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A Life Recollected in Intranquility

Review of Hangman's Journal by Shashi Warrier, New Delhi: Viking 2000. 239 pp. Rs 295. (Indian Review of Books, Chennai -- Forthcoming)

The idea is arresting. Imagine a hangman; someone who has hanged 117 men (women are never hanged). He does the bidding of the Raja of Travancore ("what I did I did in the name of the king who I thought ordered it in the name of the lord"), and later, after Independence, executes the deliberated decision of the Government of India. Such a man -- Janardhanan Pillai is his name -- writes a "journal" in his old age, as he recalls a lifetime of death-dealing.

One could expect a book such as this to be a prurient catalogue of crime and punishment: what each man did; how he died; and what he did as he died. Astonishingly, Pillai tells us practically none of those. "I had only studied upto the third class at school" he tells us, and later says, "it is not for the likes of me to claim knowledge of the Gita", but his journal is a stark, spare meditation on what it means to have led a life such as his: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness" -- Nabokov's observation in Speak Memory may well have been made by the hangman.

Asked to take up the "family profession" because his older brother "found himself unwilling to hang people for a living", young Janardhanan, recently wed, and faced with the decision to be or not to be a hangman, must weigh the contempt he has seen his father get against the advantage of a regular source of income even in bad years. "Your family will never starve", his father assures him, and so, after his father, Janardhanan becomes the aratchar (meaning "honourable supervisor or inspector" he is told).

However, the social stigma surrounding the aratchar is hard to get used to: "The silence is permanent. Relatives outside my immediate family don't speak to me even now.... I bring silence wherever I go", he says sadly. Both the inmates and jail staff fall silent when he arrives to "test the gallows". Those duties he takes seriously: the scaffold must be cleaned; the levers oiled; and the ropes tested by dropping a stone dummy.

Hangman's Journal, in fact, begins with a precise account of the mechanics of an execution by hanging: the dimensions of the scaffold; the various levers and pulleys; the length of the rope, and its relation to the weight of the prisoner and his height; the infelicity of these weights and measures in the metric system, as opposed to their neatness in the foot-pound system; and finally the degree to which the experienced hangman internalises these facts and figures. The prologue of Hangman's Journal rivals in its tenebrous brilliance the beginning of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison with its eyewitness account of a public execution.

The resemblance to Foucault's masterpiece ends there. Neither Pillai nor Warrier is interested in Hanging as a defining moment in any History of Reason. They are both storytellers, and as such tell a complexly interwoven moral tale of a life recollected in much intranquility: "How will I face god when my time comes?" the hangman asks.

He is plagued by nightmares of a masked prisoner "whose mask is flat. In a moment of insight I know that there is no face behind the mask.... I feel his hands tighten about my neck, powerful hands that I can't pry loose." Janardhanan usually wakes up at this point, bathed in sweat.

Putting these thoughts on paper is catharsis of sorts. But only of sorts. The memories come thick and fast -- most deeply unsettling, some outright terrifying. A life of quiet retirement disappears in this metamorphosis of hangman into writer. And thereby hangs a tale too. In a recent interview, Warrier narrates how the "editors at Penguin saw a news item on the hangman of Meerut and it struck them that it would make a good storyline. They approached me.... Except that instead of Kallu the hangman I have written on Janardhan (sic) Pillai...." Inevitably, the reworking has also included the personality of the hangman himself. As Warrier acknowledges in the novel, "the protagonist is to a large extent my creation".

Curiously though, "writer" is a name Janardhanan reserves for the Warrier author-persona (never named in the novel, incidentally), never for himself, even as he discovers the intimate interplay of memory and life: "Writing was the easy part; living with what you learnt while writing was difficult". Nor is Warrier left untouched by this struggle. In the interview cited above, Warrier further blurs the personae of the creator and creature: "A book like this makes you look at your own fear of dying."

In his journal, Janardhanan tracks the growth of his friendship with his old schoolteacher, Maash (short for Master), who in the hangman's adulthood gives him a rather different sort of education in the history, politics, and moral ambivalences of the world they live in: "Our kings were fools, the British were cunning, and the people were too stupid to do anything for themselves, brainwashed by their rulers and their scriptures."

Their friendship is one focus of this ellipse of a novel, the other being the relationship between the hangman and the writer. Janardhanan is quite pessimistic of Warrier's abilities. Mystified at the precision of his memory of the gallows, he uncharitably observes:

"For a moment I considered asking the writer if he knew anything of the nature of such memories.... [But] I did not ask because I knew that he would give me a little lecture on how those memories were formed and tell me a few fancy new words in English to describe them: in what he said there would be nothing of value to an old man trying to write a book for the first time in his life. That man was full of long words and surprises. I suppose he could be a good man if he tried hard, but he'd have to try very hard."

Besides, a novel written in Tamil, laboriously deciphered by a Malayalam speaker, to be eventually rendered in English? "If he twisted anything I said ... it would reflect upon me and my sons.... Trust was difficult. Trusting a stranger was doubly difficult." The voyage is long and the dangers many.

But the arrival of this remarkable book is to be welcomed.

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