WHEN THE news of the Governor rejecting Yathindranath Banerjee’s mercy petition appeared on TV, the first hearse had just moved to the Nimtala Ghat. Chitpore, where we lived, has always been inhabited by blackies. Even before the Europeans divided Calcutta into a white town and a black town, much before the Basaks and Seths had built settlements beside the Hooghly river, we have been staying here. Though narrow, mossy and grimy today, Chitpore’s heart lies at Jorasanko Thakur Bari, the ancestral home of Rabindranath Tagore. From Lalbazaar, as we stroll alongside the crawling trams at Rabindra Sarani, and pass the printing presses, knife shops and tabla stores at Madan Chatterjee Lane, the offices of Jatra Para drama production houses come into view. Head straight to reach the red-light area of Sonagachi, and next is Kumartuli, where effigies of gods and goddesses are made aplenty. On the right side here is the Machua Bazaar, where fruits are sold instead of fish. A few steps to the left, through Nimtala Street to the Strand Road, is the ancient burning ghat, where we all end up at last.
Our house was near the three-way junction from the Strand Road to the crematorium — with the teashop to the north, and the barber shop and temple to the east. All through the day and night, the street in front of our house throbbed with activity, with mourners, workers, barbers, cobblers, ear-cleaners, merchants and beggars squeezing their way through to Nimtala Ghat. Motorcades, rickshaws, horse carts, temple bells and the bleating of sacrificial animals lent more noise to the plot than the circular trains. The odour of sweets deep-fried in ghee and sunflower oil blended with the smoke from the burning pyres.
Travelling alongside the first open hearse of the day was a group of sadhus chanting ‘Hare Rama’. Most were fair and haggard, with long beards and saffron robes. As they chanted mantras, talked, giggled and enjoyed the life around the van with Om written on all sides, near the corpse stood another saint in saffron, with a white beard and thick-framed glasses, staring gravely at them. I was washing a pile of clothes and getting confused about which was the dead one — the standing sadhu or the sleeping one — when, from the barber shop, Sudev kaku came running with a happy face and the news of the mercy petition denial. Seeing him, my father, Phanibhooshan Gridha Mullick, screamed at the top of his lungs: ‘Damn it! Men should have a little sense.’
It ensued into a quarrel. One is getting a job after a decade or so, and what’s the big deal in it, muttered Sudev kaku. Baba smacked him, calling him a brainless kook. Hearing all the noise, my Thakuma Bhuvaneswari Devi, who is more than 100 years old, limped to the scene. Dressed in a torn sari, she is my father’s mother, and will now probably be only as much as his arm’s length. I continued washing Ramu da’s clothes, drubbing them on the boulder in the tiny stretch of land between Baba’s room and the teashop. After Sudev kaku returned to the saloon, Baba twirled his big grey moustache and smirked. It was then that I noticed how quickly I’d made a noose out of the dupatta’s tail. Though the scarf was ragged with age, the knot was nothing but perfect. Even babies in our family know how to twirl a flawless noose. That’s the first thing we Gridha Mullicks learn to do with our hands.
IT WAS May 18. The darkening clouds and soft thunders reminded us that the monsoon wasn’t far. The boom before the rainy season sounded like the opening of a chamber in the sky. It made me expect a hailstorm. As a child, I used to race with Ramu da to collect the ice pellets on the street. But now when it rained, the pieces were large and flat, like parts of a shattered sky of glass. Now because I was a grown-up, I decided to stay back, leaning on the wall and making a loop out of the dupatta, watching the ice melt. The ravens squalled and circled in the air. A red-wattled lapwing got hit by a hefty snowball and fell with it, next to me, trembling. On the broken road, under the mild sun, the ice flakes died unhurriedly.
When the rain stopped, the first vehicle to roll over the drops was a hearse, decked with flowers and wreaths. But nobody, with or without tears, was accompanying it to the pyre. I stepped out for a closer look at the van, which seemed to be plated with gold and silver. A woman wearing a red kashi silk sari lay flat on a flowerbed, patiently and defiantly, with hands casually placed over her bosom. She had a radiant face and must have been as tall as me. When the van moved, her pale feet were visible through the lillies, the big toes clinging together and pressed against the window pane. Later, throughout the night, visions of my two severed big toes freaked me out.
Actually, I had lain entangled in nerves even in my mother’s womb. The doctors had to cut open her belly to get me out. I’d made a flawless knot even as a foetus, and Thakuma had got something to brag about. Every time my Ma — the slim, fair, greying Sachinmayi Devi — heard this, she went nuts: ‘Who is her daddy, after all! And lo, she has put the noose on her neck.’
In no mood to give up, Thakuma would retort, ‘To know the true worth of Gridha Mullicks, you should go and ask the rulers of this land.’ Then, as usual, my Ma, with bony nose and sunken eyes, would play her ace: ‘Go and ask about the worth to the bitches at Sonagachi… It’s because he wasn’t content with any of them that he made me bear this load again, at this age.’
She was referring to my conception about 23 years ago, on a day Baba hung a serial killer who had murdered seven people. He had been drinking copiously since morning after returning from the gallows. By noon, totally numbed, he grabbed my Ma while she was buying veggies and tried to mount her at the market itself. He was 65. She gave birth to me at 44. After that, he had hanged only two more people. But before I had turned five, I solved the mystery of the noose. I even did a mock trial on a little boy in the neighbourhood. That’s an interesting tale, but that I’ll tell later, because everyone likes to listen to the chronicles of my father. My stories are but a sequel to them.
After kaku retired to his shop, I washed the clothes and hung them in front of the temple and the barber shop. Inside the house, the row between Ma and Thakuma was gaining momentum. Someone, probably the same sadhu, was burning in the pyre and merging with the ghat’s odour. Relatives of someone else, after the last rites and a dip in the Ganga, were rushing to the teashop, with water drops trickling from their clothes. Baba, as usual, with his head held high, sat at the table with the cash box. Behind him, framed in glass, and hanging from a rusty pole was a piece from The Statesman, from 1960, carrying the first news report about him. When the clipping yellowed and the photo of his young face and earrings began to fade, he framed another article, published in an English magazine 15 years ago, and hung it just below the first one. It had a colour photograph. Sometimes, some customers at the teashop would manage to get over the tiresome day and tribulations at the ghat for a glance at the wall. And seeing the opportunity, Baba would pounce upon them: ‘What dada, don’t you know how to read?’
And then he’d call for me or Ramu da.
‘Please read it out for them, dear.’
Facing the audience, Ramu da or I would read the headlines aloud: ‘All set for hanging: Gridha Mullick’; ‘Hanging is no child’s play, says Gridha Mullick’. Baba himself would then explain the meaning in Bangla. Ramu da and I had got the hang of English by reading the various articles on him. He had also learnt English the same way. Many a time, the listeners sat gloomily with heads bowed and glares fixed at the teacups. To them, he said, thumping his hand on the desk: ‘Dada, death is a stark reality. One of your near ones has passed away, right? His time was up. Is any one of us capable of stopping it? Look, as a hangman who has executed 451 people, you should follow my words — death is never in our hands.’
Hearing that, hundreds of listeners have sat in shock. The word ‘hangman’ was articulated in a very dramatic tone. As they looked at the wall again, with the same assertiveness he had in enacting his folk theatre roles, Baba twirled his thick, grey moustache and rolled his eyes.
‘Not just one or two, but 451.’
The day when Yathindranath Banerjee’s mercy petition was turned down, Baba sat wordlessly with a heavy head. On his left shoulder was a towel in chequered red and green. On his right hand, an old steel watch kept on loosening itself. Even though on the fat side, kaku is puny in front of the 6’2” tall, dark and stout Baba. But they have matching skin and bulging eyes. Those big, round, hungry eyes are why they are known as Gridha Mullicks since the time of kings.
Those who came to the teashop that day missed his performance. Once or twice, he walked inside and from behind the framed photo of Goddess Kali, he took a liquor bottle and drank in mouthfuls. He smoked cigarettes in quick succession. The shop was unusually crowded that day. Ma and kaku’s wife Shyamilidevi kakima took turns in making tea. Used teacups, crushed and straight, were heaped up outside the shop. I was pouring water for Ramu da when the black phone in Baba’s room rang. Baba hurried inside to pick it up. As he heard the sound on the other end, he took out the unlit cigarette from his lips. It was a sign of deference. Else he was capable of retaining the stub as it was and scream at his best with ease.
‘Babu, I heard that, babu. But will something work out, babu? Or will it also slip away as in the case of ’94?’
It must be the jail superintendent or the DGP, kaku whispered to me. He had come running, hearing the phone ring. Baba continued the conversation without acknowledging our presence.
‘Eesh, what are you saying, babu? I swear on God Maheswara, I’m done with committing sins… I’m an artist babu, an artist… this is but a government service… my family profession… If Rs 20,000 and a job for my daughter is too big a demand, then please find someone else who will do it for a cheaper price, babu… I’m 88. If I succumb today, I don’t even have a son to take care of the house. How it ended up so is something that I don’t need to remind you again and again. May God Mahadeva bless you…’
As he was talking, his right hand — which has tied the noose for 451 people — held the cigarette with its index and middle fingers, and took the towel from his shoulder and wiped the sweat from his back.
‘Is money the only criteria, babu? I’ll give Rs 1 lakh to you. Will babu be able to do the job? Isn’t it just about pulling a lever, babu? When I reach the netherworld, God will ask me, Phani, why did you hang a man who did no harm to you? Couldn’t you have said you can’t do it? I need an answer then, babu. Dear God, I did this to give a life to a daughter in her prime to be married, to buy medicine for my aged and loving mom, to cure my son, to get clothes and food for my wife whom I love more than my life… Other than that, what point can I make, babu? Yes, yes, babu. I’ll come there…’
Then, without even turning his head, like an actor on stage, he shouted out.
‘Arre, Sudev, come here. We’ve to leave early tomorrow to meet Chakraborty babu. You should get up in the morning itself. Okay then, let it be so, babu. I’ll meet you there and we’ll discuss and decide…’
He noticed Sudev standing next to him only after the call had ended. But without showing embarrassment, he gaped at us groggily, twirled the moustache and twitched his lips.
‘Gridha, is money the most important thing in the world! If we listen to him, it feels as if he pays the government every month to serve the people… Buggers…’ he said to himself.
I stood gazing at my Baba. As always, I felt baffled and proud of him. I’ve never seen a showman as efficient as him, even on television. I’ve never seen a protagonist like him in any movie or play. No one could ever predict what he’d say and when he’d say it. But one thing is sure. His words were always apt. Whatever the situation, he always said things we wished to hear. Later, whenever I had to talk, I always did it after considering what he’d have said if he was in my place.
Sitting on a plastic chair next to Ramu da’s bed, I flipped through an old English textbook of Sunaina’s, Sudev kaku’s daughter. I felt embarrassed to face Ramu da. In the earlier days, this would have been an occasion of joy. When hangings became rare, our family lost its revenue. I heard a holler. I got up, walked to the door and peeped outside. One after another, four or five hearses rolled by. The first two were opulent. Fair, fat men with golden-framed glasses and women in silk saris and sleeveless blouses accompanied them silently. The vans behind them were of the middle classes. It was one among them, a 10 or 12-year-old girl, who had wailed heartbreakingly, calling her Baba. She was clasping her kin for support. My mind shut out the scene.
‘It seems to be a good day for trade…’ Ramu da mumbled with eyes still closed. I stayed at the door itself, but shifting my focus inside, said, ‘The day is baking hot.’ The clothes hanging on the rope had dried. The bells started tolling from the small Kali temple two blocks away, which drew my mind back to the room.
‘Vehicles kept on going the whole of last night…’ Ramu da added. For a Strand Road without vehicles, deaths should come to a halt. In my 23 years of memory, there was never a day without hearses. Or motor vans. They sped by, skid to the gutters and chafed us with their rattle. Pushcarts didn’t make that much noise. Corpses of the poor came in rickshaws and dustcarts. When pressed for cash, Ma and kakima served tea throughout the night. But that rarely happened.
‘I’m not mad enough to offer my blood and sweat to boost the business of those sluts,’ that was Ma’s stand. Sonagachi was just two turns away. After the vegetable market and the street with sweet shops on both sides began the alleys of Sonagachi. Like every little drop of Ganga rushing to meet the ocean, every extra penny in my family got buried in the depths of Sonagachi.
THE 3.15 PM Princep Ghat train had hardly left when Jail Superintendent Ajoy Chakraborty’s people came for Baba. Seeing the police jeep waggling through the crowd and hearses, he stepped out of the shop with a jubilant grin. Traffic on all the three roads came to a standstill as the cops leaned onto the now parked jeep, waiting for Baba. He wore a white juba and dhoti, a black leather belt as thick as his palm, and was set to leave. From the nearby house, Sudev kaku also ran to him, folding the sleeve of his chequered shirt. I stood blankly, leaning on the wall, doing and undoing a noose with a dupatta. Thakuma chanted ‘Nama Shivaya’ with folded hands and closed eyes. In the same room, Ramu da lay down facing a wall, also with eyes closed. It was blistering outside. The sun blazed. Sweat beads rolled down. Like the steam boiling inside a tight vessel, something roiled in my heart and body.
Even before Baba had returned home, we had our first journalist visitor — Narendra Chaudhary from Ananda Bazar Patrika. I stepped out to receive him. Some time ago, when I had passed Plus Two, it was he who wrote the report saying, ‘Hangman’s daughter gets high distinction’. But even with that news, my father didn’t let them publish my photo.
‘He was called from the jail, babu,’ I told him cordially.
‘Ah, he will get busy from now on. By the way, you didn’t continue studies, did you?’
I smiled and nodded in the negative. He looked at me with compassion.
‘Weren’t you working in the press?’
‘Now I don’t go anywhere, babu…’ I replied.
As he rode his scooter back through the crowd, I remembered the days after Plus Two, when I was working as a proof reader at Anjaneya Prasad Yadav’s Sri Maruti Press at Madan Chatterjee Lane. My salary was one hundred rupees. I was there only for two weeks. I used to love the journey, relishing the smells on Thakur Bari Road. In a small room, the paint was peeling off its walls, I sat with a writing board on a wooden chair next to a window with iron bars, comparing the first proof with the handwritten manuscript. I was making corrections on a portion that read ‘Jodi tor daak shune keu na aashe, tobe ekla cholo re…’
Suddenly, from behind, sliding under my arms, two hands crawled in and groped my breasts. The stink of paan and sweat was too familiar to ignore; it was Maruti Prasad, Anjaneya’s son. I slowly turned and looked into his eyes. Instead of being gripped by fear or panic, I found it funny. I kept the writing board aside and got up from the chair. Like most of the Gridha Mullick descendants, I’m tall and strong and have large eyes. When I stood straight, it seemed like he was two inches shorter than me. I slowly took my dupatta off. He was ogling at my cleavage hungrily. Before the blink of an eye I whirled a knot and, with a smile, hung it around his neck like a garland. Before he could pull me closer, I swiftly pulled the other end of the dupatta through the window pane and jerked the noose tight. His jaws widened; eyes popped. From the protruded tongue, paan drooled like blood. He shuddered strongly. I balanced the pressure with my left hand. He trembled. Eyeballs bulged out. Tongue stuck out till the jaws. With that, I released the loop gradually. Gasping heavily, he fell to the ground. He’d lost consciousness. I raised him to the wall, and then memories of Baba rushed in. There was a question Baba regularly posed, after replying to journalists’ queries: ‘Dialogue right hai na?’ I also felt like delivering a dialogue. So I told him: ‘A noose is not to tie cows.’ He tried to look at me with shuttering eyes. They closed without life. I felt like saying one more dialogue. I released the noose, swayed and undid it back into a dupatta and told him: ‘To kill a cock, there is no need of a hangman.’
THAT SUMMER was severe. The sun beamed with temperatures of 45 degree Celsius or so. The season and its fieriness didn’t affect me. But while leaving the press and walking to the stand and catching the No 22 bus, a noose tightened around my neck. I felt scared to look at my hands. I’d never realised they had so much strength and resolve. I had my mother’s fair complexion and thick curly hair. But at this moment, I frankly craved for her short, tender body too.
When I reached home, Thakuma was at the Kali temple, as always. Ma had gone to visit her sister’s grandchild at Dum Dum. Ramu da’s eyes were inquisitive on why I was home earlier than usual.
‘I proved to be Gridha Mullick’s daughter.’
Then, out of the blue, Baba walked in through the door. He couldn’t believe when I narrated Maruti Prasad Yadav’s misbehaviour. His dark face flashed shades of red and yellow. Then tears swelled in his eyes, and he rushed out of the room in a fit of anger. Ramu da stared in sympathy. After a while, Baba returned to the room.
‘How was the noose?’
His heavy voice was sullied with fatigue. I glanced at Ramu da, took my dupatta again and made a noose with its end. Baba took it and examined it. His puffy reddened eyes showed a trace of surprise. I put the noose around my neck and showed him. He pulled one end of the dupatta and the knot tightened. I jumped up with a shudder. A smile spread on his face. He loosened the noose.
‘Yadav’s tongue stuck out, didn’t it?’ he asked.
I nodded yes, panting and rubbing my neck. Then he placed his cigarette-stained index finger on my throat and showed me the position.
‘Here, here’s the place. If it moves a bit here or there, the person will have to writhe and throttle to death. That’s disgusting to the hangman…’
Then he took the noose from my neck and put the dupatta back on me. That was the end of my ‘career’. Since then, he hadn’t even allowed me to venture outside alone. On May 18, when Baba returned in a police jeep at dusk, I noticed that the dupatta I was wearing was the same one that had strangled Maruti Prasad. In five years, I’d managed to get only two more dresses.
Baba was tired from his own fury. He was also utterly drunk. He shouted at Ma for no reason while walking to his room. That’s the room that you’ve later seen in a couple of documentary films and many TV programmes. The one with asbestos sheets as roof and unpolished stones as walls. On its west side were framed pictures of Kali, Mahadeva and a garlanded photo of uncle. The east, north and south walls of the room were full of news reports about Baba, all framed in glass. His old shirt and towels hung on a rod that supported the roof. He stretched himself on the narrow wooden bed. The white chest hairs looked like he was wearing a white vest with his ragged dhoti.
‘We can’t trust them at all. It seems rules don’t allow them to give job to a hangman’s daughter. Huh… are they meddling with Gridha Mullick?’ he yelled as if to no one. Ignoring him, I switched on the TV. It was showing reports of Sonia Gandhi sacrificing the prime minister’s post. A woman wearing a large bindi was whining to the anchor that the country had lost a chance to get a female premier. All the people appearing onscreen were fair and rosy. Before I could see or hear them properly, Sudev kaku called from the barber shop across the wall, ‘Oye… chetu chod di… chetna…!’
I stepped out. There were two kittens snuggling in the dampness of the washing stone. I leaped forward into the crimson rays of the sun and the warmth of the summer dusk, and to the moment that transformed my life forever. Before long, I had to leave for Alipore Central Jail. In a hearse adorned with flowers, with thumbs of the feet tucked together, someone took me to a mysterious crematorium. From my experience of all these years, let me tell you: in this world, if something can be more unpredictable than death, it’s only love.
KR MEERA is a journalist and writer in Malayalam whose short stories, translated both into Tamil and Telugu, have won several awards. Penguin India publishedYellow is the Colour of Longing, a collection of her short stories, in 2011.