Book Review: Hangwoman

“Though I tightened the noose around my heart, hot tears mingled with the raindrops and trickled down my face. My left breast throbbed painfully as if it were filled with pus; I burned – and resolved to myself: I will measure his rope accurately. Not an inch more. Not an inch less. I too want to have him. At least once.”

When Chetna Grddha Mullick, descendent of the famous Grddha Mullick family of hangmen, is appointed as the first woman executioner in India, her life transforms overnight. Heralded by the media and many members of the public, as a feminist champion, she must overcome many battles both within and outside herself, in order to take that final step towards the lever in the gallows.

This novel, originally penned in Malayalam by K.R. Meera, is set in Kolkata in some time close to the present day. It pits feminism against a debate on capital punishment. On the one hand, you want to cheer for Grddha Mullick (and you often do, despite your views on the death penalty) against the ethics of taking a life for a crime committed. It jolts a women’s rights debate right out of black and white, and cements it solidly into the grey area.   

On another level, it examines the present day through the history of the Grddha Mullick family. Chetna does not move through the story alone, she moves with her ancestors and their stories. It is what makes the novel beautiful (and at times challenging, because you lose track of which ancestor is which sometimes!) and propels it forward. It’s almost that she learns and grows through a mingling of her experience and tales of how her forbearers experienced similar things.

hangwoman

The feminist slant that emerges in the beginning of the story is only that in name. But through this experience and the ordeals she goes through as her whole life turns upside down, she actually becomes one in deed too. This book can also be seen as a commentary on the state of feminism in our country, and the difference between it being a talking point, and a tangible palpable state of affairs.

This is most evident in this line where she notes: “So I had to go. But I insisted that father or Kaku accompany me. I was thus forced to continue as a symbol of women’s strength and self-respect for India and the whole world.” I needn’t point out what’s wrong with this statement.

The story sometimes falls prey to excess historical detail: the number of ancestors and how they relate to each other. That makes the story more potent but only up to a point; beyond that it becomes a little confusing, which means you are constantly flipping back to remember who a particular person was. I almost wish she had included a family tree for quick reference – though that is a very specific artistic choice.  

However, in spite of this very minor point, this is a story truly unlike any other. It challenges you because you experience a myriad of emotions while you read it. You find yourself not really knowing what you want for Chetna Grddha Mullick, because it’s clear she’s not really sure what she wants. But she is a character so compelling that you want her to win, no matter what the odds, and what it is she wants, even if what she wants would ordinarily make you squirm. And that is definitely the mark of an amazing narrative.

– By Mira Saraf, for IWI*

Have you read Hangwoman? What did you think of it?


Mira


*If you wish to write for IWI, head to our submissions page.

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