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Telling Herstory

Nandini Nair | Updated on August 27, 2014

KR Meera

Hangwoman

In Hangwoman, KR Meera doesn’t raise slogans, instead she writes to shatter readers and to remedy historical wrongs

My hand stayed on the lever. I felt nothing special. A man had died. The noose tightened on his neck. The vital blood vessel between the second and third vertebrae snapped and the blood flow to his brain ceased. His blood pressure rose dramatically. His heart stopped beating. The bones of his neck shattered in a way that made it impossible to stretch the spine. His eyes bulged inside the hood and his tongue stuck out. His new white clothes were stained with shit and urine. The blood rushed into his sexual organs and he had had an erection for the very last time.”

Malayalam author KR Meera, 44, does not write bedtime stories to soothe you to sleep and lull you into dreams. She writes to make you writhe and weep through the darkness of the night. In Hangwoman ( Aarachar, translated by J Devika, Penguin India) she tells of the condition of women and the evolution of her protagonist Chetna. Born to a hangman father, the umbilical cord in her mother’s womb was the first noose around Chetna’s neck. By five she could make her own noose — she tested it on a child next door. And in idle moments this strapping woman finds her fingers fashioning one from the ends of her dupatta. When the job of a hangman is advertised, the requirements are simple enough. “Applicant should be an adult, over five feet four inches. Only males need apply.” However, she gets the job, and journalist Sanjeev Kumar Mitra chronicles the highly publicised build-up for television.

The book heaves with violence, is lush with metaphor and shocks with details. The reader can only gasp at the surgical precision with which Meera describes the act of hanging. The noose, we are told, must be placed between the third and fourth vertebrae, only then does the neck break “as easily as a portia flower from its stem, with a single pull of the cord”.

While the book errs on the side of the macabre, journalist and novelist KR Meera is anything but that. She is the kind of person you’d want to share a chikoo shake with in a Kerala bakery, because you know she will fill the evening with anecdotes and laughter. Having worked for the Malayala Manorama for 13 years on the desk and special stories (which won her multiple awards), she is modest to a fault. “The one thing, the only thing I am proud about is my language, my Malayalam,” she says. A star in the Malayalam literary world, recipient of Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, this sudden interest of the English media in her work pleases her, but also leaves her a tad bemused.

The contradiction between Meera the writer and Meera the person surprises Meera most of all. “It is so depressing,” she says, with a giggle, “I find such a sadist within me. When I decide to write, I know I am going to give pleasure or shock the reader. With Aarachar, I knew I am going to make people gloomy, I am going to shatter them.”

Meera, who lives in Kottayam, became a writer somewhat by accident. Her husband Dileep, also a journalist, found a few of her stories on her computer and sent them to a magazine. Once they were published and well received, she abandoned journalism in 2006 and transformed into an author. The translation of a collection of short stories, Moha Manja, titled Yellow Is the Colour of Longing, won acclaim for its strong feminist voice.

Short stories, which she completes in two-three days, novellas which don’t take much longer, come easily to her. Hangwoman, which was serialised over 53 weeks in the Malayalam weekly Madhyamam, required far more perseverance. Set in Kolkata, she discovered the river, the lanes of Kalighat and Sonagachi, with Subhajit Das Bhoumik, photographer and director, who acted as guide and translator. She trawled through books on the city and its history. She quickly found that sources on Kolkata were aplenty. A bright red book on Subhash Chandra Bose and the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, which she stumbled upon in a second-hand bookshop, came of particular use. She says, “If you wanted to write a similar book about Kerala — it would be a Herculean task. It is difficult to find the same resources there. In Kolkata, they are readily available.” While research provided the scaffolding, her imagination built the story; after all, she had never met anyone who has witnessed a hanging, never seen the inside of the gallows.

For Meera, Hangwoman isn’t merely about creating a compelling character and an unusual plot, instead it is about remedying historical wrongs, about writing “herstory” and shattering gender stereotypes. Believing that history has never done justice to women, that it erases them from its pages, she hopes to correct that with this narrative by making the woman — and a hangwoman at that — the pivot of the story.

While tags like ‘feminist’ can easily crown this novel and its creator, Meera takes a more nuanced view, believing she is a humanist first, one who believes in the rights of all human being and all creatures. She adds, “I don’t think I could be part of any political or feminist organisation. It’s very difficult for me to tame myself to a particular framework. As an individual I find that a severe handicap.”

Tamed — she cannot be. For the 53 weeks that this book hung around her neck, she dwelled in the stygian world of death and killing. A wife and mother, she abandons the refuge of Kottayam to write, taking up a room on rent, staying at a hotel, or with friends in Thrissur and Ernakulam. These cities provide sufficient distance and proximity to home. She says, “That is the best way to keep relationships intact. There can’t be a writer and a wife in the same room… Having worked as a journalist, I have the courage to travel and to find a room of my own.”

Published on July 18, 2014

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