Author: KR Meera
Translated from the Malayalam by J Devika
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Pages: 439 pages
Price: Rs 699
By: Samantak Das
No one who lived in Kolkata during the turn of the century could have been indifferent to the names Hetal Parekh, Dhananjoy Chatterjee or Nata Mullick. Hetal was the young schoolgirl who was the victim of Dhananjoy Chatterjee’s brutal rape and murder and Nata Mullick the hangman chosen to put the fatal noose around Chatterjee’s neck in 2004, some 14 years after his heinous crime.
KR Meera borrows liberally from the myth and mystique of the Dhananjoy hanging, the last in West Bengal, to frame the narrative of her Hangwoman, set in a contemporary Kolkata, where her protagonists carry the surname Grddha Mullick and where “Ma, mati, manush” is a readily recognisable slogan. But Hangwoman is much more than a mere fictional reworking of a sensational death sentence, carried out a decade ago.
In her evocation of the space and time of Kolkata — the Chitpur home of the Grddha Mullicks, the inside of Alipore Jail, Writers’ Buildings, lanes, bylanes and alleyways — in her telling of the ways in which Kolkata became what it has become, Meera achieves a vision of the city that is both acutely observed, almost anthropological, in its minute detailing and, at the same time, mythic in its evocation of the city’s decaying, decrepit majesty.
Much of this is due to the voice of the narrator of the novel, the eponymous hangwoman, the first such in India, if not the world, 22-year-old Chetna Grddha Mullick. Possessed of acute powers of observation, pride in her family’s vocation as “famous hangmen for very long, right from the times when the Nanda kings ruled the land” (p 11), by turns ashamed and proud of her garrulous, histrionic, legendary hangman-father, 87-year-old Phanibhushan Grddha Mullick, aware of what her beauty means to predatory males, possessed of the ability to make the perfect hangman’s noose right from the time she was in her mother’s womb, Chetna must surely rank as one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in recent Indian fiction.
When a series of events serve to turn Chetna into India’s first officially-appointed hangwoman, behind which unprecedented fact is the hand of that new god of Indian society, television, she becomes the focus for a series of debates ostensibly having to do with the need, or otherwise, for capital punishment but actually dealing with more fundamental issues relating to gender, class, punishment and crime in contemporary Indian society. Chetna’s “love-affair” with the dashing Sanjeev Kumar Mitra becomes the occasion for a series of acute reflections on the nature, the variety and the perversions of erotic relations between women and men.
All of this is rendered even more extraordinary by Meera’s avowal in her acknowledgements that she first visited Kolkata in 1999 and has never spent an extended period of time there. Perhaps the best way to try and understand this novel is to turn to its translator, J Devika’s description of Hangwoman as “Malayalam’s ultimate gift of love to Bengal” (p. 438), an attempt to repay what Bengali literature has given Malayalam literature through translations that have created a “Dream Bengal, one that has sunk deep roots in our imaginations” (p. 438).
We should consider ourselves fortunate that we are able to read this extraordinary “novel that explores the place of women in India” (KR Meera’s words; p. 433), which is both a testament to the “strength” of its author’s “wayward dreams” (Meera again, p. 435) as well as the power of fiction to make us take a fresh look at our own, teeming, multitudinous, reality. And for that we should be thankful to KR Meera, the novel’s marvellous translator, J. Devika, and Penguin for bringing this to a wider (English) reading public.
Samantak Das teaches literature at Jadavpur University