“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…” Seven years ago, I read the first lines of Shashi Warrier’s Hangman’s Journal and felt a small chill run up my spine. Warrier had interviewed Janardhanan Pillai, last hangman of the king of Travancore, and found he couldn’t get Pillai’s story out of his mind.
It finally emerged in a quiet, accomplished and unfairly neglected gem of Indian fiction. Hangman’s Journal has two voices—the voice of the writer who is struggling to understand the fictional hangman’s life and work, and the voice of the hangman himself, survivor of the many executions he has performed. The hangman is the king’s sword; but he must grapple with the knowledge that what he does for a living is to take life. And there is a second struggle that Warrier outlines deftly, the question of whose right it is to tell the story of any man’s life, shaping it in different ways through that telling.
The story of the 117 executions, of a man held in respect and fear in his village, unfolds slowly, a quietly told but gripping journey into the heart of life and death. “When I see the rope quiver like this, I wish I had refused too… Forgive me for not refusing. I did it to feed my children.”