Review: Hangwoman by K R Meera

K R Meera (Translated by J Devika)
2014, pp 438
Rs. 699

Translated from Malayalam, ‘Hangwoman’ is a  gripping narrative about a young woman with the distinction of being India’s first woman executioner. Monideepa Sahu reviews the novel.

This striking novel includes within its majestic sweep the enigmas of the human condition. Life and death; crime and justice; the continued influence of the past in present-day events; of fate and heritage, and the individual’s capability to rise above circumstances and make one’s unique impact; the conflicting facets of man-woman relationships; the author examines all this and more in the course of a fascinating narrative.

Twenty-two-year-old Chetna Grddha Mullick is the youngest member of India’s first family of hangmen, who proudly trace their lineage from several centuries before Christ. We share Chetna’s journey from being the hangman’s daughter to becoming the first hangwoman and a role-model representing the pride and dignity of all women.

Chetna grows up in Kolkata in a poverty-stricken family. Living next to one of Kolkata’s most prominent cremation ghats, Chetna is surrounded by the continuous parade of life and death. Tea shops, barbers, mourners, pushcarts, horsecarts, beggars and sacrificial animals bleating before the slaughter create a din louder than the circular trains. “The mingled scents of sweetmeats cooking in ghee and sunflower oil, and corpses burning on pyres enveloped us.” The author deftly brings to life the chaos and sheer vitality of Kolkata.

A sense of her family’s unique heritage surrounds young Chetna. Her Thakuma’s and her father’s tales of the exploits of their hangman ancestors, right from the times when the Nanda kings ruled the land, are a part of her own story. Their close connections with the kings and rulers of their times and their role in dispensing justice, impact her perception of her own life and role in the present day. “Thakuma never thought that hanging was vile… That is our profession, we kill for the sake of justice. When grandfather Radharaman was a doctor, he saved the prince’s life. When he became the hangman, he executed him… No ordinary person can do it.”
Chetna’s father, the present-day hangman, says, “There can be no nation if law and justice do not prevail… The hangman is the last link in the chain of duty performed by the police and the army. The hangman is not a hired killer. He is a responsible officer (who)… takes away a person’s life for the sake of the nation.”

The death penalty awarded to a murder convict becomes the focus of public debate, sidelining other far-reaching social issues. “Starvation deaths abound in Asansol. There, children die in pain; there are worms eating their bodies and creatures crawling in and out. Why human rights activists are not bothered about extending those lives… why does the nation condemn the guiltless to worse agonies than the guilty?” Swept up in the tide of events, Chetna is appointed the first woman executioner in India, assistant and successor to her father. “Everybody is in the need of the death of somebody or other to leave behind the imprint of power.”  The sensation-seeking media flocks at their door, and Chetna becomes a star on reality TV, offering viewers a ringside view into the hangwoman’s diaries.

“Life had been swinging above the earth all these days. But in a flash of a second, the rope had broken… Like a statue built by daubing clay on delicate bamboo screens, then painted and decked with jewels, I too was put on display. I had acted as if I was omnipotent, full of dignity, seated on a lion, with eight arms stretched out like wings. Now they will cast me out, in the same pose, into the Ganga, seeking atonement for their sins. Into waters stinking with the unbearable stench of the blood of sacrificed animals and floating funeral oblations… I will sink pitifully. I will be consigned, once again, to the very dirt from which I came.” Such stunning images bring out the depth and intensity of Chetna’s spiritual development, and stand testimony to the author’s consummate writing style.

Chetna is inexorably drawn to the ruthlessly manipulative TV journalist, Sanjeev Kumar Mitra. “He was an exceptionally gifted pilferer — not only of Thakuma’s gold coin, but also of people’s hearts.” Chetna “felt as helpless as a bird trapped in the hollow of a burning tree… able neither to fly nor burst into flames… We became two nesting birds in a tree that swam in the air. I fought with myself to put out the fire in my wings.”

In an ironic twist of fate, Chetna remains the only person who can conduct an impending hanging. She breaks free from the shadow of an imperious father and exploitative lover and puts up a stellar performance as she conducts her maiden execution.

This memorable novel has a flaw in the retelling of oral histories. Chetna’s Thakuma and father wax eloquent on their heritage at every opportunity. Even minor characters such as Sanjeev Mitra’s mother Trailokya Devi and veteran journalist Mano Da spout long accounts of days gone by. At such times, they speak in the same way and come across as plot devices rather than individual characters.

The translation isn’t as flawless as this novel deserves. Awkward language can be jarring. Thus, a “twenty-year-old young man arrived in the city.” Then again, “Uncle Sukhdev, whom I call Kaku, and others Sudev, ran up… Seeing him laugh, Phanibhushan Grddha Mullick, whom I call Baba, growled in anger… Hearing the squabble, my grandmother, whom I call Thakuma… hobbled in.”

First published in The Deccan Herald. Reprinted with permission.