A Hanging – Pre-Intermediate Level

It was in Burma, a very wet morning of the rainy season. A sickly yellow light was shining over the high walls into the jail yard. We were waiting outside the cells of the men sentenced to death. They were a row of small rooms fronted with two sets of metal bars, like animal cages. Each cell measured about ten feet by ten. They were quite empty inside, other than a wooden bed and a pot of drinking water. In some of them brown men were sitting at the inner bars with blankets around them, looking out at us. None of them were making a sound. These were the men who were to be hanged over the next week or two.

One prisoner had been brought out of his cell. He was a Hindu, a small thin man, with a shaved head and watery eyes that showed no feeling. Six tall Indian guards were getting him ready for the gallows. Two of them stood by with rifles. The others tied his hands together, passed a chain between them and fixed it to their belts. Then they tied his arms to his sides. They stood very close, holding him kindly but carefully, as though all the while feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water. But he stood quite calmly, allowing them to tie his arms as they wished. It was as though he didn’t care about what was happening.

We heard the eight o’clock bugle call from the distant army camp. It sounded sad and thin in the wet air. The superintendent of the jail lifted his head at the sound. He had been standing alone a little away from the rest of us, drawing on the ground with his stick. He was an army doctor, and looked very unhappy. “Let’s get moving, Francis. Quickly!” he said angrily. “The man should to have been dead by now. Aren’t you ready yet?”

Francis, the head jailer, in a white cotton suit and gold reading glasses, waved his black hand. “Yes sir, yes sir,” he said excitedly. “All is prepared. The hangman is waiting. We shall start.”

“Well, come on then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till this job’s over.”

We set out for the gallows. Two guards walked on either side of the prisoner, with their rifles resting on their shoulder. Two others walked close against him. They held him by arm and shoulder, as though at once pushing and holding him up. The rest of us, government officers and the like, followed behind. When we had gone ten yards, the guards in front suddenly stopped. A terrible thing had happened – a large woolly dog had appeared in the yard. It came running up barking loudly, and jumped around us. It seemed wildly happy at finding so many human beings together. For a moment it danced among us. Then, before anyone could stop it, it had made a run for the prisoner and, jumping up, tried to lick his face. Everyone stood still, too surprised even to try to stop the dog.

“Who let that bloody animal in here?” said the superintendent angrily. “Catch it, someone!”

A guard left the group and ran after the dog. But it danced just out of his reach, taking everything as part of the game. A young jailer picked up a handful of small stones from the path and threw them at the dog. But it jumped away each time and came after us again. The prisoner, still held by the two guards, looked on as if nothing unusual was happening. He acted as if this was a normal part of a hanging. It was several minutes before someone managed to catch the dog. Then we put a piece of rope around its neck and moved off once more. The dog was trying to get free and crying as we walked.

It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner in front of me. It was hard for him to walk normally with his arms tied the way they were. He moved on as best he could, with that strange up and down movement of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles moved nicely into place. The lock of hair on top of his head danced up and down. His feet printed themselves on the wet path. And once, even though there was a guard holding him on each side, he stepped a little to one side so as not to wet his feet in a puddle.

I don’t know why, but till that moment I had never understood what it means to kill a healthy, thinking man. When I saw the prisoner step around the puddle, I saw how totally wrong it was to cut a life short. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the different parts of his body were foolishly working hard. His fingernails would still be growing as he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the path and the grey walls. His brain still remembered. He looked where he was going and thought – thought even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together. In minutes, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.

The gallows stood in a small area fenced off from the main grounds of the prison. It was made of brick on three sides, with a wooden floor on top. Two thick wooden posts stood above the floor, with another smaller post across the top of them to which the rope was tied. The hangman, a grey-haired prisoner in the white uniform of the prison, was waiting beside his machine. At a word from Francis, the two guards took hold of the prisoner more closely than ever. They half led, half pushed him to the gallows and helped him up the ladder. Then the hangman climbed up and fixed the rope around the prisoner’s neck.

We stood waiting, five yards away. The guards had formed in a circle around the gallows. And then, when the rope was fixed around the prisoner’s neck, he began crying out to his god. It was a high cry of “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!” called out over and over. It did not sound like a prayer or a cry for help. It had a regular beat, almost like the ringing of a bell. The dog answered the sound with a cry of its own. The hangman, still standing on the gallows, produced a small cotton bag. He pulled it down over the prisoner’s face but the sound, though harder to hear, continued. Over and over again: “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”

The hangman climbed down and stood ready, holding the handle. Minutes seemed to pass. The soft crying from the prisoner went on and on, “Ram! Ram! Ram!”, never stopping for a moment. The superintendent, his head on his chest, was slowly touching the ground with his stick. Perhaps he was counting the cries, allowing the prisoner a fixed number – fifty, perhaps, or a hundred. Everyone had changed colour. The Indians had gone grey like bad coffee, and one or two of the rifles were shaking.

We looked up at the man standing on the gallows and listened to his cries – each cry another second of life. The same thought was in all our minds. “Please, kill him quickly, get it over, stop that terrible noise!”

Suddenly the superintendent decided that it was time. Lifting his head he made a fast cutting movement with his stick. “Now!” he shouted.

There was a sharp metallic sound, and then dead silence. The prisoner had disappeared. The rope was turning on itself. I let go of the dog and it ran straight to the back of the gallows. But when it got there it suddenly stopped, barked, and then ran back into a corner of the yard. It stood there among some tall grass, looking frightened. We went round the gallows to check the prisoner’s body. He was hanging with his toes pointed straight downwards, turning very slowly with the rope, as dead as a stone.

The superintendent reached out with his stick and pushed the bare body. It moved a little away from him. “He’s all right,” said the superintendent. He backed out from under the gallows, and blew out a deep breath. The unhappy look had gone out of his face quite suddenly. He looked at his watch. “Eight minutes past eight. Well, that’s all for this morning, thank God.”

The guards left. The dog, no longer playful, seemed to know that it had done something wrong and quietly followed them. We walked out of the gallows area, past the other men waiting to be hanged, into the big central yard of the prison. The prisoners, under the careful watch of guards armed with thick wooden sticks, were already being given their breakfast. They sat on the ground in long rows, each man holding a thin metal bowl. Two guards with large cooking pots walked along the rows spooning out rice. It seemed quite a pleasant, happy scene, after the hanging. A great feeling of relief had come upon us now that the job was done. One felt a sudden wish to sing, to break into a run, to quietly laugh about it all. All at once everyone began talking.

The young jailer walking beside me pointed towards the way we had come, with a knowing smile. “Do you know, sir, what our friend (he meant the dead man), did when he heard he was going to hang. He pissed on the floor of his cell. From fright. Kindly take one of my cigarettes, sir. Do you like my new silver case, sir? The latest European fashion.”

Several people laughed – at what, nobody seemed certain.

Francis was walking with the superintendent, talking continually. “Well, sir, all has passed off very well. It was all finished quickly. It is not always so… no! I have known cases where the doctor was forced to go under the gallows and pull the prisoner’s legs to make sure he was dead. Most disagreeable!”

“Moving about, eh? That’s bad,” said the superintendent.

“Yes, sir. But it is worse when they don’t do what they are told! One man, I remember, held on to the bars of his cage when we went to take him out. Can you believe, sir, that it took six guards to make him let go, three pulling at each leg. We reasoned with him. ‘My dear man,’ we said, ‘think of all the trouble you are causing for us!’ But no, he would not listen! Yes, he was very troublesome!”

I found that I was laughing quite loudly. Everyone was laughing. Even the superintendent smiled in an understanding way. “You’d better all come out and have a drink,” he said in a kind voice. “I’ve got a bottle in the car. We could do with it.”

We went through the big gates of the prison, into the road. “Pulling at his legs!” cried out a Burmese judge suddenly, and started to laugh softly. We all began laughing again. At that moment Francis’s story seemed very funny. We all had a drink together, both Indian and European, quite friendly. The dead man was a hundred yards away.