Shiva, who uses only one name, says he was about 10 years old when he came across a group of policemen who were offering to pay anyone who would bring a body out of a nearby pond. Police in India are underfunded and poorly trained. Many don’t know how to swim and are not given funds to hire professional divers. So it’s not uncommon for them to rely on such informal, even risky, arrangements. But when Shiva volunteered, he says, they were taken aback. “They initially refused saying I was too young. But I convinced them,” he recalls. He did the job and walked away with 40 rupees, now worth about $0.54 or £0.42 but a decent sum for him at the time.
That was 20 years ago. He is now 30 and still helping the local police. Shiva lives right by Hussain Sagar, a large artificial lake in the heart of Hyderabad. A popular tourist spot, the lake is also used during the Ganesha festival for immersing idols of the Hindu deity.
The lake is also a place where many come to die and Shiva often helps police retrieve bodies out of the water. Sometimes, he also helps them recover bodies from other rivers and lakes in the city. Shiva does more than pulling bodies out of the lake – he often saves people before they jump into the water, and sometimes even after that.
He is now also training his wife to swim so she can help retrieve bodies of women.
Inspector B Dhanalakshmi, who’s posted at the police station near Hussain Sagar lake, acknowledges that Shiva has been “a huge help” to them. “I can’t confirm how many people he has saved over the years, but I believe it’s more than 100,” she told. Suicide is still a crime in India and many people Shiva saves run away even before he can call the police.
Shiva says he never knew his parents and spent most of his childhood on the streets, with brief spells in orphanages. At some point – he can’t be sure how old he was – he started living with a woman and her children who were also homeless. He grew close to them and it was one of her sons who taught him how to swim, a skill that changed the course of his life.