There were two loud knocks on Kempanna’s door that abruptly woke him up from a blissful sleep. He looked past the windows and guessed it to be around an hour past midnight.
Two more knocks; this time, louder. His old legs were stiff because of the cold winter night, making it difficult for him to get off the bed quickly. With a slight limp, he wobbled up to the door, opened it and peeked outside.
He saw Siva standing there.
Kempanna was not surprised. He had expected the boy to come earlier. But here he was now; ragged, dirty, and reeking of the drink he was holding in his hand. He had burning coals for eyes and his deep fiery breath could set the hut ablaze.
This was the first time Kempanna was seeing Siva in such a pathetic state.
“You killed Appa” said the 16 year old Siva. His speech was slurred and one could barely understand what he was saying. “You killed my father”.
The old man looked straight into the boy’s eyes. He could see that anger had taken over, along with shame and fear. Kempanna waited, trying to figure out how to calm the seething young man. He walked up and gently placed his hands on Siva’s shoulders.
“Come in, boy, and get some sleep. Don’t let rage get the better of you” said Kempanna calmly.
Siva stepped back abruptly and shook his head. He had started to wail loudly. His hair was matted to his forehead and tears were streaming down his eyes. His clothes were stained with the locally made liquor that he was drinking.
The old man looked at the boy pitifully. Holding the boy’s hand firmly, he said “Come on in. The royal guards will be on their rounds at this time in the night. They will not think twice before locking you up in prison if they catch you drunk like this.”
Siva followed him into the humble hut, still sobbing.
Kallanur was a nondescript village that every traveller encountered before reaching the capital. Kempanna, as a child, used to visit the capital with his father frequently to admire the gem markets, the amphitheatre, the gardens, parks and most of all, the royal palace. They belonged to the villages outside and could frequent the city only for earning bread.
The hut in which Kempanna and his parents lived was farther away from the other houses in Kallanur. There was a patch of land that belonged to them and he saw his father’s futile effort to grow something on the arid and rocky land. Yet he toiled hard, and visited the city often to keep them from sleeping with an empty stomach. Kempanna grew up learning in a makeshift school with all the children from nearby villages where an old man taught them counting and language. Education was a futile pursuit as the fates of the children were already sealed, they were to follow the footsteps of their parents. Farmers begot farmers, guards begot guards and the servants begot servants. It was the law of the land.
“Why are they better than us, Amma?” Kempanna remembered asking his mother after school one day.
“God meant it that way,” she replied, as she continued to beat the jowar dough to make rotti.
“That doesn’t answer my question,” he retorted.
She stopped beating the dough. Looked at him and held up the five fingers of her hand and explained “Look, Kempa, look at the fingers. Not all of them are equal, but we accept this inequality and make the best use of each of them. That’s how God creates us too…” she trailed off while signaling to him that the conversation was over.
As Kempanna grew up, he was kept away from the city more than ever. Any interaction with the city folk was frowned upon, not that anyone ever came close to their modest hut. The exasperated 15-year-old Kempanna decided, on one occasion, to follow his father to the royal palace and see what is there inside. He reached the capital by the same familiar road that he had traversed all these years, only this time he was trailing his father while making sure he does not get seen.
The ornate palace was made entirely of marble with walls twice his height. He had watched the guards allow his father, but he would certainly be stopped. A dirty boy in rags who spoke the crude tongue would get caught in a moment. Only then he noticed a small crowd entering the palace gates and he snuck through the gates and into the palace without the guards noticing. He saw that the entire populace present there was moving towards the palace grounds. Further into the grounds, gallows had been set-up. He had struck gold, there was a hanging taking place.
Public hangings were grand occasions where the masses gathered at the palace grounds to witness the execution. Interestingly, all the criminals who had been executed were the ‘other folk’ and never the ones from the city. Kempanna had always wanted to witness an execution and this was the perfect day to sneak in. As he watched the criminal walk onto the pedestal alongside the executioner, Kempanna’s cheeks were drained of colour, his excitement faded and his heart started to thump. He saw his father put a black mask on the criminal’s head and tie the noose. Kempanna looked away, aghast, as his father pulled the lever and the body writhed in the gallows. There was cheering and clapping all around as Kempanna ran out of the palace, sobbing wildly.
“Why didn’t you tell me this, Amma?” he said with pleading eyes, now awash with tears. “Why didn’t you tell me that my father is a hangman who kills people?”
“You won’t understand,” came the sombre reply.
At that moment his father walked in and washed his hands and feet.
“I was at the gallows today. I saw you kill a man,” the boy said, with anger that would turn into rage soon.
“I know. I saw you there” said his father, with an unusual calm.
“How long have you been doing this?”
“From as long as I can remember, son. It’s my duty, and one day it will be yours,” his father looked at the boy and smiled.
“Do you have no regret? How can you kill someone and come back like nothing has happened?” the boy was fuming.
“I didn’t kill the man, son,” said his father, calmly.
“But, I saw you tighten the noose and pull the lever” stammered Kempa.
“Yes, that is true. Let me ask you something. What is it that killed that man? Was it the rope around his neck? Was it me, who pulled the lever, taking away the earth from under his feet? Was it the wise King who pronounced the verdict? Or was it the royal court which implicated the man for his crime? Or was it the man himself who was responsible for his death when he committed the heinous crime? Tell me Kempa, if the man was killed by the abstract constructs of justice or of duty. Or was he killed by God’s will which none of us can escape. What was it that killed that man?” asked the father in a matter-of-fact tone.
Kempanna was taken aback. Not by his father’s words, but by his nonchalance while uttering them. There was no sense of guilt or regret.
“You can justify any act by such reasoning. You are just refusing to take responsibility for your actions,” said the boy, visibly shaken now.
“That’s where you are wrong. You can convince the mind, but not the soul. The conscience recognizes guilt before your mind can. I am taking his life as a consequence of my duty and not because of my malice. You will understand what I am talking about. Soon, you will have to do this, this will be your duty,” said his father with depth and purpose.
“I would never do this,” said Kempanna, softly.
“Easy to say when your stomach is full,” his father chided as he sat down for lunch.
“I’d rather go hungry,” the boy snapped.
In a split second, he felt his mother’s hand slap his cheek. He held his throbbing face with his hand. For a woman who was that frail and meek, she could inflict quite a lot of pain. Kempa was sobbing as his father walked away from the plate with the food intact.
Over the next few weeks, his father’s health deteriorated as he had contracted a strange fever like many others in the village. The city folk had barred the entry of villagers into the city. The modest hut heard a knock on its door one day to see the royal guards with summons for the executioner. Kempa’s mother told them that the hangman had contracted the epidemic.
“How old is the boy?” the guard asked looking at Kempanna.
“He’s just a boy. He doesn’t know anything” pleaded his mother.
The guard came inside and held Kempa by his shoulders while looking at him intently. “Old enough,” the guard smiled viciously.
“I will not come,” said Kempa, meekly.
“You will come with us. If you protest, you will not go back home,” the guard announced firmly.
As young Kempanna tightened the noose around the neck of the man whom he was about to kill, he took the terrible vow to never become like his father. Little did he know that this was the first of many knots he would tie in the future.
Kempanna looked at young Siva sleeping. It was going to be dawn soon. He had seen 50 years of the sun rising and setting since his first execution. He wondered if the sun had changed in all these years. The kingdom, though, hadn’t. His hut was where it always had been, so was the city.
The old hangman knew Siva’s father, Kitta, from the day he had joined as a guard at the palace gates. As the rebellion in the villages rose, Kempanna used to frequent the palace more than ever now. Kitta would meet up for lunch later and soon they became the best of friends. Kempanna never married, and loved Siva like his own child.
Sunlight entered the slit of the window and woke the boy. He sat upright and looked at Kempanna. The alcohol had waned.
“You killed Appa,” Siva said calmly.
“He put a spear through your mother’s heart. It was Justice that took his life” Kempanna answered nonchalantly.
Siva started weeping again. The boy had been orphaned. He had lost his only friend. Kempanna realized he should have been careful with his words.
“How do you sleep at nights, Kempanna, after killing the only friend you had?” asked Siva in between his sobs.
Kempanna was tempted to answer. But he didn’t. This was not the right time for a discourse. There is never a right time. He would sound just like his father. He went up to the bawling boy and hugged him.
“Take these,” said Kempanna, pointing to a satchel of supplies that Kempanna had put together. Beside it was a small metal box full of coins that he had saved. “Take these and leave,” he said to Siva.
“But, where will I go?”
“Here, there are no mirrors, Siva. It is time you leave; leave in search of a land where justice and mercy are not selective. Search for a town where sons and daughters are given the chance to shape their lives and earn their dignity. Leave in the hope of finding a country where men don’t have to find ways of convincing their conscience to fill their stomach. You might fail to find such a land, but at least, you would have tried,” said Kempanna, softly.
Siva picked up the supplies, pocketed the metal box and bid farewell to his father-figure. Kempanna, while packing the supplies, had carefully placed his old dreams after removing the cobwebs around them. He waved as he watched the young boy with a heavy satchel walk towards the rising sun.