Translation Literary Review

And thereby hangs a tale

Hangwoman; K.R. Meera, Trs. J. Devika, Penguin, Rs. 699.  

In his 1928 book, A Handbook on Hanging, Charles Duff, an officer in the British Merchant Navy, argued that capital punishment is brutal killing, regardless of the claims of its deterrent effects. Pained by the falling value of human life, Czech writer Pavel Kohout, in The Hangwoman, depicts a 15-year-old girl joining the Central Academy for Hangmen and mastering the art of execution. Now there is K.R. Meera’s novel, Hangwoman — translated from Malayalam by J. Devika — on the many-tangled knots in the realms of crime and punishment, right and wrong, and life and death. The novel, which was triggered by a documentary on hangman Nata Mullick, has a wide canvas and is inspired by a deep insight into human nature. Set in Kolkata, it is as much about life as about death; about the nation’s frailties and strengths, gender divide, violence against women, abuse of power and the ineffable strength of the human spirit to bear or transcend misery.

The story is told through the history of the Mullicks, hereditary hangmen of Kolkata. Chetna, the family’s youngest member, grabs eyeballs as India’s first woman executioner. She lands in the hot seat of a TV show and reels off fables of her family’s centuries-old engagement with tightening the noose — a brazen reflection of a nation enamoured by judicial killing (underscored by the subtitle, Everybody Loves a Good Hanging). The past and present coalesce in this masterly tribute to Kolkata — to its history, its 19 and 20 century renaissance, its myths and fables and heroes, its love for Jatra, poetry and cinema, and sandesh. Brief impressions of the times of Nati Binodini, Girish Chandra Ghosh, the Tagores of Jorasanko and Sri Ramakrishna mingle with images of shadows creeping towards the shantytown of Sonagachi and the dust, filth and stench of Kolkata’s streets.

Running through the novel’s heart is Chetna’s complex relationship with Sanjeev Kumar Mitra, a TV journalist whom she fancies and eventually hates for his alpha male traits. Meera’s icily sardonic black-edged prose strangles tentacles of male arrogance and cocks a snook at the growing media invasion of the individual’s privacy.

Chetna’s maiden experience at the gallows, which whips up the climax, makes chilling reading: “I checked the noose, made sure the knot was strong. Then I pulled the rope and passed the noose over the head and fitted it perfectly between the second and third vertebrae, as if I were offering flowers to a deity. I let out a deep breath...I pulled the lever. The planks below moved away with a thunderous noise. Like the sky falling, Jatindranath’s body fell straight in. My eyes were glued to the rope. One, two, three four...someone was counting inside my head. Twenty! The rope became still.”

A few minutes earlier, as Chetna led Jatindranath to the 3.2 kg Buxar rope knotted with 13 loops, she folded her hands and said, ‘Dada, tumi amaake khoma karo (Brother, please forgive me). She tilted his face sideways and kissed his cheek. He smelt like a flower. He said, with a smile, ‘ Tomar Bhalo Bhobe (God bless you)!’

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 10:21:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/and-thereby-hangs-a-tale/article6667640.ece

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