WHEN, in 2004, a date was set for the hanging of Dhananjoy Chatterjee for the rape and murder in 1990 of a teenaged girl in Kolkata, the media, hungry for the unusual angle, homed in on the hangman himself. There had not been a hanging in India since the execution of the serial killer Auto Shankar in 1995. The 85-year-old Nata Mullick proved up to the challenge of the high-profile event, and emerged as a raconteur and philosopher who saw himself as an implacable agent of justice.
On 24 June 2004, the day before the hanging was to take place, Joshy Joseph, documentary filmmaker from Kerala, sat in Nata’s house in south Kolkata, filming the hangman’s compulsive discourse on life, death and iniquity, punctuated by references to his own angst and the solace of alcohol. Towards the end of the day, Nata received news of the hanging’s postponement and dramatically fainted before, and possibly for, the camera. It later emerged that he had been involved in a number of shenanigans behind the scenes: playing media channels off against each other, bargaining with the government for a job for his grandson, and so on. On 14 August 2004, Chatterjee was finally hanged. Joseph’s film, One Day from a Hangman’s Life, which premiered at Kolkata’s Nandan theatre in June the following year, was banned by the West Bengal government two days after the first screening.
In 2012, another Malayali, the short-story writer and novelist KR Meera, published her novel Aarachaar (Executioner), inspired as much by Joshy’s documentary as by the hanging itself. The book is set in Kolkata, features Bengali characters, and is deeply rooted in the city’s over three-hundred-year-old history, demonstrating a sure-footed sense of its culture. This is unusual, for novels written in India’s vernacular languages tend to adhere very closely to their respective languages’ native places.