has been lying unclaimed since. We went in search of her past and found four threads unspooling a lonely and wounded life
The dead body of an old German lady in Kochi has been lying unclaimed. We went in search of her past
Elfriede Maria Schmidt came into my life after she died. She came to India all the way from Germany in early 2000 and never went back. She had lived in Kochi, Kerala, since 2002. Seventy-seven-year-old Maria passed away a few weeks ago. It was as ordinary a death as could be, silent, aged and sick. On 14 June, the manager of Chandrika Residency, the hotel where Maria Schmidt had stayed since 2003, found her doors closed and her favourite newspaper abandoned in the lobby. He called the police, and they found Maria Schmidt lying on her bed unconscious. The next day, she passed away in hospital. Since then, her body has been lying frozen in the mortuary of General Hospital in Ernakulam, unclaimed for the past one month. When I went to report on her, she ‘talked’ to me like the protagonist of the famous Brazilian novel Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas. Through four people who had had encounters with her in Kochi. The four truths were as strange as fiction.
SABU SREEDHAR: A HOTEL MANAGER REMEMBERS HIS GUEST
I remember it was a rainy day in 2003. A White woman in Western attire walked into our hotel, Chandrika Residency. She asked for a room. When we asked for how long she needed it, she said a week, and then corrected it to three weeks. After three weeks, she extended her stay. I was a bit wary of giving too many extensions, but later I did. She had all her documents and was very particular about paying the rent on time. After some time, it became difficult for us to ask her to vacate, since she was so old. It was not a lucrative affair for us. We lost clients because of her arrogant nature. She could not stand anyone smoking in her vicinity. Often, she gave a dressing down to men who smoked in our restaurant.
She never switched off the television in her room. It was as if the television was her only medium of communication with the outside world. It was on even while she slept. She insisted on not switching it off even while the room was being cleaned. In the last eight years, the television set went silent only two or three times, when she paid short visits to Sri Lanka to renew her visa. A foreigner whose Indian visa has to be renewed needs to travel to another country and apply from there.
Every day, she went out for a couple of hours, walked down Kochi’s crowded DB Road, visited a nearby supermarket, did some bank work and came back. Nobody ever saw her buy anything at the supermarket, but she used to spend nearly an hour there everyday.
She was a great lover of cats. It was one of her favourite topics, besides cricket. When her beloved cat died, she stored its ashes in a blue jar in her room. She wanted it to be cremated along with her own body.
I was the only listener Mrs Schmidt had during the rare moments when she wanted to talk. In one such conversation, she told me she wanted to be cremated in India and the ashes to be scattered in the Arabian Sea. I was embarrassed, and for the first time started to be concerned about this old woman. I called up a few journalists and told them her story. She was not interested in talking to them. They found her dispassionate and slightly arrogant.
She ended up staying eight long years in my hotel. She attended all the cultural programmes in the Durbar Hall ground adjacent to the hotel. The staff and inmates here often met her, but she never bothered to talk to anybody.
SABIN IQBAL: A JOURNALIST BEFRIENDS HIS NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOUR
It was in the corridor of Hotel Chandrika Residency that I met Mariabehen. This was last January. I was staying in the room adjacent to hers and had already heard a little about her from the hotel staff. I used to see her daily. Once she knocked on my door and asked if I had water in the room. I invited her to come in. I wanted to talk to her because I knew she might have a story to tell. She threw a puzzled look at me when I asked where she was from and asked me to take a guess. Her British accent misled me, but she gave me one more chance. “My guess is you are a Jew,” I said. I was spot on. She was a Jew with memories of the Holocaust. “Europeans hate me,” she added.
To Mrs Schmidt, Pakistan was the only country where there was no racism. She had lived in Pakistan for over three decades. In Pakistan, people used to call her Behenji. I also started calling her Behenji. I knew that she was very happy to be called so and it was the sole reason she became fond of me. Mrs Schmidt’s abortive attempts to get a permanent stay in Pakistan prompted her to migrate to India which, in her words, was “so similar to Pakistan in geography and demography”.
She had had a troubled childhood. She had lost her father in the World War II, but was unable to recollect when and why. She did not have a smooth relationship with her mother. Maria was originally from Austria and later migrated to Germany and got citizenship there. She was employed with the German embassy and posted in Pakistan, where she met a Pakistani army man, married him and gave birth to a son. The marriage did not last long. She came to India alone, wandered around many places, and finally reached Kochi.
I got stray glimpses of a war victim who opted out of her own country because she was Jewish. The story had an abrupt ending. In my busy schedule, I failed to find time for her.
PRABHA MENON: AN ADVOCATE REMEMBERS HER PECULIAR CLIENT
On 18 June 2011, while reading the newspapers, I was intrigued by a piece of news about the unclaimed remains of a White woman lying in General Hospital. I looked at the photograph closely. It appeared familiar. Gradually, with shock, I realised that this was a client of mine, a very peculiar client who had come to me nine years ago. I vividly recall that encounter in 2002. She had handed over an important document to me—her will.
It was a busy day. She stepped into my office and started talking to me. Initially, I thought she was in need of legal assistance, but she did not ask for any such help. I don’t clearly remember what she was talking about; in fact, I was hardly listening, too busy to attend to a person for no purpose. But I was also reluctant to discourage her.
She visited me again a couple of times. Sometimes, she talked about cricket, sometimes about the harsh and unkind world we live in. One day, she turned up in a serious mood. She requested my help in preparing her will. I agreed and asked her to prepare a rough draft. The next day, she came in as usual and handed over a piece of paper.
Mrs Schmidt wanted to give half her property to her son, Captain Julian Asphandiar Fatakia, who lived in the US. She had an apartment in Voeslau, Austria, and bank deposits in Germany and India. Half her assets were dedicated to five tiger reserves in India—Ranthambore and Sariska in Rajasthan and Kanha, Panna and Rewa in Madhya Pradesh. Mrs Schmidt also wanted me to locate her son, with whom she had had no contact for over a decade. She wanted to be cremated in India and the ashes strewn over the Arabian Sea.
The will was neatly typed on her own typewriter. I kept it somewhere in the pile of case files in my office. After this incident, she never came back.
Strangely, I ran into her several times on the streets, but she never showed any sign that she knew me. Once, a colleague of mine tried to talk to her when she met her on the road. She didn’t speak a word, did not even smile, but stared at her for a moment and walked away.
I wasn’t informed when she died. A few days later, I read the news about the unclaimed body. It was seven in the morning. I rushed to my office, searched all over. To my surprise, I still had that pale yellow cover that Mrs Schmidt had handed over to me nine years ago. It had the address and email ID of her son Julian, who is believed to be a pilot somewhere in the US.
JYOTHISH PS: A FOREIGNER REGISTRATION OFFICIAL’S ACCOUNT
I got the contact of Julian Asphandiar Fatakia, the only son of Mrs Schmidt, from Prabha Menon. I had been struggling to find it since her death. I mailed, requesting him to come down and claim his mother’s body, but I got no response. After a few days, I received a mail from his wife. She asked me to send the corpse to the US, a request we could not meet. I then got a second mail from her daughter-in-law stating that Mrs Schmidt should rest in peace in India. She was unwilling to travel all the way from the US to attend to the last rites.
I had known Mrs Schmidt since 2008. She used to come to my office to renew her visa. She often came across as an arrogant person. Once she turned furious when a man tried to jump the queue in the visa-renewing section. She caught hold of him with her umbrella and pushed him to the back of the row.
She would speak of a lot of things, but her favourite topic was cricket. Once that topic was broached, she went on endlessly. Many a times, I deliberately skipped encountering the lady. Cricket was Greek to me and I don’t like it either. I was hardly able to follow what she said. The names of her favourite players sounded alien to me.
We found a letter in her room after her death. It was in German, written by one ‘Elfriede’. It informed Mrs Schmidt about two deaths. One of the sender’s mother and the other of her cat. The sender was a cancer patient. It was written that she would definitely visit Mrs Schmidt after her treatment. The email ID of Elfriede, too, was scribbled in the letter. I dropped a mail to Elfriede, informing her of Mrs Schmidt’s death and requesting her to come and claim the body, if possible. After a few days, I received a reply from Elfriede’s son expressing his inability to claim the body.
I desperately wrote to the German embassy in Delhi and the Consulate in Chennai. The Consulate authorities sent a mail asking me to cremate the body in Kochi. The law does not permit us to do so. An unclaimed body can only be buried, not cremated. But Mrs Schmidt wanted her body to be cremated and the ashes scattered in thea Arabian Se. We are obliged to follow her will, aren’t we? I am clueless about what to do. I don’t know whether to bury her body against her will or continue waiting. Anyhow, I am going to approach the government. Let them decide.