Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Legend Is Born! K.R Meera's ആരാച്ചാർ (Hangwoman)

Where should I begin? Should I start by saying that K.R Meera is as eligible for the Nobel Prize as Gabriel Garcia Marquez was or that her brilliantly written book should be translated into all possible languages or that I wish I could meet Chetna Grdha Mullick, the vibrant and quite unforgettable protagonist of this extraordinary tale?

K.R Meera is an amalgam of all great writers before her. In her writing I can see O.V Vijayan, Ashapoorna Devi, Marquez and a hundred others I can't quite place. But it is Meera's own voice that gives this novel its resilience, her heroine towering over the pages and not letting us get away so easily. It brings us back like migrating salmon swimming upstream to reach into its pages and make us lose ourselves in its enchanting diorama. Each page chock full of stories to last a generation, its heroine an eloquent narrator calmly pulling us time and again into the undercurrent of violence, disrespect, fulfillment and history, making it the saga that it is. Born as a legend from Meera's magic pen, this book will endure through time.

It has already been translated into English with the name "Hangwoman".  I haven't read that but I hope the subtlety of Meera's assertive language is not lost in translation. The heroine is India's first ever hang woman who is descended from a long line of Grdha Mullicks serving as hangmen going as far back as 400 years before Christ. The city of Calcutta is presented in full character, replete with freedom fighters of pre-independence India, the river Adi-ganga, Kali-ghat, the burning pyres of Nimtala-ghat, Sonagachi, all surrounded by tagorian lore so native to Calcutta yet so entrenched in the nation's soul. In this 552 pages long epic Meera has managed to touch on the entire nation's history while doing full justice to the city that she inhabited for a year or so to write the story. The only major omission I noticed was that of Mother Teresa, a name almost inseparable from that of the city to outsiders.

In their sparse house on Strand street with a steady stream of funeral processions to Nimtala-ghat filling the air with the smell of death, Chetna lives with her disabled brother Ramu, her parents, grandma/dhakuma, kakku/uncle, kakki/aunt and their two children. Like her grandma, Chetna knows the stories that made her family conquerors of death for so long. Each of her forefathers acted in the capacity of executioners for the ruling regimes of their times. While hanging through a noose is the preferred method of the Grdha Mullick family they have carried out justice with knives and lashes when required. I loved knowing the many names of the Grdha Mullick forefathers in the inner stories. Loosely based on real life events linked here at various places, Meera has created a powerful book from her vast imagination. Like the divided chambers in one of the numerous fables in the book, Meera skillfully weaves us in an out of many a chamber of luscious stories told through Chetna as well as her her grandma. It all seem to have started with one Radha Dharan Mullick, the first ever hangman of the Grdha Mullick family, from the time of the Nandas.

In her Dostoevskian thoughts on life and death, twenty two year old Chetna paints the turmoils of someone who has to dole out death as part of their civic duty. No one can make the knots of the noose as well as a Grdha Mullick. When the Government reluctantly agrees to extend the official hangman contract to this woman descendant of the Grdha Mullicks, TV channels and women's organizations were quick to tout her as the epitome of universal woman-power and self-confidence. A job that was never before taken up by a woman! Her father Phanibhushan Grdha Mullick aspired to be an actor but was forced to take up the family duty to make ends meet. He is eighty eight years old in the story and is only happy to take the center stage and play his part with panache in the tug-of-war between the news channels scrambling to bring the story of the first hangwoman to the public.

Chetna and Phanibhushan are caught in the intricate web of duty, journalism and money woven around them. Reporter Sanjeev Kumar Mitra plays a rather large part in this aspect of their lives.
To complicate things, Chetna finds herself falling in love with Sanjeev whose interest in her has many strange faces. Despite the myriad of sub stories that makes the book so long, the author has a firm hand on her story and keeps it going at the perfect pace for a reader fully along for the ride. That this momentous book written in excellent Malayalam is fully based in Calcutta with all characters inhabitants of that city, is rather startling. This gifted writer has a treasure trove of stories and the command of language and imagination to tell many such tales to the world. I will be waiting to experience that literary brilliance yet again...