Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Last Hangman

One of the loveliest parts of book blogging are the days you come home from a long day to be greeted by an unexpected little parcel of books. It was in one such package I received Shashi Warrier's The Last Hangman, which promised to transport me to "the heat and dust of the Indian South". Faced with the miseries of a wet London January, I tucked it into my bag and hoped it would combat the back to work blues.

Janardhanan Pillai was the last hangman of Travancore and his retirement is frequently interrupted by journalists wanting to buy his story. He is persuaded to write a journal of his past by an author and his companion after being suitably intrigued by their relationship. What follows is the story of Pillai's struggles as committing his life to paper awakens ghosts and forces him to seek meaning and answers to the moral questions his religious and educational mentors have never given him.

Warrier creates a very colourful picture of Pillai's world. He also tells the tale of the man first and foremost; although the story is told in the time of independence and great change within India, politics only comes up where it  directly impacts the hangman's life, such as his conversations with his old teacher, or when assessing the morality of hanging in the name of a now defunct king. Rather than politics, the focus is on the hangman's quest for peace and redemption. Was he right to kill in the name of the state, to be slightly outside of society, in exchange for guaranteed food for his family? Duty is a theme which continually crops up and was most interesting for me in the tale of how Pillai's father became the hangman, which was largely due to the neglecting of their duties by wealthier relatives.

The troubled hangman carries the story very well, but I couldn't help feeling there were a few gaps. The writer is a key part of the action, but his role felt very two dimensional. I think too much was unsaid here, and a secondary narrative on his motivations to write the tale would have been interesting. I also think this would have allowed a deeper exploration of the issues raised by Pillai's narrative. But then again, that would've taken the power away from the hangman; perhaps the gaps needed to be there for the reader to feel totally at one with the narrator's perspective.

Overall, this was an interesting read which takes you to a different little corner of the world. While the wind whipped around my train carriage, I couldn't have asked for more from my rush hour read!

(Available from Atlantic Books)