Monday, September 01, 2014

And Thereby Hangs a Tale

Malayalam writer KR Meera's best-seller, 'Aarachaar', about an executioner's family in Kolkata, has been brought out in an English translation, 'Hang Woman' (Everyone loves a good hanging)

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

'A clicking sound will be all that you will hear when the noose tightens. That's the sound of the bones in the neck breaking. With this, the nerves that connect the body to the brain are cut, and the hanged man loses consciousness. If ever there is even a tiny flaw, for that single moment, his nails will grow longer. They will tear at the flesh. He will pass urine and stools'.

This is an excerpt from KR Meera's absorbing novel, 'Hang Woman' (Everyone loves a Good Hanging). Originally published in Malayalam as 'Aarachaar' in 2011, it has remained a best-seller ever since. Now Hamish Hamilton has brought out an English version, which has been ably translated by J. Devika.

It tells the story of the Grddha Mullick family of West Bengal who have been executioners for several generations. The present executioner, Phanibhushan, who has done more than 400 hangings, has become old. He successfully petitions the government to give the job to his daughter Chetna, 22. Now she is tasked to do an upcoming hanging.

What is remarkable about the novel is that it is set in Kolkata, a place the Kottayam-based Meeradoes not know at all, except through the translated works of Rabindranath Tagore, Tara Shankar Bandopadhyay and Bimal Mitra.

Asked why she decided to take the bold step of setting her novel in an alien environment, Meerasays, “I had always wanted to write a book on women empowerment in India, but I was not sure where to place my characters. It was at this time that I came to know about the hanging of Dhananjay Chatterjee [a killer of a teenage girl], at Kolkata, on August 14, 2004. So, I thought it may be a good idea to set the story there.”

Meera did research through books, newspapers, as well as the Internet and collected materials on the people, police, streets, prostitutes, local culture, as well as the last executioner of Bengal, Nata Mallick (1921-2009). Thereafter, she started to write and took one-and-a-half years to complete the novel.

And now the English version is getting good reviews. Meera smiles happily at the news, during a book promotion tour at Kochi. She comes across as a soft-spoken person with an understated intensity. Her arresting feature is her unblinking kohl-lined black eyes.

Today, Meera is regarded as a star among the younger writers working in Malayalam literature. A prominent and award-winning journalist for many years, she quit, in 2005, to be a full-time writer. She initially made her mark by publishing collections of short stories like 'Ormayude Njarambu', 'Moha Manja', and 'Ave Maria'. In fact, 'Ave Maria' won the prestigious Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009.

Meera is also a columnist as well as script writer. Incidentally, the script for 'Ore Kadal' (which won the National Award for Best Music Direction), which Meera co-wrote, has a Bengali connection. It is based on a novel, 'Hirak Deepthi', written by one of Bengal's premier writers, the late Sunil Gangopadhyay.

However, despite the success of 'Hang Woman', Meera's heart remains with the short story. “Every short story is a challenge,” says Meera. “The writing should be poetic and crisp. It requires a lot of editing and the careful selection of words. In a novel, things can be a bit loose, at times.” 

(Sunday Magazine, New Indian Express, South India and New Delhi) 

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