9 min read

Translated from the Hindi by Ankita Gupta

It was around eight-eight thirty in the morning. Having stayed up till two a.m., sluggishly watching a bunkum Parsi company drama, to extract the full value for my money, I awoke a little later than usual. This made me late for my daily walk and consequently delayed my return.

Every day I’d walk a four-mile distance from my home, back and forth, taking in the morning air. Midway in my path stood the district jail. Its brownish-moth colour and bulky-mammoth façade loomed before me each day, effecting a dreadful shiver within me.

I saw something that day, in the southern corner of that jail, under the inky-dark shadows of tall, dense trees, that I can never bleach from my memory, no matter how hard I try.

I saw a half-naked young boy, scrawny but handsome, no more than fourteen years of age, quivering and trembling under the branch of a tree. He was hiccoughing and wailing loudly.

Facing him, stood a terrifying man with an unpleasant expression pasted on his face, interrogating him harshly. I witnessed all this from a narrow street, some seventy-five to ninety feet away. As the day wore on, the heat from the sun was rising, making me feel tired and restless. Still, I stood rooted to my spot, my mind eager to discover the truth behind the barbaric scene unfolding ahead. Slowly, I started walking towards them, careful to avoid their gaze.

Now I understood why the boy was howling! My eyes darted towards his exposed midriff. It was marred by several red and black daunting bruises. He’d been whipped! He’d been whipped, that soft poor lad, upon court orders. My heart lurched. Was justice supposed to be this heartless? Was it this cruel?

I could no longer hide in the shadows and watch the whole spectre pan out before me. At once, I stood facing them and questioned the terrible man as to why he’d whipped the poor child?

“Yes” the man snarled more than spoke, “Can’t you see? This wretch stole two jackfruits from the zamindar’s estate.”

Filled with raw pain and insult, the boy howled again. At the time, he was just lying there face down because his injuries wouldn’t even let him faint in relief. He trembled once, then turned to his right side trying to look at me. But the unfortunate boy couldn’t even manage that. Helplessly, he returned to his former position and in a small voice quivered, “Babu. I couldn’t even steal them. Dazed by hunger and driven into greed, I was definitely on the verge of stealing… but the zamindar’s guards arrested me at once.”

“So, when they did arrest you, where were your family members?” the horrible man bellowed in a coarse and commanding voice, “Were they all dead? Why didn’t they bother to come? To rescue you from the zamindar, from the police, and from the whipping?”

“You just don’t believe me!” cried the boy, “Didn’t I tell you? I am an orphaned beggar from Vikrampur village. Where and when did my parents go—leaving me behind—I don’t know. Did they even exist, I don’t know. Right from my earliest childhood to this despicable day, I have grown only on the scraps and scoldings of others. If I had anyone, why would I need to steal from the zamindar?… Why would I be in this situation?... Aaah... aaah... Oh dear me!”

The pitiable boy then started crying out to me, with pleas that tugged straight at my heartstrings. I started thinking of any way to help the hapless kid. But at that very moment, I saw the terrible man approaching with quick strides. Grabbing the boy with his hands, the man lifted him with the support of his body.

“You ride on my back” he said in the same dry tone, “I will take you to my home.”

Your home?” I asked the brute in a constrained voice, “Who are you? Where is your home? And why are you taking the boy there?”

“I am the hangman, babu,” he thundered, saddling the boy and looking at me with bloodshot eyes, “For some paltry rupees, I am a slave to the government. As per their whims and wishes, I whip people. I get a few paisas per whipping, and a few rupees per life…

“Leaving aside the ones to be hanged, I even take bribes—from those condemned to flogging—as per my own convenience. Working here I’ve seen only this—only a few government servants can get by on their pay. That’s why everyone arranges for some form of ‘incentives’ in their areas. I’m a poor ordinary servant, and my bribes are not so flashy, that I may worry anyone would know about them. I tell everyone openly that if they make offerings to me then I’ll treat them to a ‘light’ whipping instead of ‘true’ ones. Or else... whuPSSSH... whuPSSSH.”

He posed as if he were really whipping someone. In his excitement he forgot that on his back was a victim of his ‘whuPSSSH’, trembling away in horror. “But subjecting this orphan to a ‘true’ lashing wasn’t right. He had told me in the jail itself that he had no one. But I did not believe him. And when I don’t believe a prey of mine, I treat them even more brutally. The proof is exhibited on the boy’s body. But cutting him up was a mistake. That’s what my mind keeps telling me. 

“That’s why I’m taking the boy home, where I’ll rub his wounds with raw banana skin. To bring him a bit of relief from the pain, I’ll also give him some liquor. I won’t be satisfied until he’s completely healed, of that, I’m sure!”

Saying this, he flung the frail delinquent on his rough back, akin to a buffalo, and started to walk away. I interrupted him—

“Listen. Take this rupee from me. I also feel sorry for this boy’s condition.”

“What good is a single rupee, babu?” he looked at the coin ferociously, and snatched it swiftly from between my fingers into his own.

“Give him some liquor, it will help ease his pain. I only have this one rupee on me for now. I want to come by this evening and give him more. Where’s your house? What’s your name?”

“I live in the northern part of town in the Dom-tola clan next to the graveyard... I am their leader; my name is Ramrup. Ask anyone, they’ll tell you.”

The orphaned boy was called ‘Aliyar’—I found much later, nearly seven to eight days after the incident. Amongst the villagers, the word Aliyar refers to ‘gunk-garbage.’ The boy himself told me this. The villagers claimed a lowly man had found him in an Aliyar, at around dawn. The same man raised him for several years and gave him this name.

The gashes on Aliyar’s body dried up within three or four days under the capable ministrations of the executioner Ramrup. But the boy remained weak in body and mind. It was possible that the magistrate who sentenced Aliyar to twelve whips had actually believed the illusive diaries of the policemen and took his age to be above eighteen years. But in my eyes the poor soul looked no older than fourteen or fifteen. What’s more, his skeletal physique made it baffling how a doctor could have deemed the boy ‘fit to be lashed.’ And how could any responsible and respectable prison officer allow the boy be lashed before his own eyes, was beyond me.

Till the time Aliyar lay in his cot whimpering in pain, having repeated dreams of his nightmarish lashings, pleading over and over again for mercy, I religiously visited Ramrup’s grimy hut, once a day, every day. I tried to be of service to this helpless creature of god, to whatever extent I could. But this love of mine had a deeper attraction behind it—the enigmatic hangman Ramrup.For strange reasons, due to his ‘murky’ skin tone, his Nepali-like shortness, his fat, grotesque form, and thin lips (framed by a dense, grisly-black, unkempt, indecent moustache), he seemed oddly out of place to me. For strange reasons, his large, bulging, dry and bloodshot eyes brought a tremor to my core. And for reasons stranger still, despite all of this, I yearned to know and understand Ramrup as much as possible.

Besides him, resided his old woman in his mud hut. One day when I asked him about his work and whether he had any other family members, Ramrup recounted his peculiar story to me.

“Babu,” he said with pride, “Not just one or two, but thirteen whole generations of my family have served as executioners. Yes, before that, during the Muslim reign, my ancestors worked as bandits. My grandfather’s grandfather was so illustrious, that during the revolution of 1857, following the orders of Sarkar Bahadur, he personally executed five hundred and three twenty-five and two-ten men within the span of a few days, right here in the southern turf of this city. In those days, he used to distil and guzzle liquor round the clock! And what liquor, babu. Not the ordinary stuff! But the kind that is drunk by white folks—‘angrezi’ alcohol.”

I interrupted him here, “Ramrup, do they still give you alcohol before a hanging?”

“Yes, of course, babu, why wouldn’t they give us alcohol? But these days we get paid for only one bottle of desi liquor, not the imported kind my grandfather’s grandfather used to carefully strain, to lull the bravest of men to the cradle of eternal sleep. He was the richest and most powerful man in my entire family. He was so tall and broad, that he’d leave even the senior-most officials gaping in awe.

But he had one huge flaw—he drank like a fish. This spelled his ruin! Towards his death, he had splurged away all the wealth gained from the revolution. No, I’m telling this wrong, babu. He did not exactly die, but rather in a state of intoxication, he jumped into a big river and simply vanished. My grandfather even built a headstone for him on the high banks of the river, which several clans worship to this day. He remains a ‘legend’ of our lineage.”

As a mark of respect to this ‘legendary’ great-grandfather, Ramrup twisted both his ears slowly.“

Ramrup,” I said, “Let the stories of your ancestors rest now. They are quite terrifying. Tell me, do you have any children?”

“No babu,” answered Ramrup somewhat gravely, “My wife had a boy around seven years ago, but he passed away when he was just two. Children anyways have a short lifespan in my family. For some reason, as far as I know, none of my ancestors has had more than one child survive them. Luck wouldn’t even favour me that much. My wife who is old now, still keeps hankering for a child, someone who will take after our ancestral profession from me. But if god himself is unwilling to give, then what can one do?”

“Till you don’t have any offsprings” I probed at the executioner’s heart, “why not raise this beggar child as your own? Have you made an appraisal of the boy? How is his nature? Is he fit to be part of your clan?”

“He is, Babu, and my wife has taken a liking to him,” Ramrup said with a slight smile playing on his lips, “But in my estimate, Aliyar is too timid and cowardly. My son has to be so fearless that he may shear the skin of even Death herself and take her life if need be. How will this beggarly boy look after my ancestral profession?”

“Search for some other line of work, Ramrup,” I advised, “Cast away this murderous job. What joy does this… this killing business bring you? You must possess an iron chest indeed, to lash at people with a smile and happily send men to the gallows… or in your great-grandfather’s words ‘to the cradle of eternal sleep.’ There’s no beauty in all this, Ramrup.”

“Ha ha ha ha,” laughed Ramrup, “You say there’s no beauty in it. You forget that I belong to the lowest rung of your ‘lower castes.’ You are a modern man, and due to some consideration for the boy, you even set foot inside my hovel… otherwise do I or those from my caste, even deserve such respect? If my family hadn’t taken to execution, then we’d either be cleaning your filth or killing stray dogs. But, ha ha ha, killing people is far better than killing dogs, even you’d agree! And in my eyes, killing a man is the same as killing a dog for an executioner. For us, both are equally unknown and innocent. On the orders of others, we kill dogs and beasts of the more intelligent kind—man.”

After that conversation, owing to some work, I had to leave for Bombay for two months. When I returned, concerns of both the hangman and Aliyar faded from my mind. I did not inquire after them for almost two years. I got so caught up in my everyday routine that they didn’t once cross my mind.

But one day, all of a sudden, Aliyar stood before me. He was the one who recognized me. This time he looked to be happier, healthier and even more handsome than before. 

“Where do you stay these days, Aliyar,” I asked, “and how is that strange friend of yours, whom you cannot forget even in your dreams?”

“He lives in joy,” answered Aliyar, “I’ve been staying with him since. His woman has started to look after me like her own son from that day forth.”

“So, you’re learning his trade now, are you? Hoping to someday succeed Ramrup?”

“I myself do not like this murdering business of his, but I eat from him, so I need to listen to him. Now he often takes me along to hangings and lashings, so that I may repetitively watch and learn his heartless profession and become like him.”

“But how are you allowed inside the jail?” I remarked, “Without an officer’s permission no outsider can enter—especially during hangings and thrashings.”

“I’m no longer an outsider” he explained, “Now I’ve started to call him ‘uncle’ and he introduces me to the officers as his sister’s child and adopted son. He says that everyone in his family has learnt the ropes of the trade through practical observation alone.”

“So, you too are on the path to becoming an executioner,” I sighed sadly, “The same executioner whose existence caused you great torment in the prison corner that day. Your eyes were fixed on your ‘uncle’ cursing his unrelenting cruelty. My god, you’ve actually grown to love the terrible Ramrup…how can you love him?”

Aliyar stood silent and serious for a while, pondering this question. He then said, “Love him? No babu, I can never love that beast. I loathe him, to be honest. Whenever I glance upon him, I see him in the same likeness as I did on that day, the one you speak of. But I respect that woman, who is the wife of a murderer, but not a murderess herself. She’s a mother. For this reason alone, I continue to stay there. Had it been up to me, I would have eliminated Ramrup from the face of this earth because he murders people for a livelihood. Let me not hide this from you, babu, without a doubt, I will shortly do something to remove him from this trade entirely.”

“He’s not made of a cloth that can be dyed in another colour, Aliyar. As far as I’ve gotten to know Ramrup, even god himself cannot remove him from his profession. The other executioners may be somewhat amateurish, but this uncle of yours is their supreme leader. Protect yourself and don’t try to dissuade him from his path, or else the merciless man might misinterpret you and snuff the very life out of you.”

“But Babu,” Aliyar said with conviction, “He has started to love me now. I get that feeling now and again. Astonished, even my new mother thinks and says the same thing. Once he gets angry, he often beats my mother up badly. But no matter how big a crime I commit, he does not so much as lift an index finger on me. He eats with me, takes me here and there, to the jail, and to meet some or the other petty officer. Despite this, I hate him. I wish him nothing but misfortune and destruction.”

I never believed that this lanky-panky beggar child would be so firm in his resolution that he’d soon turn the entire city upside-down. But he turned out weird this way.

Early one morning, a sensational news broke out: ‘A notorious death row prisoner has escaped from the local jail. The guard patrol had received some kind of warning but it was already too late. The one who wasn’t supposed to escape, had escaped. The escapee wasn’t alone. Yes, someone who had abetted in his escape has been caught—a young boy.’

The news exploded through the city—because a death row prisoner had escaped. I felt like taking a stroll in the direction of the jail. To see for myself and maybe meet Ramrup or Aliyar—those two would give me the inside details.

Dressed up, with a walking stick in hand, when I finally reached the jail premises, the hullaballoo outside caught me by surprise. Outside the prison gate, stood many warders who were not on duty. They looked sad and dejected and were having an animated debate on the events of the past night.

“The chief officer and collector are taking his statement right now,” commented one of the warders, “he’s gone and done the unthinkable. Helping such a savage murderer escape whom the government can no longer lay their hands on! Who would have thought that the boy was capable of this.”

“You call him a boy,” responded a Muslim warder “but he can hoodwink men twice his age and size. That rogue has created a mess for the unfortunate Ramrup. Now all the officers will shift their share of the blame on him for letting the boy into the jail in the first place. Now let’s see at which ghat does Ramrup’s boat dock.”

“He’s also been called in by the higher-ups. They’ll probably take his statement too.”

“No,” chimed a serious looking warder, “whenever there’s a goof up by a prison staff, they exert all their power to keep it under wraps. I’m certain they’ll try to keep Ramrup’s name out of the boy’s case, and any links to his previous visits will be buried. This would already have been drilled into Ramrup and that half-pint.”

“But why would a cunning boy like him, who has brought a mountain of burden upon us by helping such a famous criminal escape, pay any heed to the advice of the jailer? What if he blurts out something in his statement?”

“He will have to listen,” counselled an old warder, “after all a murder has also transpired in this escape. Agreed that the boy didn’t do it himself, it was someone from the dacoit’s gang. But if they do not arrest someone soon, the boy will be made scapegoat. Uff... this is such an audacious incident. I’ve been in this line for thirty years now… I’ve heard about the escape of several hardened criminals—but not a single one was a death row prisoner. To have succeeded, leave alone imagined, such a daring attempt is inconceivable. In a case like this, the entire jail staff will be changed—from the highest officer to the lowest servant. There’ll be shame and dishonour upon all of us.”

At this moment, Ramrup was seen walking towards the prison grounds. All eyes were pinned on him.

“Look there,” said someone, “He’s come outside. His eyes are so red. See how his lips quiver. Call him here. Let’s ask what’s happening inside.”

“What is going on Ramrup?” the warders called out, “Has your name come up in front of the collector too?”

“No, babu,” he said baring his teeth, “Upon your kindness, my name wasn’t mentioned. The boy kept quiet too. He didn’t utter a single word except, ‘Yes, I helped the dacoit escape. I murdered the warder too. Others helped me in this, but I do not want to implicate them. Give me my punishment, let me be hanged, I am ready.’”

“What now, Ramrup?” 

“What will happen, who can say right now?” he answered grimly “First the government will try to recapture the escaped dacoit and his gang men. Then the bloody beggar will be hanged... beyond a shadow of doubt, that devil will dangle from the noose! I can read the eyes of those who are about to get the death sentence, and honestly, with the blessings of Bhairav baba, I’ll be the one who ties the rascal to the swing of death.”

Some unknown thought suddenly charged Ramrup, “With these same hands I’ve hanged the good and the great criminals. Believe me, Jamadar Sir, till date I have hanged four-twenty and seven men. This wretch will now be my four-twenty and eighth, ha ha ha, my eighth, my eighth, my eighth.”

In this agitated state, Ramrup stormed away from the crowd. At the time I couldn’t draw up the courage to ask him anything at all.

But what was truly strange was this—bit by bit the hard-hearted executioner had really begun loving Aliyar. The boy had been speaking the absolute truth that day. For when the sessions court, in the absence of a demonstrable culprit, sentenced Aliyar to ‘death by hanging’, the same Ramrup got so electrified, one could swear that he had gone completely mad.

“Ha ha ha ha!” he muttered outside the courtroom- “Now I will extract my revenge on the kiddo. And why shouldn’t I? I lashed him that day by order of the law, and for that, he has carried out such a terrible revenge—almost got me kicked out of my job! He himself got saved, but that sinner has pushed my wife to the sickbed in his love. Now you suffer kid... suffer and take a swing. Ha ha ha ha.”

While Ramrup laughed so savagely at Aliyar’s death sentence, my heart was crushed. I had not expected the story, which began in a corner of the jail that day, leading to my acquaintance with Aliyar and the executioner, to take such a horrible turn. Crestfallen, I decided to never see Ramrup ever again.

But who can stop fate? On the day before the one when Aliyar was sentenced to be thrown into the netherworld, I saw him again for the last time. He stood at a crossroad, clutching a pot, his face alight with excitement. Surrounding him was a motley crowd of boys, men and idlers. People were asking him all kinds of weird questions and he was giving them amusing replies. 

“Who are you, brother?” someone asked.

“Me” he smiled, “I’m a great man. But alas, you wouldn’t know why… well it’s because I’m the ancestral executioner Ramrup. But alas, you wouldn’t know that every executioner is, in a way, a great man.”

“Alright... ‘great man’... Why are you standing in the middle of the road with a pot?”

“This pot,” Ramrup declared, thrusting the pot’s mouth towards the crowd, “contains the hangman’s noose. Not the real one, mind you. I mended the real one today itself, and tucked it in a similar vessel safely inside the jail. The real rope is far sturdier, far more beautiful. I’ve brought this for practice only. This whole night, I’ll train my expert hands in the art of giving a hanging. Because this time, I’ll be hanging no ordinary person… This time, I’ll be hanging someone who when hanged, would probably drag my wife down to the next world with him, because she loved him too dearly.”

A voice piped, “Would you tie this rope around your neck for a bit Ramrup… to demonstrate how the death knot is tied?”

Ramrup smiled. “Yes, yes,” he said, carefully wrapping the rope on all sides of his neck with practiced ease. He started to tie a knot and rasped “Look here, this is the throat and this is the death knot. Now all that remains is to tie this to a post. One slight push and the kiddo will leave the mortal world for good. Look… look.” 

Saying this, with the rope still tied around his neck, that mad Ramrup threw the pot away and dashed through the crowd in a wild sprint.

The next day, when the entire police squad turned up for Aliyar’s hanging, including the magistrate, jail-superintendent and district officials—it turned out that Ramrup was absent. 

The police officials ran, the warders ran, and the other staff ran—all looking for Ramrup. But he was nowhere to be found. A frantic search yielded nothing. Ramrup had vanished.

Aliyar could not be hanged that day.

But on the afternoon of the same day, Ramrup was discovered in the outskirts of the city—hanging from a banyan tree. The same rope was tied around his neck, that many had seen him flaunt a few hours back. This time too his bloodshot eyes were bulging, dry and frightening. His tongue was sticking out of his mouth, around twelve fingers long, such that even the bravest of men would tremble in fear looking at him.

Pandey Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra’ (1900- 1967) was a poor child actor by bearing, newspaper and magazine editor by vocation and a provocative, satirical and notable writer by dedication. His iconoclastic works include ‘Choklat’ which discusses homosexuality and his autobiography Apni Khabar which illustrates how he was sold for jaggery at a young age.

Ankita Gupta is an architect by degree, a project manager/ consultant by profession and a writer by interest. She likes to connect with people through the written word. She delights in reading, designing and globetrotting.

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