In the heat and the dust of the Indian south, the last hangman of Travancore commits his life to paper. Into seven notebooks he remembers the men he has killed, calmly calling to mind the final struggles of the men he hung by the neck to die.
The Last Hangman is a remarkable and haunting novel: a meditation on death and what it means to end a life. It is a challenging and harrowing book that explores a great moral question: when does someone who kills become a murderer?
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The Last Hangman
By Shashi Warrier
Grove Atlantic LtdCopyright © 2000 Shashi Warrier
All rights reserved.
They came at the worst possible time, at two on an afternoon in late April when the summer's sun was getting to be its pitiless worst.
Chellammal, my wife, was away at a friend's house: she comes and goes as she pleases, and I stopped interfering with her long ago because she does as she wants anyway. There was never anything in my house to steal, just a few pots and pans and clothes and sticks of furniture, so I left the door open always. I was alone in the backyard, looking at the parched fields, at the soil caking hard and cracking with thirst. Beside the fields, a coconut plantation and a mango orchard, both retaining their green cover, gave an illusion of lushness from above. But when you looked closely the soil underneath was bone dry, its moisture sucked out by the hungry sun.
Despite the harsh heat I was smoking a beedi, my fifth of the day: these small vices make an old man's summer bearable. My dog, a stray that had walked into the yard one night some years ago, came skulking up to my side. He was thick-limbed and stiff with age, but still strong, though his eyes were beginning to go. He lay at my feet with a small grunt of satisfaction, panting hard, his tongue out.
In the stillness of the afternoon there was little noise: the heat brings with it a terrible sluggishness that affects everything that lives – the cattle, the dogs, and even the kites that drift high above. As for me, I don't sleep much. There was little I could do but sit still, too lethargic to do anything, but unable to doze off. It's an old man's habit.
I sat in the warm shade and let my mind drift. Sometimes when something happens, you think you will never forget it. You think you will never forget your wedding, for instance, but I've forgotten ... I've forgotten even what my wife looked like on our wedding day, and on the rare occasions I look at my wedding photographs I think it's a pair of strangers in there. I've forgotten the day I first went to school, though I remember one of the schoolmasters very well. My memory is unpredictable, for sometimes the smallest of incidents lingers on in my mind far longer than it should. I still remember, for instance, the call of the raven from high above when we were doing the last rites for my father, but I don't remember my father's face clearly. Sometimes my memory irritates me: I remember a face in great detail, features and wrinkles and all, but can't put a name to it or even recall the context in which I saw it.
So these random memories were all I lived with, and I had grown fond of them, for though they betrayed me once in a while they were my only friends ... How true they were was another matter.
These memories and an approaching blackness – a sort of heavy blackness. I often wondered what it was. Was it the sadness that caught my father when he was past seventy, as I am now? I wondered, though I had felt it since I was sixty.
I heard the car from far away, a distant hum that grew and sometimes stopped, perhaps when they stopped to ask for directions. The sound interrupted my thoughts, which took a long time to get back together. This made the people in the car intruders, whoever they were. Who were they, anyway, I thought, and whom did they want to meet? My neighbours are poor, as am I; we have nothing to do with wealthy people who have cars. Who would want to visit one of us?
A few minutes later I heard the car stop and the doors slam shut. There were voices then, a man and a woman, speaking in English, a language that I can recognize but don't understand. They seemed to be near by, so I went slowly around my small two-room house, the dog following stiffly, and found at my gate two young strangers. The man was tall and fat and bearded and bespectacled, the woman thin and fair-skinned, with red lips. As I watched, the dog went up to the woman, who was leading, and began to sniff at her skirt.
She did not fear him. She bent and patted his head, scratching him behind his ears, just where he likes to be scratched. He grunted in pleasure and went still. She straightened up, looking hesitantly at me. 'Do you know where Janardhanan Pillai lives?' she asked in Tamil. Her Tamil was chaste, the language of the wealthy, not the earthy sing-song that you hear around my house.
'Yes,' I replied. I answered the question but volunteered nothing.
She waited for a few seconds before she asked, 'Where does he live, then?'
I pointed at the small whitewashed house with the thatch roof. 'Here.'
'Janardhanan Pillai, the hangman? The aratchar?'
'Yes,' I said. 'The aratchar. He lives here.'
She looked me up and down, and hesitated again. 'Do you know him?' she asked.
I couldn't evade any more. 'I am him,' I replied. Her tone changed a little, the relief showing. 'We come from far away,' she said. 'We have been looking for your house for most of the day ... We must have asked at a dozen places, disturbed a dozen others.'
'What do you want from me?' I asked. No one comes far unless they want something, and these people must have wanted it very badly, whatever it was, to come out here in the heat and on these bad roads.
She looked me in the eye. 'Words,' she said, briefly.
For the first time I felt a spark of curiosity. 'What words?' I asked.
'My friend is a writer,' she replied. 'He seeks your words.'
They must have prepared for this meeting. 'Why does he not speak for himself?' I asked. 'What man would have a woman speak for him?'
'A man who does not know the language,' she said. She smiled then, a smile of relief that I had not turned them away forthwith.
Some of my anger dissolved in that smile. I am old but when a beautiful young woman smiles at me I still respond. This one was a little too thin, and her face was painted, but she was still quite beautiful. 'What is his language, then?' I asked. 'Malayalam?' They speak Malayalam in Kerala, only forty kilometres away.
'He speaks Malayalam,' she said, 'but he writes in English.'
People like this had come before. They had taken photographs and they had written about me, most in Tamil, a few in Malayalam, and one or two in English. I had been happy and proud at first to see my face in the newspapers, to read about myself, but very soon it became unimportant, for they never said anything that mattered. 'From which newspaper?' I asked.
'None,' she replied. 'He wants to write a whole book about you.'
'A book.' The others had come and sat and talked for hours just to produce a quarter of a page in a newspaper. How much time of mine would this man take, I wondered, to write a book of a few hundred pages? But the idea was attractive.
Deep in my heart I had wanted all along to write a book. To write my own book. I had thought about my book for a quarter-century, but never put down a word. I had thought vaguely that there was enough in my mind for a good story. And always I had postponed writing it, not knowing why. Now, perhaps, the time had come to write it. And this man was there, for me to learn from.
'What will he call the book?' I asked.
'Hangman's Journal,' she replied. 'The publishers suggested the name. It seems all right. He will write it as if you are writing it: a first-person narrative.'
'A book about me, written by a stranger half my age pretending to be me,' I repeated. It seemed funny, but I didn't think they'd see the humour. 'How long will it take?'
She didn't reply immediately. When you are as old as I am, and have seen a lifetime of lies, it is easy to tell when someone is lying to you. I saw the hesitation in her eyes, and then a decision to tell the truth. 'He will probably take six to eight months to write the book,' she explained.
'And will it be printed soon after that?'
She shook her head. Again there was the hesitation, followed by the truth. 'Perhaps six to eight months more. Perhaps a year.'
'Will it have my photograph on the cover?' Fifteen or twenty years ago it would have made a difference, but no longer. I had no desire to be in the public eye. All the same, I did want to know if these people would try to evade.
Again there was the hesitation, then the truth afterwards. 'I don't know.'
'And will he make a lot of money out of it?'
'He does not know,' she explained. 'Writing ... If you write you must be prepared to be poor.'
'If he is poor, how does he have a car?'
'It's not his car,' she explained. 'It's mine. I like his writing, so I help him when I can.'
'And what are you to him?' I asked.
'An old friend who likes books, and a distant relative ... I've known him since he was two.'
I looked more closely and suddenly I knew that the woman was older, though she didn't look it ... They were colleagues of a sort. It seems very common these days. A few years ago a girl came, from a magazine. With her came a photographer, a young man. God knows what the world is coming to: in my youth you wouldn't see a man and a woman travelling together unless they were married. At least these two were related. 'So what will I get out of it?' I asked. Here they were, asking me to help with a book, a book yet to be written, saying that writing does not pay. What did they think they could give me to persuade me to give them the words?
'I don't know,' she replied. 'I thought you would be pleased to have a book written about you ... But he is willing to share the money that he will get for it.'
'Half for you. Half for him.'
They had prepared thoroughly for this meeting then, for she spoke without consulting him. Again it struck me that these two were very close, very close in mind, and then it didn't seem odd, their being here together. Half the money sounded good, but I knew that half of nothing is nothing. 'How much would that be?'
'Let me confirm with him,' she said. They spoke in English, and he nodded. Again she smiled.
'You'll get a minimum of five thousand rupees, maybe more.'
Five thousand for me was not bad, even if I had to spend a month with the writer. 'Is that all he gets?' I asked.
'He gets a royalty after that, some money for each book sold, but what he gets is adjusted against the advance.'
So it was possible that he wouldn't get anything after that advance. I looked carefully at the man. His clothes were poor, not much better than mine, cheap cotton. He was young, in his middle to late thirties. They both looked earnest, and they had taken a lot of trouble. But could I trust them? They would come and take my words and disappear. 'Only half?' I asked, playing for time. 'The words are mine, he just writes them down ... And for that he gets half? That doesn't sound right.'
She turned to explain to him but he held up a hand: he knew enough to understand what I had said. I could see it in his eyes. He spoke, firmly and briefly, and said to me, 'This book is not about money. This is about your mind, your soul. If you are going to talk, you will talk regardless of the money.'
He was right: he could see that the money wasn't important. Maybe he needed it more than I did. 'All right,' I said. 'Let's talk for a while. We'll decide later about whether I'll help with the book and how much money you pay me.' I paused. 'Let's go into the house.'
The man spoke again, bending towards the woman. An ordinary voice, as deep as one would expect from a man his size. She nodded at him, then turned to ask me, 'Would you mind sitting outside, in the shade?'
'As you wish,' I said. 'Why?'
'He wants to get a feel for the land,' she replied. 'He likes to sit and watch.'
'Why does he want to do that?'
'To get a sense of your origins, your background.'
'All right.' I didn't mind. From outside the interior of the house looked dark and deceptively cool: inside, it would be stifling. That was why I was outside in the first place. 'I'll get chairs.'
'Don't bother,' the woman said. 'We can sit there.' She pointed at a lump of concrete by the house.
So there we sat, me in the doorway and the two of them on the concrete, facing me. I saw the curiosity in his eyes then. In the eyes of the others there was reserve, and sometimes pity. In some there was awe, and in others horror. But in this man there was nothing but curiosity. He came with an empty mind.
'So what do you want me to tell you?' I asked the man. It was clear that he understood simple Tamil, that the woman would interpret the long words and the nuances.
He spoke to the woman in English, and she turned to me to ask, 'If the hundred and seventeen people you hanged could hear you today, what would you tell them?'
Strange question to start with. The others, the ones from the newspapers, asked about the rituals and the rope and how it was done, and added on at the end a question about how it felt. This man was starting with the heart of the matter. I thought in silence for a moment, but nothing surfaced in my mind. I have, after all, been asking myself this same question for the past quarter-century and have not yet found an answer. I shook my head. 'Later,' I said. 'Ask me something else now. I'll have to think about it.'
The man spoke in her ear, and she asked. 'Haven't you thought about it all along?'
'Yes,' I smiled at their youth. 'Very little else, these past few years, since I retired.'
'Well ...' she said, cocking an eyebrow at me.
'For some questions you don't get easy answers. Ask me something else.'
They spoke again, and she said, 'But this is the most important question. Unless he has some kind of a beginning of an answer he won't be able to write the book.'
'Why not?' I asked, trying to draw him towards the circus of rituals. 'There was a lot of ritual in the old days.'
He tapped her wrist. I think he didn't understand the word I used for ritual. She explained to him, and he spoke a question to her. She shook her head at him, but then turned to me. 'He says he knows that you are the only one who knows about what it was like in the days of the king, and afterwards. That is why he has come to you. He asks, from your point of view, did it make a difference?'
That was easy to answer. 'No,' I said. 'It made no difference who gave the orders, the king or the government that followed him.' After I'd said this, I felt that it wasn't entirely true, but I let it be.
She translated for him again. There was a smile on his face when he told her his question. She shook her head again, the bell of hair dancing about her head, and I heard him repeat himself. 'Difficult question,' she said to me. 'He says that if it made no difference who gave the orders, the rituals don't matter. Isn't that so?'
'That might be so,' I said, feeling trapped. 'Tell me, what do you really want from me?'
He understood that question. He spoke to her for some time, for nearly three minutes, as far as I could judge, with many gestures of his hands. He had restless hands, this one, but his eyes were very focused.
She heard him out in silence. 'He says he wants to look at your point of view on executions, on life. He has read a little of the ritual but is not satisfied. People in this country have looked into the minds of condemned men. They have looked into the minds of prison officials, and the judges who have delivered sentences of death. But no one has done that with the hangman. He wants to look into your mind and write a book about it.'
He was asking of me the hardest question of them all. I didn't have the strength right then to speak to him. I rose from my doorstep and stretched. 'I'm tired now,' I told them. 'Let me think about things a little more.'
'When should we come next?' the man asked abruptly in his accented Tamil. His impatience showed.
'Where do you live?' I asked.
'In Nagercoil, for the time being,' she replied. 'On West Car Street, near the snake temple in the heart of the town. I have relatives there, and so does he.'
'Come back in two days,' I said. 'And come in the morning. If you come in the morning I will be able to offer you coffee.'
'The day after tomorrow? About eleven in the morning?' he asked, still groping for the right word.
I liked that, the way he groped for words. He seemed like a man who tried hard to get things right. 'Yes,' I told him. 'The day after tomorrow. At eleven ...'
Excerpted from The Last Hangman by Shashi Warrier. Copyright © 2000 Shashi Warrier. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
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