KOLKATA, Jan 31 (IPS) – In a tiny hovel on a narrow south Kolkata alley, 87-year-old Nata Mullick recalls with pride and placidity his chilling career as a hangman and his last job which catapulted him to international fame two years ago.
The global media spotlight then turned on Mullick as the "hangman extraordinaire" chosen to perform the execution of the convicted murderer and rapist, Dhanonjay Chatterjee. The resulting passionate debate over capital punishment elevated Mullick to fame and launched him on a new career as a much-in-demand stage performer in this eastern India state.
Today Mullick is happily still touring with 'Jatra', the travelling outdoor stage play, popular in rural Bengal for its melodrama. Though ailing slightly, Mullick still acts for good money and recognition. Executions are few and far between these days. His only bitter complaint is for the ungrateful administration, which he says has done so little for his family.
"The job of hanging people runs in my blood. My father, Shiblal Mullick, was a hangman in the British (colonial) days when they used to hang our freedom fighters," he says, describing how the entire business of state-sanctioned killing is carried out.
''It's an art: Your skills need to be honed," Mullick says with aplomb mixed with dispassion.
"I joined the profession when I was around 15 or 16. My father had two helpers who would ridicule me saying I would never be able to do the job. I was hot-blooded and so one day I joined the job. A man was going to the gallows and I tied his hands at the back and proved that I am not chicken-hearted. That was the beginning," Mullick recalls.
"My father was amazed by my feat. I then started assisting him in every hanging. Those days hanging used to take place all over India and I travelled with him everywhere. We used to be paid 16 rupees an execution. That was big money then," Mullick says.
"Just like I claim that I am the best hangman in India now, my father was the best in his time. He showed me all the techniques and in his entire career he never did a bad job. Neither did I ever falter in any of the 25 hangings carried out by me."
Detailing the modus operandi of a precise hanging, Mullick says: "A lot depends on the weight of the person to be hanged. A sack is filled with sand with the same weight as the man and then we perform a mock hanging three to four times.
"There is a particular way of preparing the rope, too. There are certain ingredients which need to be applied to the rope, soap and ghee (clarified butter). When the rope is fixed to the gallows, we apply a smashed banana on it," says Mullick.
"After the convict is brought in, two of my helpers tie the legs and hands and hold them upright. We hold the person because he might faint in the face of death. Then within a minute I cover his face, put the noose round his neck and put my hand on the handle. The jail superintendent signals and I pull the lever."
There are other essentials for a "perfect" hanging. "Five knots in the noose. The preparation of the knot is important. The person being hanged would feel less pain if the knots are right. If the man is heavy, you need fewer knots. If he is light weighted, you need more knots. If the pull is too hard, the head can be even severed and he can bleed from mouth and nose. So the pull has to be of a force that kills the person and yet causes no pain to the dying," Mullick explains calmly.
Mullick's spiritual preparation for a hanging is no less thorough. He worships the Hindu god Narayan and seeks godly pardon for himself and the person to be hanged.
"The jail officer also seeks the person's forgiveness. The government lawyer seeks pardon. I seek his pardon. We say to the person that we are duty bound. I ask god to give him a new birth as a good person," Mullick says.
"During work I don't suffer from any sense of guilt. I worship god, put flowers in the gallows. I seek pardon again and again. I also give alms to people to purify my soul," he says.
Was his last hanging, with hundreds of human rights protesters on vigil all night calling for a presidential clemency and the battery of newspersons and TV crews from across the world, difficult to handle? ''No, he was calm. I sought his forgiveness too," says Mullick.
But he recalls how he had to be rescued from the media by jail officials. "In the days preceding the hanging, I was hounded by media from every part of the world. It was too much to take."
Mullick still holds firmly to his belief in capital punishment. "Should a person like Chatterjee who raped and brutally murdered a 14-year-old be kept alive? Should a terrorist like Mohammad Afzal Guru (recently sentenced to death for his role in a plot to blow up Indian Parliament) be kept alive? I don't think so," he says, lying down in his bed against the grimy pink walls — a collage of yellowing media clippings of a famous hangman's life and works and the Hindu pantheon.