The Ethics and Aesthetics of a Hanging

Capital punishment is a sensitive question: is it allowable for the state to kill somebody? On a purely metaphoric level, most liberal people would say no. But would your answer still be the same if the convict was, say, a sex offender who raped and tortured a girl to death? More so, if she was known to you?

Is justice involving the taking of a human life, justified? Is killing by the state murder or justice? Is punishment justice or revenge? Is capital punishment a deterrent for crimes?

All difficult questions. Most of us shy away from these (I know I do!) – but they have to be asked all the same.

Meera does it, and much more, through the multiple-award-winning novel, “Aaraachaar” (meaning “executioner” – translated as “Hangwoman” into English). However, it is not a political polemic. While asking these questions, the story digs down into our psyche, to the subterranean depths where the archetypes lie.

And there the questions asked are much more basic and much more difficult. What does it mean to be a woman and a human being in today’s society?

There are no easy answers. Maybe, there are no answers, period… they are not required.

Because the question is what is important.

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Chetana Grddha Malik is a hangman’s daughter – and a potential hangwoman of the future, as he has no male heirs other than the disabled Ramu. Yatindranath Banerji is a convicted killer, waiting for the hangman’s noose – a hanging in which Chetana will assist her father, Phani Bhushan, as India’s first female executioner.

It would have been all business as usual had not the TV channels got hold of it. As with any controversial news item in contemporary India, Banerji’s hanging becomes a national spectacle, a chance to boost the TRP of the “reality” news channels. Sanjiv Kumar Mitra of the C.N.C is the first to sink his predatory teeth into this juicy situation – and also into the beautiful and desirable Chetana. He wants her to be the exclusive property of his channel on camera – and his, off it.

As the novel progresses and we move towards Yatindranath Banerji’s inevitable death, Sanjiv and Chetana dance around a complicated concoction of lust, filth, deceit and death. The ending, when it finally comes after 500+ pages is expected; yet fitting and devastating.

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Meera is a terrific writer. There is very little beauty in this novel; and there is a lot of ugliness. That she has made it so absorbing, so that one willfully endures so much unpleasantness is a tribute her skill as a wordsmith.

Chetana’s hovel is situated on Neem Tala Ghat, where people take their relatives to be cremated. The novel has endless descriptions of dead bodies and mourning relatives, narrated through her deadpan voice – interspersed with her father’s stories of his exploits as a hangman who has executed more than four hundred people. Among the people who are cremated, there are murder victims too: many of them young girls who have been raped, mutilated and murdered by sexual predators like Yatindranath Banerji. The narrative dances between two types of killing, one by the state and one by the social deviants. The narrator who is also the protagonist of the story does not take sides. It seems as though Chetana just wants us to see it as it is through her eyes, which has seen and absorbed a lot in twenty-three years.

Chetana’s home is also disturbingly full of the themes of pain and mutilation. Her brother Ramu is a practically a vegetable – his limbs have been hacked off by the father of a convict Phani Bhushan hanged. Phani Bhushan himself is a libertine, frequently visiting Kolkata’s red light district, Sona Gacchi. His brother, who stays with him is practically an invalid, having been marked by the excruciating torture he suffered as a communist under The Emergency. In this hell-house, the person Chetana is most attached to is her grandma, who is more than a century old – a crone-figure who tells stories from myth, legend and history.

The second theme is the “lust affair” (it would be dishonest to call it a love affair!) between Chetana and Sanjiv. The reporter makes no secret of his lust for her: the first time he sees Chetana, he tells her that :”I want to experience you at least once.” The second time, he squeezes her left breast. (This is highly symbolic, IMO. Kannagi, the heroine of Silappadikaram burns down Madhura by tearing off her left nipple and flinging it at the city. Later, she is enshrined as an incarnation of the Goddess Durga. But more on this later.) The significant thing is that Chetana also lusts for Sanjiv, and her left breast throbs every time she feels the hots.

Sanjiv Kumar Mitra – who is a kleptomaniac – needs Chetana physically as well as commercially. He wastes no time in buying her time exclusively for his channel, thus virtually “owning” her. He wastes no time in marketing her as well as the misery of the murderer’s and the victim’s family. He is a man without emotions, only lust – for riches, for fame and for pleasures of the flesh – and the hanging is only a studio production to raise the ratings for his channel. As his family history is revealed towards the end of the novel, we get an idea of what makes this complex creation tick.

Surprisingly, the ethics of capital punishment is not discussed openly. Rather, the author cleverly presents it as Q&A during Chetana’s TV show, her father’s bombastic speeches to journalists justifying it, and opinions of various characters, both pro and con. But the political subtext is very clear – and most effective, especially when various hangings from the stories told to her by her grandma are graphically described to us by Chetana.

But the most powerful theme is the undercurrent of frightening and bloodthirsty feminity which permeates the narrative – the punishing mother, the toothed vagina that men have sublimated through their myths and stories and either locked up as the madwoman in the attic or elevated to a pedestal as goddess. It is no accident that this novel is set in Bengal, I feel, as Durga’s fearsome dance of death is part of the Bengali psyche – and being from Kerala, a state where women’s mysteries still manifest as an undercurrent in many festivals (Thiruvathira being the prime example), the author can very well appreciate it.

Chetana can tie a hangman’s knot in seconds – she does that with her dupatta and uses it on would-be molesters to great effect. She feels connected to various legendary heroines of myth, legend and history, whether from her own family or otherwise, who had used the power of the eternal feminine on hapless males: the power of the soft seductress as well as that of the fierce Devi. It is no coincidence that the earth from the front yard of the courtesans of Sona Gacchi is used to make the idols of the goddess for Durga Puja.


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All the things described above makes this novel good. What makes it great is its structure.

India has a great tradition of storytelling. However, the structure of Indian stories and myths are not linear in the traditional sense. Starting with a central story, the narrative meanders through a twisted path with many byways – and many a time, the narrator takes detours. Sometimes even the byways have byways branching off them. It is quite common, by the end of the story, for the listener to be confused as to exactly where he is – but the bard keeps on singing, and ultimately reaches the end, tying up all the loose ends in the process.

The Katha Sarith Sagara and the Mahabharata are two well-known examples of the above technique. As one gets accustomed to the Indian timeless way of telling stories, one starts not getting disturbed by the detours. In fact, one starts to savour them, to relish them, to enjoy each sub-story which could be each made into an epic in its own right. In fact, many Mahabharata tales have become movies, novels and plays in various Indian languages.

This is the structure Meera adopts, and it is fascinating. I have seen criticisms of the novel saying that it should have been edited down – and I strongly disagree. Each of the chapters is an episode, as well as a stirring tale in its own right: and it is to be enjoyed as such. India cannot be rushed. So sit back in your chair, ladies and gentlemen, and travel along with this gorgeously terrifying executioner on the most terrifying and exhilarating journey of her life.

I guarantee that you will not regret it.

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The Legendary Creator of Kerala

According to popular myth, Kerala was created when Parasurama, the sixth incarnation of Vishnu, threw his axe from Kanyakumari to Gokarnam. The sea moved away along the trajectory of the axe, and a fertile strip of land came out.

ParasuramaI located a book (പരശുരാമൻ: ഒരു പഠനം – “Parasurama: A Study”) on Parasurama at the Kerala Sahitya Akademi bookstore this December. It was a serendipitous find! I never knew such an in-depth study existed.

This book explores the myths and legends about this enigmatic mythical figure. It’s a fascinating read.
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Kerala has a way of taking Indian myth and making it local (I suppose all parts of India do this). Accordingly, the powerful Asura king Mahabali, who conquered all three worlds (heaven, earth and the nether regions) becomes the benevolent potbellied Maveli, erstwhile ruler of Kerala who bears surprising resemblances to aboriginal fertility gods: similarly Parasurama (“Rama with an axe”) becomes the creator of the region.

According to Hindu myth, Parasurama, the sixth incarnation of Vishnu, was a Brahmin who behaved more like a warrior: he is mainly known for the mass annihilation of Kshatriya kings, as he traversed the world 21 times. His animosity towards Kshatriyas was born when his father, the sage Jamadagni, was murdered by the kin of King Karthaveeryarjuna. After the genocide, the repentant Parasurama forsook his axe, donated all the captured lands to Brahmins and is currently spending his days in meditation (Sanyasa) – there is no death for him, as he is an immortal.

Parasurama also has the dubious distinction of murdering his mother at his father’s behest. Renuka, Jamadagni’s wife, supposedly was attracted to a Gandharva and therefore guilty of adultery (though only in spirit). Her husband, however, was adamant that she should be killed – among his sons, only Parasurama agreed to do it. The happy sage granted his son whatever boon he wished – and he promptly asked that his mother be restored to life, which was granted.

The above stories illustrate why my mother was wary of telling me stories of Parasurama as a kid. My father belongs to the Royal Family of Cochin (being matrilineal, I don’t, but that’s not relevant here) and my mother apparently did not want her son to grow up hearing stories praising the sworn enemy of her husband’s family. And more obviously, she was highly disturbed by the episode of matricide.

Obviously, Parasurama is an icon of Vedic Brahmanism, and recounts the mythologised history (to a certain extent, at least) of the victory of clergy over royalty. And the story of him killing his mother might be taken as a metaphorical statement of the matriarchal societies of the Indian subcontinent being subdued by the patriarchal Aryans.

However, Parasurama is linked by folklore to many parts of India, most notably the Western Coast and Himachal Pradesh. This fascinating book explores these stories, and try to formulate an image of this bloodthirsty sage, both mythical as well as historical.

Himachal Pradesh and the North
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It is in the hilly state of Himachal Pradesh, it seems, that Parasurama is most revered. The locals believe that he was born there, lived there and is still meditating somewhere in the hills. In Nirmand, a village 150 km northeast of Shimla (the state capital) on a hill, is where the famous “Parasurama Kothi” is located. This is a sacred room housing a sacred urn filled with water, which is supposed to represent Parasurama. It also houses a three-faced idol, the face of the sage flanked by “Kala” (Time) and “Kama” (Desire). It is the belief that Parasurama is meditating somewhere inside the Kothi: every twelve years, the “Bhunda” ceremony is carried out with much fanfare.

Legends tell of Parasurama coming here after the death of his parents and meditating for 12 years; and finding no Brahmins to do sacrifices, bringing them from elsewhere and settling them there. There are also stories of the antagonism between the immigrants and the locals, and the assignment of other castes to do the service of Brahmins. These, I found as I moved through the book, is a common theme of the Parasurama legends.

There are also folkloric myths about this sage in Kashmir, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

The West Coast, Konkan, Goa and Karnataka

The legends on the west coast regarding Parasurama have mostly the following in common:

1. Parasurama donated the land taken from Kshatriyas to Brahmins.
2. He was instrumental in reclaiming land from the sea in various places.
3. Whenever there were no Brahmins available, he elevated the locals to Brahmins (in some cases, even rejuvenating corpses and bones).
4. Many Brahmins lost their status later due to Parasurama’s curse.

The stories reveal an aggressive proselytizer. One could almost say that this was the history of the Aryan migration to the West Coast – but the “Brahminisation” of locals smacks more of a give-and-take affair. Also, in most cases, Parasurama is said to have been abetted by local kings: In contrast to his enmity towards Kshatriyas as mentioned in the Puranas, here we find a man who is hand-in-glove with the local aristocracy.

(A curious fact: Parasurama’s mother Renuka is linked with many Dravidian mother goddesses of South India. Was she the icon of a mother cult which was subjugated by Brahminism? The metaphorical beheading and the subsequent reincarnation seem to point to this.

Renuka_temple_2Another interesting piece of information is Renuka’s identification with Yellamma, a goddess of Karnataka who is now known as a patron of Devadasis, the traditional temple courtesan’s of India. But it seems that Yellamma was originally a goddess for women who wanted freedom from their abusive husbands, and also for those who wanted to live their lives as they liked, without being tied to domesticity. Another example of patriarchal subversion?)

Kerala

Kerala is where Parasurama is really special – because he is supposed to be the creator of the region, and of donating it to Brahmins. According to the local version of the myth, Parasurama threw his axe in disgust from Kanyakumari in the southernmost tip of India to Gokarnam in the north. The sea withdrew from the areas traversed by the axe, and threw up the state of Kerala. The whole area was donated to Brahmins by the sage.

The intricate and peculiar caste system of Kerala Brahmins – the Namputhiris – is partially ascribed to Parasurama through the book Bhargava Smrithi, purportedly condensed by Jagad Guru Adi Sankara as Sankara Smrithi. What is curious is that there is a caste hierarchy within the Brahmins themselves, which is detailed out in another book, again by the sage! Surprisingly, however, there are very few temples dedicated to the sage in this state – the only famous one is the temple at Thiruvallam.

(There is a curious fact I remember from childhood. Parasurama sits in one corner of the famous Vadakkunnatha Temple, dedicated to Siva, at Thrissur. When we used to visit the temple, my father never used to worship there – being a Kshatriya, he was forbidden! Due tour matrilineal system, my mother and I could, because we were technically non-Kshatriyas. Old enmities die hard!)

Conclusion

Parasurama has many facets: the warrior Brahmin, the proselytizer, the yogi and even as creator (in Himachal Pradesh). However, this incarnation of Vishnu remains strangely mysterious, compared to the more famous Rama and Krishna.

I have given only a brief overview of the depth and breadth the Parasurama myths explored in this slim volume. It is an excellent introduction to the subject and has left me gasping for more. I would recommend it to anyone who can read Malayalam. (Being a publication by the Sahitya Akademi, it could get translated at some point of time – but don’t hold your breath.)

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PS: Parasurama is perhaps the only deity in the world who has a train named after him. The Parasuram Express runs from Thiruvananthapuram to Mangalore, tracing the path supposedly taken by Parasurama’s axe.
Parasuram Express

A Review of “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” by Kate Wilhelm

(Warning: The review below contains what some may consider to be spoilers. But on the whole, I do not think that reading this review will spoil the enjoyment of the book for you.)
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Science fiction stories usually concern the impact of the progress of science on human beings. When the science part dominates, it is called “Hard SF”: when the human part dominates, it is “Soft SF”. However, this is not a rigid categorisation as most Hard SF stories (for example, Asimov’s Foundation series) contain some sociology, and most Soft SF cannot exist without some science. The most fascinating Soft SF stories deal with a society unalterably modified by science, and how human beings come to term with it.

Did I just say “human beings”? Well, as far as Kate Wilhelm’s Hugo and Locus award-winning novel, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is concerned, you can add the word “almost” – since most of the characters in this story are clones.

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The novel is a dystopia: one that many science fiction writers seem to love – the whole world having gone to hell on a handcart. Wars, pollution and pestilence of Biblical proportions are slowly wiping out life on earth. To compound the problem, human beings and animals are becoming increasingly sterile. It seems that the world is doomed to extinction.

The filthy rich Sumner family, up in their farm on the Shenandoah Valley, have read the signs early and have found a solution. They will preserve an island of stability and sanity in a world gone volatile and mad in their mountain citadel – and led by the gifted Dr. Walt, Harry Vlasic and David Sumner, they develop the ultimate answer to sterility – cloning.

So far, so good. Only, they discover too late that clones are not humans in the true sense of the word. Much more single-minded and efficient than their originals, and sharing an extra-sensory empathy with one another, they soon take over… and the world seems ready for a new species. A society where individuality is unknown and any deviation from the group is frowned upon; where sex is a group activity and the production of children, other than the cloned ones, is by harvesting a handful of fertile women as “breeders”. It is the end of humankind as we know it.

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Or is it?

On a field trip to gather information and building materials (a perilous one that a few hardy individuals periodically make – it is literally a matter of life and death for any clone to be separated from the group for too long), Molly, the artist, is touched and permanently changed by nature. She can’t go back to the group existence any more: she has rediscovered humanity. Her art becomes steadily less utilitarian and more idiosyncratic, and she begins questioning group values. Of course, this striving for individuality is major deviant behaviour among the clones, so they isolate her in the old house, with its hoard of books. Unknown to them, she is carrying something else – the son of the doctor Ben in her womb.

Molly and her son Mark enjoy an idyllic existence in the old house for five years until they are ultimately discovered. Mark is taken away to live in the communal nursery with other children, and Molly is assigned the role of a breeder, a baby – producing machine.

But once touched by nature, man cannot become a machine again. As the clone community declines because of lack of innovation, abhorrence of nature and the steadily dwindling resources from a dead world, Mark, the earth-child, provides the spark to ensure that humanity is born again.

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The novel is structured in three parts: the first part (and in my opinion, the weakest) showing the development of the society of the clones and their takeover, the second part detailing Molly’s “conversion” and the third, the renaissance of humanity through Mark. Even though it attempts to be nothing other than science fiction, the mythical overtones are hard to miss. David Sumner is the original savior prophet/ hero, who creates the chosen race and is ultimately sacrificed by them: Molly, the Mother of God/ Mother Goddess: and Mark, the persecuted God Child/ Hero/ Messiah of the new world.

Kate Wilhelm wrote this novel in the seventies, when the cold war was going strong. For Western Europeans and Americans, the Soviet Union was the Devil Incarnate and the ultimate dystopia, a place where human beings have lost all claims to individuality and function only as cogs in the machine, as epitomised by the communist bloc (we now understand that this was far removed from the truth). In those days, a communist takeover of the world was a real threat in the mind of the average American; the end of civilisation as we know it. Part of the success of this novel is that that particular paranoia is explored in detail, without being judgmental.

“The Freedom of the Individual” is at the heart of the American secular religion, sometimes (in the opinion of citizens of other countries) carried to ridiculous extremes (one cannot imagine a philosophy like Ayn Rand’s meriting serious consideration anywhere else in the world). Collectivism of any kind is to be abhorred. So imagine the situation if the human race becomes collective, not through force, not through choice, but as an inherent feature of their biological make-up? That is what the author does, and her prediction on the fate of such a society is clear and unambiguous: death by atrophy of the spirit.

The passage reproduced below encapsulates the author’s philosophy in a nutshell.

…He looked over the class, and continued. “Our goal is to remove the need for sexual reproduction. Then we will be able to plan our future. If we need road builders, we can clone fifty or a hundred for this purpose, train them from infancy, and send them out to fulfill their destiny. We can clone boat builders, sailors, send them out to the sea to locate the course of the fish our first explorers discovered in the Potomac. A hundred farmers, to relieve those who would prefer to be working over the test tubes than hoeing rows of carrots.”

Another ripple of laughter passed over the students. Barry smiled also; without exception they all worked their hours in the fields.

“For the first time since mankind walked the face of the earth,” he said, “there will be no misfits.”

“And no geniuses,” a voice said lazily, and he looked to the rear of the class to see Mark, still slouched down in his chair, his blue eyes bright, grinning slightly. Deliberately he winked at Barry, then closed both eyes again, and apparently returned to sleep.

The community where everybody is forced to work in the fields and children belong to the group and not to their parents seems like a parody of Chairman Mao’s China.

It is interesting to note that Mark saves the society because he is more in tune with nature than the clones who needs the presence of each other for sustenance and cannot survive alone. While stressing individuality, Ms. Wilhelm also seems to advocating the recognition of our umbilical tie to Mother Earth (Gaia, Bhumi, call her whatever you will). Presumably it was the separation which brought about the unnamed catastrophe at the beginning of the story – a scenario which eerily parallels the situation we find ourselves in today…

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Another Year… Another Beginning…

It seems that we human beings cannot live without breaking the time stream down into discrete chunks.  Maybe it’s because of the repetition of night and day over twenty-four hours, or the repetition of four seasons over 365 days.  As a species, we are indubitably temporal – our existence made up of repetitive cycles.

Each new year is a new beginning. It is a time to renew oneself, as one looks at the dying year and the newborn year at the same time, Janus-like.  The past is dead, dying in small bits even as I type this – and the new year is already 8 days old.  Here I sit in front of the computer, blaming myself for things still left undone, and promising to do better this year – yes, the old business of New Year Resolutions.  Thankfully, I have stopped making them publicly.

Looking back, the past year has not been that bad on the intellectual front.  I completed one hundred blog posts – though most of them were embellished book reviews which I had already posted on Goodreads – and have established my presence here on the blogosphere to a certain extent.  I managed to read a hundred books.  I wrote a play and submitted it for a local competition (it did not win anything) and I have started work on a novel, which I hope, will not die a premature death.

In 2016, these are the resolutions I have made to myself:

  1. Read more Malayalam books.
  2. Read more on mythology and explore its intimate connection to the human psyche and creativity.
  3. Read some classics (both fiction and non-fiction) which have been on my list for quite a time.
  4. Write regularly.

Knowing myself, it’s quite likely that these resolutions may be honoured more in the breach than in observance.  However, it’s always advisable to set targets so that one will have something to strive for.

Belated Happy New Year to all my friends!

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