Author: K R Meera
Translated from Malayalam by J Devika
The hangman’s noose is a symbol of power. The hangman experiences a sense of power when he pulls the lever to strangle the victim: the power to allot death to a human being. Chetna Grddha Mullick, the protagonist of K R Meera’s novel, Hangwoman, experiences the exotic sensation of that power as she sends a condemned convict to his death by enacting her duty as the hangwoman. But there is a greater sensation awaiting her: that of the symbolic power she has acquired over all men, especially those men who have played the role of patriarchal subjugator in her life.
|K R Meera|
The novel is really about woman-power. It is about how women have been subjugated in various ways through centuries by men who took pride in the power they wielded over people for centuries. Even Phanibhushan Grddha Mullick, Chetna’s father and 88-year old hangman, is proud of his profession whose history, according to family tradition, dates back to 400 years before Christ. Being the hangman is not a mere job, he repeats time and again, it is a noble profession, an obligation to the nation.
If hanging is a noble profession and an obligation, so can many other forms of power wielded by men be interpreted as noble traditions or obligations. And men do that: they justify subjugations and suppressions in the name of tradition, culture and obligation. This is one of the fundamental messages of the novel.
|Cover of the Malayalam version|
The novel has a complex texture, however. It weaves history, mythology and legends into the story of the Mullicks to show us how power manifests itself in various forms. There is much irony in the narrative. Quite a lot of satire too when the TV reporter, Sanjeev Kumar Mitra, enters the plot – and he enters quite frequently. Interestingly, Sanjeev’s parentage subtly implies the shady nature of contemporary journalism. There are a thief and a prostitute in Sanjeev’s lineage. When Chetna mentions it, Sanjeev is infuriated. Chetna understands his fury. “Those who have nothing else to hang on to need the glory of their ancestors,” she mulls. Such people also need to wield power over others. “I want to enjoy you at least once” is what Sanjeev tells Chetna during their first encounter. For men like Sanjeev, the woman is an object of pleasure if not a maid while a woman like Chetna is in search of a mate. What people like Sanjeev call love is actually a form of hunting for the prey.
The Malayalam original of the novel, which is what I read, runs into 552 pages. There is little by way of plot in the traditional sense. Yet the novel grips with its illuminating insights into the power structures that underlie history, myths and family legends. Women are more likely to enjoy this novel than men. But even men will find it interesting especially if they have a taste for the offbeat.
Note: The quotes in this review are my translations from the Malayalam version.