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“Measuring out the rope, testing it, tying the knots – I do these things well. I have learnt to do them well because I concentrate on them best I can, because if I don’t my mind will find its way to the man about to die, and then I will have no peace …”
Based on the life of Janardhanan Pillai, the last hangman to the king of Travancore, ‘Hangman’s Journal’ is an insightful book on the business of death. Taking up this unusual topic, Warrier mixed fact and fiction in the right components to give us the nitty-gritties about the hangman’s life. But the book doesn’t aim to evoke sympathy or disgust. It is a medium for us to understand the emotions that go in to a job where your only task is to kill people.
The book starts off with the author getting news that the hangman is dead but has left his memoirs for the author. The hangman, who was retired and living quietly, was persuaded by the young writer to pen down all his thoughts in the form of a journal. After much convincing, he takes up the challenge as he sees the writer is understanding and introspective. The hangman believes this will give him a chance to share his weight of the past and relieve some off his shoulders, to exorcise the demons that come as nightmares. He hopes agitatedly that that exercise will help him answer all his questions. And he records it all in seven notebooks.
But what emerges is not the gory and ghastly details of the job, but immense concentration on the hangman’s life, his choices and the turmoil faced by a man who is weighed down by his family, society and the social status he fails to achieve. The hangman’s character is crafted with a simmering intensity by Warrier and in parts; Warrier shows men caught between their patriarchal homes and the society outside. Using this, he creates the backdrop of rural India. In an undertone of this, he shows how sons are forced into their fathers’ footsteps to feed their families in times of droughts.
“I have failed or succeeded in life as much as any other man. I have done my best. Yet no one wants to get too close to the hangman. It’s as if the man is a leper …”
The character of the hangman infuses objectivity and pragmatism and writes with intensity as various memories of his childhood and life come rushing to him at the oddest of times. He contemplates on how over the years, everyone has changed, but yet he was left burdened with this job. Warrier weaves in and out of the narrative with delicate details of the hangman’s marriage, how his wife stood by him when he took over the job from his father and the intimacy they shared despite his own inner confusions that darkened his days. And while talking about the rituals of beheading the rooster before each hanging, Warrier addresses the most important question in the story.
“Strange, isn’t it, that the rituals took care of the king and the messengers and the superintendent, but ignored the hangman, the only one who cared?”
The hangman, after all that he does, isn’t portrayed as a cold-hearted and dispassionate man. Instead, he is portrayed as a man who fights with his conscience daily. A man at angst and full of questions, that seems to remain unanswered. He cares and that is his greatest mistake.
He agonises over what is morally correct and what is not and yet there is directness and simplicity about the way he visualises life and death and dharma. He encounters several people: his favourite professor Maash, the pujari at the temple, and yet the truth remains an illusion to him. No one is able to offer the hangman what he would most like to hear.
“Am I a wisp of smoke to be blown about by the winds of fate?”
Warrier handles the subject delicately as he meanders through the hangman’s life. He layers up stories and contradictions about the hangman’s life skilfully, handling the subtler complexities of intertwining moral dilemmas and the shifting nature of reality over which we have little or no control. The result is a haunting and powerful yet unsettling account of a man written with a delicate assurance.
“In my mind that spot is very clearly visible, for there are the marks of feet all the way up to it, but none leading away.”
Overall Rating: 9/10
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