Earlier this year, an advertisement by Sri Lanka’s commissioner general of prisons in the local newspapers sought male candidates to fill the long-vacant post of state executioner. This followed the president’s announcement that the death penalty was soon to be reinstated. Among the qualifications outlined were an “excellent moral character” and “a very good mind and mental strength”. The irony is too broad to be missed.
In KR Meera’s Malayalam novel, Aarachaar, or The Hangwoman in the English translation by J Devika, the individual justification for performing such acts was spelt out bluntly: “I am just an instrument.” To what ends the instrument is wielded, and the eponymous hangwoman’s fraught, intense relationship with her father, among others, is the compulsive heart of the book.
Distressing yet self-serving
Mirza Waheed’s third novel, Tell Her Everything, also features an individual as an instrument of state-sanctioned punishment, though not as extreme as execution, and his fraying relationship with his daughter. It’s cast in the form of a first-person rumination by the central character, Kaiser, also known as Dr K, and his attempts to rationalise the acts he once committed.
Now a man of means sheltered in a plush London apartment, he looks forward to meeting his daughter and telling her about the exact nature of his years-ago stint in the hospital of an unnamed West Asian country. The sometimes distressing, sometimes self-serving nature of his reminiscences is as much an act of validation for his daughter as it is an attempt to live with himself. As such, the novel also implicitly asks its readers to reflect on their own actions of self-interest, however small or large.
Originally from a town in India, Dr K – the novel, alas, isn’t as Kafkaesque as the central character’s name – emigrates to London after his marriage, and then to West Asia. Here, he lives, as he tells us, from procedure to procedure, rising from relative poverty to wealth. This period also encompasses his tender, loving relationship with his wife, the birth of their daughter, his wife’s sudden demise, and the sending away of his daughter to school in the United States.
Motivation and justification
The account is inherently digressive – he ruminates, among other things, on the nature of immigration, the elevated status of the property-owning class in London, and recollections of his relatives in India – but all of this can be also seen as an ingenious way of circling around his unsettling central revelations.
As though scratching an unassailable itch, Dr K keeps returning to the question of why he did what he did. As a young man, he tells us, one of his unforgettable memories was the sight of his father, “someone you idolise, someone you love, become a little mouse when a creditor knocks”. Money, then, is certainly a motivation. That’s not all, though. There’s also the if-not-me-someone-else tactic: “Someone or the other had to do it. It just so happens that that someone was your dad…I didn’t choose to be there, did I? It was all predestined, don’t you think?”
At other times, his justifications are more, well, scientific. As a trained doctor, he tried to make the procedures more controlled, more humane. What else can one individual do? After all, “haven’t we all been at it for centuries, in one form or another, under one system or another, as per this law or that rule, that other custom? Haven’t we always, from the very beginning, done things to people to punish them? Haven’t we always devised means to hurt others’ bodies?”
The doctor also muses on perceptions of such punishment, especially in the Western country that is now his home. “I have also noticed that we say ‘barbaric, medieval’ when we talk about the system over there, and merely ‘controversial, contested’ when it comes to, let’s say, your country.” One country’s brutality, he suggests reasonably, is simply another’s form of justice.
Shades of grey
The novel’s narrator isn’t as wilfully self-deluded as, say, Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and this is especially apparent when it comes to his other close relationship, that with Biju, a former colleague at the hospital. Biju is more affected by the tasks they have to perform, and his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. Dr K isn’t entirely unmoved by his friend’s ultimate, awful fate, but he does try to keep it at a safe mental distance – especially as Biju has, in the past, blurted out uncomfortable truths: “You don’t know how to enjoy life. You want to possess life. Own it. You want to take your bank balance everywhere to feel good about yourself, don’t you?”
Waheed’s debut novel, The Collaborator, also featured a first-person account, one set in Kashmir, with the narrator bedevilled by thoughts of a subversive alliance with the Indian security forces. Tell Her Everything is another report by a collaborator, and in its refusal to be black or white, it affirms that we’re all many shades of grey.
Tell Her Everything, Mirza Waheed, Context.