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Death Becomes Her: Malayalam writer KR Meera on plotting the history of Indian women through Hangwoman

Hangwoman, the idea of which came to Meera after watching Joshy Joseph's documentary One Day from a Hangman's Life, traces the macabre universe of the first family of hangmen in Kolkata.

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | Updated: August 1, 2014 4:30 pm
writer-main Malayalam writer KR Meera (Source: Praveen Khanna)

When PK Parakkadavu, writer and editor at Madhyamam Weekly, a Malayalam cultural magazine, urged author and journalist KR Meera to turn in a manuscript, she found that the short novel she had planned, was going in directions she hadn’t intended it to. It led her to Kolkata, a city she wasn’t familiar with, and to Chetna Grddha Mullick, the 22-year-old protagonist of her novel Aarachar, the English translation of which (Hangwoman translated by J Devika, Penguin India) has recently been released to flattering reception.

Hangwoman, the idea of which came to Meera after watching Joshy Joseph’s documentary One Day from a Hangman’s Life, traces the macabre universe of the first family of hangmen in Kolkata. That destiny is bequeathed to Chetna when it is time to find a successor for her aging father Phanibhushan. By then, Chetna has already learned that there are “seven hundred and twenty-seven different ways” to hang a man, and that to break the neck effortlessly, the noose should be placed between the third and fourth vertebrae after measuring out the weight of the condemned and the hollow in his neck, so that death comes no later than five seconds.

Textured with violence, the novel alternates between quasi-historical events dating back to the Nanda rule over Bengal, “four hundred and twenty years before Christ”, and present-day Kolkata, with its thrust on instant gratification. “In all my works, what I have attempted as a writer is to narrate and record the way we evolve emotionally, culturally, politically and even spiritually. Hangwoman needed many historic and political references as it was recording the emotional history of the women of our country through the ages. Above all, I wanted to write a novel which would stand apart from the novels already written in Malayalam. I am paranoid about not repeating myself,” says Meera, 44.

A literary heavyweight in Kerala with works such as Meerasadhu, Moha Manja (translation, Yellow Is the Colour of Longing) and Ave Maria (which won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for the best short story collection between 2006-08) to her credit, writing had come to the Kottayam-based Meera early in life. The first piece of finished work was a travelogue, written when she was around 10, followed by poems and stories, but she was to realise the impact of it on her life much later, while working as a journalist with the Malayala Manorama. “I had scribbled some stories just for the sake of writing while I was on medical leave during pregnancy. Later, I happened to meet an old family friend…She handed me a notebook of stories and poems. I took the notebook home, but then she would call me every night to ensure that the book was safe. One night as I was entering our house after the day’s editorial work, the phone rang. She had called to ask me whether the book is safe. That night, I sat thinking about her…and about myself. I had a revelation that when I become old, I too would be obsessed about what I have written and not by family or children. I restarted creative writing that night,” she says. Her husband Dileep, also a journalist, found the stories on her computer and send them to various publications and by 2006, Meera had quit journalism to take up writing full time, writing short stories, novels, essays and even screenplays.

Her years as a journalist, however, still holds sway over her literary avatar. “The journalist in me always criticises the way the writer in me judges life. She demands innovation in form and content. She is obsessed with the accuracy of facts and figures used to impart credibility to imaginary situations. She has very strong ideas about the duty of the writer towards the society and demands absolute fidelity. The writer in me is scared of the questions the journalist in me asks – ‘what is new?’ or ‘what’s the big deal?’,” says Meera, adding, “I was more balanced and stronger while I was a journalist. But at this point, there is no going back. Once you grow wings, you can’t become a caterpillar again.”

This scrutiny led her to throw herself into a period of intense research during 2011-12, when she was working on Hangwoman. For someone who had never lived in Kolkata or been to a prison, let alone witnessed a hanging, it was the steady stream of books she sought out and the city she roamed relentlessly that provided her with the minutiae. “The emotional investment is huge in all my stories… And it was extraordinarily high in Aarachar. I wanted to break free from everything and everyone, for the whole world seemed to be hostile to me. For the first time I realised what many writers over centuries had meant by the pain and agony of writing. Also, I found out how much writing meant to me. It was like someone putting a noose around my neck and dragging me all the way,” says Meera, who is now mid-way through a novel titled A Woman Clothed in Sun that is being serialised in a magazine.

She never expected the novel to be read by a “non-Malayali”, but as a vernacular writer, reaching out to a wider audience is never far from her thoughts. “Without translations, there is no question of reaching out to the wider public. In fact, there are excellent literary works in Indian languages which are available in English. But it’s sad that they are not available in our sister languages. It is very rarely that a Malayalam book is translated into Oriya or Assamese and vice versa,” she says.

While she shrugs off any attempts to tag her work as feminist — “A true writer is inherently a feminist, humanist, environmentalist and a socialist,” she says — she admits to a weakness for short stories, a love born out of practicality than sentimentality. The tradition of short fiction has always been vibrant in Malayalam and the normal course of growth for a writer from the region has been to begin with the form before graduating to novels. “I wrote most of my short stories during 2001-2005 and had a group of talented young writers like Priya AS, Benyamin, Subhash Chandran, Santhosh Echikanam, Manoj Jathavedaru, Sithara, Indu Menon for company…We were all writing short fiction so prolifically that alarm bells were sounded on the decline of the Malayalam novel,” she says
with a laugh.

The group moved on to writing novels, but the rigour of the form stayed with her. “It is demanding and challenging because you can experiment a lot in the narration and craft. It fetches the attention of readers quickly. And most importantly, it takes only two or three days to complete. A writer who happens to be a woman is always short of time,” she says.

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