DEATH IN THE FAMILY
Ian MacKinnon meets the man who,
like his father before him, is India's hangman
Meerut IT WAS an Indian rope trick with a differ- ence. India's best-known hangman, I was told, treated the noose with banana skin to ensure a speedy dispatch. Unable to resist the opportunity to meet a real expert in the field, I left behind the manicured lawns of the Lutyens-built capital, New Delhi, and set off for the badlands of Meerut. My goal was an interview with Kalu Ram, vet- eran of 100 executions over 50 years.
Imagine my dismay when I discovered that the 69-year-old had gone to join his victims a few months earlier. Had a life- time's secrets gone up in smoke on his funeral pyre? 'He was a very popular per- sonality,' the well-spoken head jailer at Meerut jail assured me, over chai served by lifers in fetching primrose uniforms. He explained that the deceased's son, Mamu Singh, was being considered for the vacan- cy. Indeed, his was the only application. Following the friendly jailer's instructions, I made my way to the family home, a tiny, single room in downtown Meerut, where the 1857 Mutiny began.
A Singh ancestor — the executioner's role was apparently hereditary — had helped to crush the rebellion with a welter of hangings. Such loyalty to the Raj hadn't brought them riches. Outside their hovel pigs wallowed listlessly in a stinking open sewer, seeking respite from the searing heat. Inside a cooler of industrial propor- tions roared to no effect. Tacky pictures of Hindu gods peered from the walls, but Bollywood starlets with cheesy grins took pride of place. The old hangman's widow, Sibo, 60, said her son, Mamu Singh, was out of town. As it happened he was con- ducting a hanging, she said breezily. She volunteered to field questions, and ran through a well-practised patter on the fam- ily's part in the execution business, gold- coloured bangles clinking as she tugged at her sari.
`Church Commissioners make millions in investing in Viagra.' News item Kalu Ram had been dedicated to his call- ing. When the orders came, he would stop everything and head for prisons far and Wide, though Meerut was his home jail. There was no uniform. Travel was second- class by rail. Pay was meagre. The monthly retainer was £20, boosted by £8 for each )atkah — literally 'jerk' of the lever — and a £4.50 daily allowance for travel and preparation of the gallows. Still, this was an improvement on the 90 pence he had originally been paid. The jail manual — a relic of the Raj — also provided for a bot- tle of superior quality 'English' liquor, on the basis that any right-minded person needed to be drunk to get the job done. But Kalu Ram's widow insisted that he had no truck with Dutch courage. Perhaps predictably, Sibo portrayed her husband as a gentle man who wouldn't hurt a fly — except when duty demanded, of course. Even then, on his return he'd baY sweets and hand them round to the neighbourhood children. Similarly, he liked to talk of his work, regaling the farm- 1Y with stories of his victims' chilling mur- ders by way of justification. But, said his wife, it never troubled his sleep. 'He never felt bad about it. It was a worthwhile job, doing his duty for the government.' Kalu Ram was determined that his sons Would continue the family tradition. Early °n he took Mamu and Jagdish along. T. heir apprenticeship in the hangman's art involved tying the victim's feet before the short, final journey. Of the two, the elder, Mr auto Singh, showed greater aptitude for the work. Even before his father's death, he had 25 executions under his belt, four solo while his father was feeling off-colour. Meeting Mamu Singh proved far from sun- ple. His younger brother Jagdish had Promised to arrange it, but had since decided he rather fancied the job himself. Since he earned his keep by removing ani- mal corpses from the streets, the role of h angman would presumably be a promo- tion. Jagdish seemed determined that I should not meet his brother, apparently motivated by the bizarre belief that keep- ing us apart might reduce Mamu's chances of succeeding his father.
Finally, Jagdish grudgingly led me to his brother through the teeming warren of Meerut slums. His efforts had been for naught. Mamu Singh had become India's newest hangman a few days earlier. From a PVC shopping bag hanging from a nail he pulled a bulging folder of letters, the family papers. Each bore grim testimony to his father's exploits, summoning him to another engagement with the noose. The latest document was Mamu Singh's appointment letter.
Yet with the current Supreme Court taking a dim view of capital punishment, the pickings are likely to be slim. Only two or three out of more than 30 sentenced to death annually by India's lower courts take the final plunge. Still, it's a change from Mamu's day job: door-to-door salesman of the family's reed baskets. He admitted that his first solo hanging had been hard: 'I'd difficulty controlling my bowels.' But these days, he assured me, the job had become mechanical. The victim's height is provid- ed so that the manila rope can be made to the correct length, with precisely lft lin extra for the noose. A sandbag of appro- priate bulk tests its strength to avoid embarrassing mishaps.
Despite these precautions, hangings do not always go smoothly. With one notori- ous dacoit whose speciality was slowly tor- turing his victims to death, half of the gallows' trap-door failed. The condemned man's fall was broken and death, normally instantaneous, came slowly. 'We thought that must be justice, given his crimes,' said the wily hangman with a grin, sitting cross- legged in lilac lungi.
The execution of Indira Gandhi's Sikh assassins, Satwant and Beant Singh, was not without its moments. He and his father had slipped out of the jail afterwards in the midst of riotous protest. 'They'd have torn us apart had they known it was us.' Usually, it's a smooth business. The doctor exam- ines the condemned man, 'to make sure he's fit to die'. Then, at 4 a.m. on the dot, 20 minutes before the appointed hour, Mamu Singh meets the victim for the first time. He ties the feet and slips the noose over the black hood. After a signal from the jailer, clutching a two-way radio as insurance against a last-minute reprieve, it's a quick tug of the lever. 'I don't feel anything,' he said. But does he adopt his father's banana skin trick? The fruit- flavour rope was a myth, he claimed. His father had always gone by the book, using wax. Now Mamu has introduced a modern innovation. He uses a medical powder, boric acid, for a slicker finish.
The author is a freelance journalist living in Delhi.