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The Hangman’s Journal

By Shashi Warrier

Click here to buy The Hangman’s Journal

‘They call it the drop.

‘The warders have a little table for it, to tell you what distance the condemned man must fall with the noose around his neck, for him to die cleanly. Experts say that he must fall just enough to gather sufficient momentum for the rope to break his neck. If the body falls too far, the rope cuts into the neck and might even sever the head. If the body doesn’t fall far enough, the neck won’t break and the man will die of strangulation, taking several minutes over it. So the heavier the man, the shorter the drop.

‘I know the table by heart. If the man weighs under 44 kilos, he should drop 1.98 metres. If he weighs between 44 and 57 kilos, the drop should be 1.83 metres. Between 57 and 70 kilos, the drop comes down to 1.68 metres. And a man weighing over 70 kilos need drop only 1.52 metres.

‘It’s hard to think of it as a table like this. The British worked it out as a rule of thumb: I think it was a drop of six and a half feet for a man weighing a hundred pounds, and six inches less for every thirty pounds extra weight. When they converted the measurements into kilograms and centimetres the table changed to these clumsy numbers that we have now. I am uncomfortable with centimetres and kilograms I prefer to use the pounds and inches, they taught me at school.

‘The precision of the table is misleading. To get the drop exactly right, you need to know the height of the knot, the height of the beam over which the rope is passed, and the length of the drop itself. And when you have measured the height of the condemned man, you must subtract from it the length of his head. But they don’t do all that. They don’t even weigh the man just before hanging him; they weigh him once a month while he is in the condemned cell.

‘But no hangman worth his salt needs the table, or a weighing scale, or a measuring tape. He can guess the weight of the man to within five pounds, and then work out the length of the drop to within an inch.

‘Measuring out the rope is easy: one span of my right hand is exactly eight and a half inches. I use that to measure off the required length. The horizontal beam from which the man hangs is a little over nine feet—thirteen hand-spans—above the trapdoor. To that I add one hand-span or more, depending on the condemned man’s size, for the slack in the rope needed to ensure that the man’s head stops just below the level of the trapdoor at the end of his fall. Since I can guess a man’s height to an inch and his weight to a pound, the rest is easy.

‘With a very heavy man, especially a tall one, I make the drop longer than the book says. Everyone who has seen me hanging a tall man will know this. According to the book, a six-footer weighing 70 kilos need drop only five feet. But if a tall man falls only five feet, his head will be visible above the trapdoor afterwards, and that I cannot bear to think about. The face is hidden behind a mask of cloth, of course, but I have seen a man’s tongue swelling behind the mask. That is why I make sure that a tall man always has a little extra slack, and that is why the warders, who know this, do not protest. ‘I know these lengths so well that a look at the condemned man suffices; I can do the rest blindfolded.

‘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 as 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 …’

The letter came on a wet August morning as I sat reading this passage for the twenty-fifth time. It was a cheap yellow postcard with a single line in Tamil, a language that I had only recently begun to learn. I read very slowly, but the message was clear at first glance. ‘Come immediately,’ it said. The name was familiar, as was the address at the bottom of the postcard, but the handwriting was strange.

That address was the home of the hangman, who lived some four hundred kilometres south, in another state. I hadn’t heard from him in a while and our last meeting had been stormy. I had returned from his home and written off the project on which we had been working together since sometime in the summer.

And now this letter. It was in someone else’s handwriting. What had happened to the old man?

‘Come immediately.’ It was just short of eleven, and there was a train at half-past-two. If I took that train I’d be there late, towards midnight. I sat thinking and looking at the wet hillside for another hour, then went inside to pack and eat. Before I left I made a telephone call to a lady several hundred kilometres away, to tell her about the letter.

‘What will you do?’ she asked. ‘I’m on my way,’ I said.

‘Do you want me along?’

‘Not yet,’ I replied. ‘But if the going gets heavy I’ll call you.’

She had been on the project ever since the beginning, and had even pushed me along when I was on the verge of giving it up.

‘Call me as soon as you know what’s happening,’ she said.

It was nearly one when I left, and I made it just in time to Shoranur railway station. The hours passed. The rain died out and people in the train opened the windows to let in the cool, damp air. At night the moon appeared briefly between clouds sliding smoothly north east, and glinted off ponds with reeds waving on their banks.

And all the while I wondered whether the hangman had kept his word. I wouldn’t know until I got there.
Time passed slowly. I saw him in my mind’s eye as I had seen him last: a man of average height for those parts, some five feet five inches tall, with long wavy grey hair and a grey beard that reached midway down his chest. He was thin, with a prominent nose that stuck out of his face like a cleaver, and a hangdog expression about him that was somehow engaging. He was dressed in a clean but shabby white shirt with a saffron lungi knotted about his waist. His hands were those of a bigger man, the thick strong fingers like knobbly tree roots. His feet were bare and rough, and one look at them told you that he had always been barefoot.

The image faded. How could I have believed that such a man would write a book?

There was a bus ready and waiting when the train reached Trivandrum at about ten, and at that time of the night we made good time to the temple town of Nagercoil, just short of the Cape. I found a small, cheap hotel and fell exhausted into bed. For all the weariness, though, sleep didn’t come. The same question kept pounding in my head through the night: had the hangman kept his word? I wouldn’t know till morning.

I woke before the dawn and lay restless and tossing, impatient to reach the hangman. At eight I took a bus to Parvathipuram, getting off at a small junction where a canal flows under crossroads.

The rain began again and I brought the umbrella out of my backpack. The wind whipped spray all over my trousers as I squelched through the mud without a qualm. All along the way the earth seemed to burst with life. Weeds grew thickly on both sides of the path, and in the paddy fields little shoots stuck tender heads above rippling muddy water. Wet banana leaves gleamed even in the cloud-dimmed light of the grey morning, and the birds kept silent.

The hangman’s house, when I reached it, seemed smaller and quieter than it had been the last time I came. The old dog in the yard was gone, and when the gate squeaked open the face that appeared at the door wasn’t the hangman’s but his son’s. He nodded at me, but when I reached the door the welcome ended.

‘You must have got my letter,’ he said. I could see he wasn’t enthusiastic about having me around. There was a hint of anger in his dark eyes.

‘I got it yesterday and started immediately.’

He nodded again. ‘Amma wanted to write you as soon as it happened but I thought it better to let you know only later.’

‘As soon as what happened?’ I asked. The pounding of my heart was louder. What was this man talking about?

‘Appa’s passing.’ The anger in his eyes intensified.

I went cold all over. Here it was, the end. He had died before he could keep his promise. Stupid, I said to myself, I should have followed up earlier. There was a new weight in my chest. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘How did he go? When?’

‘He died two weeks ago … in the morning. He woke up, had his coffee and lay down in the middle of the morning and never woke up again.’

‘Did he suffer?’

‘No. He just lay down to sleep and never got up again … Amma found him—’

Almost as if on cue she appeared around the corner of the house, asking, ‘Who’s there?’ She saw me and hesitated. I noticed she was dressed in white. Widow’s white.

‘I found out only just now,’ I told her. ‘I’m sorry. I would have liked to have been here for the last rites.’ Her eyes were red and heavy but the worst of her grief was past. She nodded. ‘At least he went quietly,’ she said. ‘No trouble.’ Suddenly there were fresh tears in her eyes and she wiped them away with a dark, bony hand. She told me what he had said when he woke up on his last morning, and pointed out the spot where he had sat to drink his coffee. She showed me the worn shirt he had taken off before he lay down for the last time. She spoke of the quiet in his eyes in his last few days. She showed me where they had cut down a tree for the wood to cremate him, and told me which neighbours had come first when they heard her wails. She spoke of him sometimes as if he were still alive, and I listened patiently.

When she was through, she turned to her son, her youngest child. ‘Did you give him the packet?’ she asked.

He shook his head. ‘He had just arrived when you came and started talking to him,’ he said.

She was angry. ‘How can you keep him waiting at the door like this? Give him his packet. That’s what you called him for, isn’t it?’

The son disappeared into the darkness of the house, grumbling, and she turned to me. ‘He was happy when he went. He left something for you. He told us to give it to you.’ She paused. ‘Those books of yours. He was busy with them all along. He said he was finished with them, that he would send them to you in a day or two, but he was gone before he could do that.’

The son reappeared with a large yellow plastic bag in his hands. In it were notebooks, seven of them, and a pen. I reached inside to pick out the pen. ‘This is for you,’ I said, offering it to them. ‘I gave it to him.’
The widow smiled and shook her head. ‘What will we do with it? Besides, he said it’s for you. He said that everything in the bag is for you. It’s yours.’

‘Thank you. Where’s his dog?’

‘He’s also gone. A few days ago, in his sleep. He too just lay down quietly and never got up again.’

I nodded. There was a lump in my throat, but I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel room and see what was in those notebooks. She must have sensed my impatience. ‘Go,’ she said. ‘Go on. Read the books. Do well.’

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the son looking resentfully at me. I put the books and the pen in my pack and turned and walked away. I opened the gate and stepped out into the slush that was the road. At the corner I turned, and saw the two of them, mother and son, standing still, watching me. I lifted a hand in a wave and they waved back. Then the rain came heavily down and I never saw them again.

Back in the hotel room I started on the notebooks. There were seven of them, all numbered in English in his sprawling childish hand. The contents were in Tamil. I could just barely read the language, but I started immediately. There were words that I couldn’t understand, but I got the general drift of the journal very quickly. Some of it I’d read before, and that made it easier. Later I’d get my friend, the lady who had helped me with the project, to translate the notes for me.

The hangman had written his notes as neatly as he could. His writing became a little smoother as he wrote, but not much: you can’t expect the hand of a man of seventy-four to improve dramatically. It was mostly a journal, a diary, and in it he had put down some of the matters that weighed most upon his mind.

This is what I read.

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