hagman”” alt=””hagman”” />THE HANGMAN’S JOURNAL mixes fact with fiction along with tracing the innermost thoughts of a man who chose being a hangman in the early 1940s for the prison authorities in the Kingdom of Travancore and, after independence the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. For three decades after the courts had passed a death sentence it was left to Janardhanan Pillai as the ‘aratcher’ or the hangman to put the condemned man to death, swiftly and clinically. Each time he returned from the gallows Pillai told himself that it would be the last time. But he went back a hundred and seventeen times.
Authored by Shashi Warrier the book goes into the mind of a man struggling to come to terms with his dharma, his conscience and his shame. It sheds light on the innermost feelings of the hangman. It is a narrative about the goings on inside Pillai’s head who believes his existence and that of his family depends on death. In the epilogue Pillai admits candidly “”I have done something that I never thought I could do. I have written a book. Here it is in these notebooks that you (Warrier) gave me. Here also is the pen you gave me: I return it because I am not going to write another book. I wrote what I had to. I opened many doors in my mind, and closed a few, and laid a few ghosts to rest. As you see the book is not concluded. I do not know how to end it. It is for you to do so. I only know that at this moment I feel free, peaceful and I want this feeling to last.””
They call it the drop which snaps the life of a condemned person. The warders have a little table for it, to tell you what distance the condemned man must fall with the noose around his neck, for him to die cleanly. Experts explain that the person must fall just enough to gather sufficient momentum for the rope to break his neck. The British worked it out as a rule of thumb. However, no hangman worth his salt needs the table or a weighing scale, or a measuring tape. He can guess the weight of the man to within five pounds, and then work out the length of the drop to within an inch.
The hangman lived some 400 Km away in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu and the Warrier being in Kerala decided to meet him. He telephones a woman to inform her if the situation required then he would like her to join him later which she did. When he reached the hangman’s house he was informed that Pillai had died some two weeks back. Pillai’s wife asked her son to hand over a packet to the author as her late husband had desired. These were seven notebooks in which the Hangman had penned down his feelings and thoughts.
Pillai found it difficult to answer the first question that was posed to him: “”If 117 people you hanged could hear you today, what would you tell them?”” Starting with the heart of the matter the hangman was foxed. “”Ask me something else now. I’ll have to think about it,”” he observed initially. Pillai was also worried that if the author twisted anything he had said and put it in his book it would reflect on him and his sons. Even though trusting a stranger was doubly difficult, the hangman decided to take his chances.
The author and the woman from the publishers who spoke Tamil helped translate whatever Pillai had to say to the questions put to him. Anyhow it was agreed that the hangman would write his story in Tamil for which the notebooks and pen were made available to Pillai. Warrier asked the hangman not to throw away any scrap of paper as it might not be of value to him but might be useful to the former.
It did not matter in the old days because the hangman was the king’s hatchet man. May be two hundred years ago the hangman came from a family of handpicked men, loyal to the death, willing to obey the king’s most ridiculous command without question. They killed without compunction, and one life more or less did not matter to them. But Pillai insisted he was “”no hatchet man. Every life mattered to me. I am of peasant blood, of a family of farmers and tillers of the land, taught over generations to nurture life rather than take it away. The king was my master until independence. I had no choice, really, for I don’t want anybody else to be damned as I have been. I have borne the guilt too long. If what I have written is treason, let them do what they will. I have nothing left that they can take.””
The original grant that the hangman’s family received was some sixty acres of tax free land. The king took no revenue from it. This aside there was more land — fields of paddy. And there was uncultivated land on which cashews grew wild. Along with the grant of land came money: seventeen Rupees a month. The clan grew rich. By decree they became janmis, landed gentry. They had wealth and servants. Every now and then they got a message directly from the king, so regardless of their caste, which was not the highest, they had the grudging respect of everyone in the area.
Since the clan followed the matrilineal system, the right was inherited not by the son of the hangman but his son-in-law, the husband of his eldest daughter, and so on. So they began to look for someone who would do the hangman’s job for them. They found his father, a distant cousin of theirs, close enough to be given the job. He took it because he must have known hunger, and one of the perks of the job was a grant of three large sacks of paddy, each about 85 Kg, from each of the two annual harvests. This supplemented by the allowance that father got for each hanging, saw them through the worst years. But there was never quite enough.
The weight of Pillai’s executions, the weight of the pain of killing at least one man who had done no real wrong, all these burdened his mind. He could not eat and sleep came rarely. He could not go back to his friends, or whatever he had considered normal before Warrier came. There was a distance between him and his wife Chellammal but somehow she did not seem to mind. “”I began to understand how I had changed. After I started on the book I hardly noticed anything. My vision had shifted from the fields outside to those inside my mind, and I still l had no idea what I would find there. I did not know what I was looking for.””
Pillai finally discovered that he was no longer the aratchar. The king’s privy purse had been abolished. With the abolition of the purse his job could come to an end. It is likely that he will have to hang no more. The emptiness persisted, and the thought came again, “”you’ve written enough: stop. Without opening them I held the notebooks I had grown so close to in these few months and felt only a great relief. Death was at the core of it. How could I have killed? How could I atone? The confusion grew, for all the truths I had learnt seemed to have been washed away as if in a flood.”” The book is thought provoking and an unforgettable tale.
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(T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator.)