Not so long ago, the streets of Delhi echoed with the cries of “Phansi do! Phansi do!” Teenagers as young as 17 and 18 called for death to rapists, holding up hand-drawn posters that showed shaky, childishly scrawled gallows.
It is so easy to bring the scaffold back into the public imagination. Pleas for mercy were made, but in softer and less telegenic voices. These calls for hanging had the ring of sanction to them: they were bookended with executions, the hangings of Ajmal Kasab in November, and of Afzal Guru last week.
The gallows – and its once-popular cousin, execution by trained elephant – loom larger in history than they do in Indian literature, where the hangman’s art is on display chiefly in novels about the 1857 Rebellion, in Orwell’s essay on attending an execution, and in Shashi Warrier’s The Hangman’s Journal. The 1857 novels tend to use the gallows as a colourful backdrop (to your right, peacocks and jackals, to your left, dastardly mutineers swinging in the hot summer breeze).
Shashi Warrier’s novel, which will be reprinted soon by Atlantic, Grove, was based on his interviews of Janardhanan Pillai, the last hangman of Travancore. The hangman does his job with care and skill; but he is the sin eater of the village. “Only the hangman would go home with blood on his hands and a life on his conscience,” Mr Warrier writes. (The names of the executioners of Kasab and Afzal Guru have not been released to the public, though Afzal Guru’s hangman was imported from outside Delhi.)
If you have the slightest imagination, any perusal of a prison manual will tell you what it means to hang a man by the neck until he is dead, and perhaps this should be essential reading in all countries where the death penalty is legal.
You need, for a hanging, two ropes from Manila (Delhi gets its ropes from Buxar), 19 feet in length, well twisted, oiled and fully stretched; a gallows of solid construction; a sack of sand or clay to test the rope; an executioner who can make the necessary calculations for the drop, to avoid either death by slow strangulation or death by the other extreme of having the man’s neck torn off by the rope. The rope will sometimes “take large portions of skin and flesh from the side of the face that the noose is on”, and the body must be left hanging for half an hour to ensure death. Indian executions are performed in the morning; elsewhere, at midnight; the Japanese, as a courtesy to the prisoner, do not inform him until moments before the execution so that he should not suffer excessive fear and grief.
Orwell, Christopher Hitchens and Truman Capote were marked by what they saw of executions. Orwell was struck by the enormity of this act, sanctioned by the state, and his moment of revelation came when the man about to be hanged stepped aside to avoid a puddle on the path: “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man…. the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.” Capote knew in detail what the murderers he wrote of In Cold Blood had committed, the pathetic bodies of the Clutter family; and yet he could not witness Perry’s execution.
Hitchens called the execution he saw “a creepy, furtive and shameful affair, in which the participants could not decently show their faces”. For witnessing this “dark and dingy little ritual”, as a “complicit spectator”, he did not know whether he could ever quite excuse himself. Nor was this just a wince of distaste; Hitchens had a famously cold eye and began his essay by pointing out what we find unusual about executions. Nothing is more predictable than death, and yet nothing is less predictable and less certain — the only exemptions being suicides and the executed.
In India, where the executioners and the wardens, those who do our dirty work for us, are the least likely to leave behind diaries and memoirs, we have no tradition of the other kind of writing about executions. This comes from wardens, as in Donald A Cabana’s Confessions of an Executioner, or in the histories of hangmen, as in the stories of England’s famous masters of the sword and the noose, and in one instance, from a minister in France. M Robert Badinter, criminal lawyer and minister under Mitterrand, witnessed many executions as he formed his opposition to the death penalty. And yet, his arguments were different from the usual pleas to mercy or warnings of possible miscarriages of justice.
The scaffold, he writes, had come to symbolise “a totalitarian concept of the relationship between the citizen and the state”. Those were the grounds on which La Guillotine was finally dismantled in France in 1981, her blades never again to be stained by the blood of the guilty.