Book Review: HANGWOMAN; K.R.Meera; Translated from Malayalam by J.Devika; 439 pages; Published by Penguin;2014
I kept the company of HANGWOMAN, a novel by KR Meera for more than two months, leaving it from time to time to attend to more worldly duties. But the novel kept calling me back to itself. There are different ways of reading a novel. There are readers who do not want the real world to contaminate or pollute their reading. They want to start and then reach the finishing point in the shortest possible time as if they were in a race.But there could be another way of reading a novel, which is to stay with it for a while. To give it time. Because time is what constitutes a novel. To feel it in your bones is what makes the reader of novels different from other readers.
This review is also a rather late tribute to this collective feat of Rabindranath Tagore, KR Meena and J Devika. As you read the novel you cannot but realise that it would not have been possible without Tagore. The way he, a Bengali poet of yore, is remembered or invoked by Meera,the Malayali novelist and the deceptive ease with which Meera’s words seem to lend themselves to English translation through J Devika, makes it a true creation of the multilingual spirit of India. What is remarkable about it is that, while reading it you get a feeling that you are reading the translation of a Bangla novel.It is also a triumph of the human yearning for universality, a much condemned idea today.
Hangwoman is a startling title for a novel. In Hindi we do not have an equivalent for it. Jallad can be used in a gender-neutral manner. But to get a woman to perform the role requires the kind of novelistic imagination KR Meera has. She says that she was inspired to write this novel after she saw a A Day in the life a Hangman a documentary by Joshy Joseph. The documentary revolves around the day of the execution of Dhananjoy Chatterji, who was sentenced to death in 2004 for raping and murderning a school girl fourteen years back. It focuses on the hangman Nata Mullick and his son who are pursued and hounded by the voyeuristic media, interested in the details of hanging, which pushes to background a debate on the validity or morality of the death-sentence. Meera says she had long dreamt of writing a novel, which explores the place of women in India and this documentary gave her an idea for the backdrop to enact the drama.
Meera creates Chetna Grddha Mullick, a young woman who is the daughter of Phanibhushan Grddha Mullick, the hangman. He is supposed to execute Jatidranath Bannerji after the rejection of his mercy petition by the President.He is no ordinary man. He belong to the famous lineage of Grddha Mullicks who have down the centuries, carried out this ‘sacred’ task for successive powers. The novel weaves the story of the Grddha Mullicks, the fate and fortunes of several of their generations and through them also examines the symbiotic relationship between power and killing. No state has survived without hanging people, is what they believe. Grddha Mullicks have, therefore, been executing ‘enemies of the state and society’ with a sense of detachment only a Sanyasi can have. They have, therefore, turned hanging into an art, by making it look effortless.
This novel is about the power of media, which instead of depicting and commenting on reality, has a perverse desire to to create or forge its own reality. That is how Sanjeev Kumar Mitra, a TV journalist decides and ensures that it would be Chetna Grddha Mullick and not her father who would be ‘performing’ this hanging.And thus is created a ‘hangwoman’, through whom the novel reflects on the complex relationship between life and death, sacred and profane, perversity and sublimity, love and violence, ambition and fate, city and its dwellers. Is there love? The novel wonders with her. And what is evil? Is it always extraordinary? Can there be forgiveness in the world of justice and punishment? We the readers agonise with Chetna brooding over the predicament of being human. Chetna Grddha Mullick has rightly been seen by reviewers of this novel as one of the rare accomplishments of Indian fiction in recent times.
The power of this novel is in its grand mythological sweep, its ability to penetrate deep into its characters and study them with an unforgiving attention and yet with a kindness only novels can have. It traverses centuries and yet remains tied to the moment which has given birth to it, a profane, almost vulgar mediatized twenty first century. It is about here-and-now and the timeless question of the nature of human destiny. Can we change our fate or there is a certain an element of inevitability,which makes or unmake us?
What is delightful about this novel is that without being outwardly conscious it is alive to the task the novel has set before itself as a genre. An essential feature of the novel for example is that it must give us characters to enrich our limited lives with. This novel is crowded with them, each with a different story.The novel is very patient and generous towards them. It weaves their story together, which tightens around you like the noose Grddha Mullicks have used across centuries to ‘execute’ their prisoners. The novel spends quite a lot of time talking about the hangman’s noose tillit almost becomes a character in itself.
The Kolkata of today comes alive in its intricate details, filth, chaos, beauty and calmness together. Its ordinary reality is repulsive and yet there is a certain pull toit. It is a city with a deep sense of the past and the novel does well to remember it. All its characters have this sense of past, which makes them philosophers in their own right.It also makes them tragic. While traversing its expanse you recall Marx who had described human beings as suffering animals. The characters of HANGWOMAN suffer and yet strive to live fully and with grace. They haunt you, invite you to reflect with them on life.
This is a novel which must remain in the bookshelf of novel lovers. It ‘ll teach you patience. For has not novel also been seen as a teacher?
- Book Review, June 2015