For many years, Shiva helped police find the body at Hussain Sagar Lake in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. And then one day, he stops someone before they jump down, saving a life for the first time. BBC Telugu̵7;s Balla Satish reports.
Shiva, who used only one name, said he was around 10 years old when he came across a group of policemen offering to pay anyone who took the body into a nearby pond.
The police in India are trained poorly and in need. Many people do not know how to swim and are not funded to hire professional divers. So it’s no wonder they rely on informal, even risky agreements.
But when Shiva volunteered, he said, they were surprised. “At first they refused to say I was too young. But I convinced them,” he recalls.
He finished the job and left with 40 rupees, currently worth about $ 0.54 or £ 0.42 but a decent sum for him at the time.
That was 20 years ago. He is 30 years old and is still helping the local police.
Shiva lives right next to Hussain Sagar, a large man-made lake in the city center. As a popular tourist destination, the lake is also used during the Ganesha festival to immerse the idols of Hindu gods.
The statues disintegrate underwater and Shiva catches the iron made from them and sells them to recyclers.
But the lake is also home to many deaths, and Shiva often helps the police remove the body from the water. Sometimes, he also helps them recover bodies from other rivers and lakes in the city.
Shiva does more than drag corpses out of lakes – he usually saves people before they jump into the water, and sometimes even after.
“I can’t count how many bodies I have found. But I have saved 114 lives,” he told the BBC.
He is also currently training his wife to swim so she can help retrieve the dead woman.
Inspector B Dhanalakshmi, who was registered at the police station near Hussain Sagar Lake, admitted that Shiva was “of great help” to them.
“I cannot confirm how many people he has saved over the years, but I believe more than 100 people,” she told the BBC. Suicide is still a crime in India and many people saved by Shiva flee even before he calls the police.
Shiva says he never knew his parents and spent most of his childhood on the streets, with brief spells in the orphanage. At some point – he couldn’t be sure how old he was – he started living with a woman and her children were also homeless. He became close to them and it was one of her sons who taught him how to swim, a skill that changed his life.
Read more about BBC Telugu’s coverage
“I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years – addiction, disease, hunger, accident,” he said. The boy who taught him to swim – “my brother Lakshman,” he called to him – accidentally drowned and another best friend died while trying to save another.
He said because he couldn’t save them, he was trying to make up for that by saving others.
Saving his life gives him an extra amount of money – sometimes the people he saves pay him out of gratitude. And the local press coverage turned him into a little celebrity and got him small roles in Telugu movies. But Shiva says he doesn’t consider saving people a job.
Everyone’s suicidal motives, he says, vary widely – from exam pressure to erroneous relationships to family feud and financial woes. Elderly people sometimes try to kill themselves when abandoned by their children, he said.
Recently, he said that he saw a man jump into a lake, lest he might have been infected with coronavirus. The man’s friend then jumps in to save him and Shiva jumps in too, but he can only save the friend. He said that family members of the deceased did not even remove the body for fear of infection.
“So I cremated him,” he said. “I saved another man who said his family started neglecting him ever since they thought he had the virus.”
But his work comes at a high price – heavily polluted Hussain Sagar and Shiva, who regularly dives into the water without tools or a suit, says he has had skin rashes and illnesses. other, including a typhoid attack.
“There is no time to pack. You have to react quickly. If you see someone dancing, you have to jump immediately.”
The lake also smells bad during the summer and snakes are often found on its shores, but Shiva has no plans to continue.
“I want to stay here,” he said. “As long as I stay here, I can save lives. The satisfaction of saving a human life is paramount.”
Read the BBC Telugu story here
Information and support
If you or someone you know needs help with your emotional issues, these organizations can help.
If you are in India and are feeling emotional distress, visit Aasra and Befrienders International for more information on support services.