A writer is inherently a feminist, humanist, environmentalist and a socialist'

Calcutta is central to K.R. Meera’s award- winning book on a hangwoman: she breathes life into the smells and sounds of the city. The Kottayam- based author tells Varuna Verma that she writes only on subjects no one has touched before

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 18.01.15
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Among Calcutta's legions of admirers is author K.R. Meera. Sitting 2,300 kilometres away in Kottayam, a lush backwater town in Kerala, she imagined the sights, sounds and smells of Calcutta.

The eastern metropolis was the setting for her 2012 Malayalam novel Aarachar, a grim coming-of-age story of a timid 22-year-old girl who becomes India's first woman executioner.

"The city is a central character in the book," she elaborates.

A few weeks ago, Meera collected the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award for the book which was earlier bestowed with another of Kerala's prestigious literature prizes - the Vayalar Rama Varma Memorial Literary Award. The book, 38,000 copies of which have been sold, has now been translated into English as Hangwoman.

In Aarachar, Meera breathes life into the smells, sounds and squalour of Calcutta. Situating her story in the lanes of Kalighat and Sonagachi, she weaves vivid pictures of old Calcutta paras. The burning ghats of Nimtala assault the olfactory senses - "the mingled scents of sweetmeats cooking in ghee and corpses burning on pyres."

It would take stamina to discuss Aarachar - for it's no soothing bedtime tale. Instead, the 500-pager is an intense coiled rope of a novel that aims to strangle the reader. "I've built the story like a rope, with many strands - or parallel storylines - woven together. This rope ends in a noose that chokes the reader," Meera says.

The noose runs like a literal and metaphorical thread through the book. The story delves into the dark world of a family of hangmen, who treat their work like an art form. The protagonist, Chetna Mullick, must carry the family profession forward as her father is too old and her brother left limbless in a revenge attack. The tale traces the death of innocence in Chetna as she turns into a proficient killer.

Chetna had been living in Meera's head for years. "She was a strong woman. I was looking for the right mix of profession and circumstances to situate her," she recalls.

Meera found this setting in 2004, when rape and murder convict Dhananjay Chatterjee was hanged to death in Calcutta's Alipore Jail. The hangman, Nata Mullick - the inspiration behind Aarachar's hangmen clan - had grabbed national attention in the run-up to the execution. "The incident had all the drama. And hangwoman was the perfect vocation for Chetna," she explains.

The author never met Nata Mullick but she read extensively on him and about the psychology of executioners across the world.

"I found that executioners have some common characteristics - they have sharp conversation skills, are dramatic and talk at length about their work," she says. Mullick was also known for his smart one-liners, she adds.

The storytelling may be stormy, but Meera emerges as a sunny personality - someone you'd chomp banana chips with at a town bakery.

The petite, doe-eyed author lives in the heart of cacophonous Kottayam. Even then, as you turn into the steep lane heading to her house, the street sounds are left behind. Meera's bungalow, surrounded with coconut and banana trees and potted plants, lives up to Kerala's "God's own country" tag.

Hers is a small family. Meera's husband, M.S. Dileep, is a journalist with Malayala Manorama. The couple's teenaged daughter is away, as a residential student at the Rishi Valley School. Like any mother, Meera worries about how Shruthi copes with the hostel food.

Like he does every afternoon, Dileep has walked home for lunch. As we dig into the fiery-hot, fried karimeen, fish curry and boiled rice, Meera jokes about her writing career working unfavourably for her spouse. "Dileep wanted to be a literary critic. He had to abandon the idea when I turned writer - no one would take an author's husband seriously," she laughs.

Jokes apart, the author holds Dileep as a hugely supportive spouse. When Meera started writing Aarachar, she sought his feedback.

He liked the idea but noted that the colours of Calcutta were missing from the narrative," the author recalls. On Dileep's suggestion, Meera travelled to the city to sense its vibes and fill the gaps in her imagination.

Memories of a visit to a government hospital in Calcutta still haunt her. "The corridors were lined with sick patients on the floor, corpses, dogs and garbage. People were wailing and the doctors and the hospital staff went about their work oblivious of it all."

The author says such poverty is not seen in Kerala. "People in Kerala have a middle-class mentality - giving importance to education and maintaining a level of dignity," she says.

Meera steps out of Kerala often to set her stories. She's located her short stories in faraway towns such as Vrindavan and Nandigram, and some even overseas - in Spain and France.

Calcutta was not a challenge for Meera while writing Aarachar. It was her emotional investment in the grim topic. "I lived in Chetna's shoes and imagined what it'd been like to have a noose wring my neck," soft-spoken Meera recollects. She'd be gloomy and depressed for days.

To keep the writer and the wife away from each other, Meera would take off to Thrissur or Ernakulam, check into a room, and write. "It was the best way to keep relationships intact," she reasons.

Having worked as a journalist, Meera had enough experience of travelling on writing assignments. A postgraduate in communicative English from Madurai's Gandhigram Rural Institute, she was a reporter with Malayala Manorama.

One of the feature stories that Meera enjoyed working on was accompanying a woman truck driver on a night drive from Kottayam to Coimbatore. "This is a male-dominated profession. To fit in, the woman always dressed like a man while driving. She made me wear a turban and lungi as well," Meera remembers.

Reporting on offbeat subjects was her forte. Meera, who grew up in Sasthamcotta, an idyllic small town on the banks of Kerala's only freshwater lake, once proposed that six women journalists visit various Kerala towns - at the same time, on the same days - to report, first hand, on women's safety. Meera's job was to hang around bus stops, beaches and theatres screening noontime adult films in Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam and Kollam.

The project threw up a unanimously-derived conclusion. "At any given time, anywhere in the state, all men behave the same way. They use the same catcalls and display ditto sexual exhibition styles," Meera summarises.

For the feisty reporter who won a People's Union for Civil Liberties award for an investigative report on Kerala's women labourers, the project was a shake-up call on gender discrimination. "I realised I'll always remain a lesser citizen, never mind what fancy journalistic post I may hold," she says with resignation.

Meera's books - she's published five collections of short stories, two novellas, five novels and two children's books - often reflect her angst over women's discrimination in contemporary society. She's written on issues ranging from sex rackets and lust to gender hierarchy in government offices. In 2009, the author won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for her short story collection, Ave Maria.

This, however, doesn't make her a feminist writer, she's quick to point out. "A writer is inherently a feminist, humanist, environmentalist and a socialist," she says.

Although the time that Meera spent writing Aarachar was a gloomy patch of the author's life, she says that she's itching to do it again. "That time I just wanted to get out of Chetna's head and end it. But now I'm tempted to do something similar again."

Her next novel is already written and ready in her mind, Meera says.

The writer in her is sometimes scared of the questions the journalist in her asks. "What is new? What's the big deal? - I can't write till these queries are answered," she says.

She adds that she writes only on subjects no one has touched before. "I write on something only if I'm sure it's new. I like to surprise the reader," she says.

Sometimes, Meera gets surprised as well. Recently, she received a call from a woman who spoke to her in Bengali. When Meera pointed out that she didn't know the language, the caller stumped her with her words. "But your soul is Bengali," she said.