The Last Hangman
Atlantic Books UK
There is a moment in The Last Hangman where the ageing narrator, the hangman, recalls a deep-rooted memory of the steps leading up to the gallows: "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." It is this almost chilling perception of loss and of a man's lifelong dilemma torn between duty and morality that is the underlying theme of this delicate novel written with unwavering sincerity and which has been overlooked since it was first published in India in 2000 as The Hangman's Journal.
Shashi Warrier was born in Kerala in 1959. He is the author of four thrillers – Night of the Krait, The Orphan, Sniper and The Homecoming. He has also written two books for children – The Hidden Continent and Suzy's Gift. The Last Hangman, a deviation from his dabbling in other literary forms, is in the writer's own words, "based loosely on the life of Janardhanan Pillai". Pillai was appointed hangman for the King of Travancore in the early 1940s and over the course of three decades he performed 117 executions. The Last Hangman is written in the first person, the hangman himself narrating and at the same time philosophising over snippets from his unusual life and profession. What emerges from his narrative is not so much an emphasis upon the gory details of the hangman's craft and the rituals that surround it, but an often intense meditation on the inner turmoil of a man weighted down by the obligations of family, patriarchy, monarchy and the social status that he strives but fails to attain. "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 hangman, retired and living a quiet life in his village, is persuaded by a young writer to write about his life. He takes the opportunity, as he finds in the writer a gentle understanding, which he has so far rarely noticed in other journalists seeking out the details of his profession. He also sees that it will be a chance for him to perhaps share the weight of his past that he carries around with him, often recounted in his recurring nightmares of a flat-masked man. He records those moments in a series of seven notebooks.
There is a quiet and at the same time simmering intensity in Warrier’s character of the hangman, in the development of which he offers us a skilful insight of men caught up in the critical balance between the pressures of a patriarchal home and the outside world. Warrier uses the hangman to delve deep into rural India, where sons followed in their father’s professional footsteps and jobs were taken so as to feed the family during times of despair and drought. “What had I lost? Had I lost something when I agreed to become a hangman?”
The book often determines a negotiation between the promise of freedom from tradition and the easy acceptance of the modern world. This is mainly epitomised in the character of the hangman stuck in his traditional life in rural India and the modernity of the writer and his female translator who come to visit him. Warrier offers the reader a minimal amount of information about the female translator and her writer friend, obviously based upon Warrier himself. The reader watches them through the eyes of the hangman, who is curious about their relationship and he notices the subtle nuances of their friendship and reflects upon his own marriage and his wife Chellammal. At certain points in the book maybe Warrier could have offered more in-depth details of the lives of the writer and the translator but perhaps he intentionally kept it vague so as to focus on Pillai. Warrier evokes the strengths and weaknesses of the hangman’s character and the adjustments he makes while coming to terms with the fact that he might not have made the right choices in life. “I wish I knew. This question will come up again, I know, for it is there in every moment of my life, and I only evade it. What am I doing?”
In the character and narrative of Pillai, the last hangman, Warrier fuses the strengths of traditional pragmatism with the objectivity that comes from old age. He writes with the intensity that often follows evocations of memories of childhood, people and places. He remarks upon the appearance of the hangman, his long hair and flowing beard and “a hangdog expression about him that was somehow engaging”. Over the years people around him change and the course of the lives of his family and his nine children change, and he begins to try and fathom the reasons for having been burdened with this job. He has always maintained a meticulous attention to detail in the performance of his duty as a hangman but nevertheless considers himself to have erred from perfection and this is what troubles him the most. “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 …” What he tries to understand is how the nature of his profession changes him and his perception of those around him. 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.
While narrating his life the hangman surprises himself by demonstrating a severe introspection about the role he has played and the ancient rituals which surrounded it. Warrier describes how the hangman as a child watches his father behead a rooster. “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?” And that is exactly where Warrier pinpoints the core of this man’s angst, the fact that despite the nature of his work, he is not a dispassionate, disconnected person. He cares, and that is his greatest burden. He agonises over what is morally correct and what is not and yet there is a directness and simplicity about the way he visualises life and death and dharma. Yet the truth itself becomes almost illusory as the narrative continues. It seems that the hangman’s search for the truth and a consequential appeasement of his conscience is far more complex an endeavour than he had ever imagined.
Warrier displays a skilful delicacy in his deployment of the meandering and often overlapping and contradictory tales of the various characters in the hangman’s life. Some are victims, some are friends like the school teacher Maash. Yet, 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?” Yet, the book with all its subtle complexities is a sophisticated investigation into the nature of morality and the shifting nature of reality with all the fluid and unstable perceptions we have of it.
The Last Hangman is a fascinating and at the same time unsettling account of a complex life written with an assurance and a delicacy that is unusual for such an uncomfortable theme. This is a novel that deserves to be on the bookshelf of every discerning reader.
Erika Banerji has written and reviewed for The Statesman, The Times of India, The Observer and Wasafiri. Her short fiction has appeared in several literary journals. She lives in London.