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 continued…