It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like
yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard. We
were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with
double bars, like small animal cages. Each cell measured about ten feet
by ten and was quite bare within except for a plank bed and a pot of
drinking water. In some of them brown silent men were squatting at the
inner bars, with their blankets draped round them. These were the
condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two.
One prisoner had been brought out of his cell. He was a Hindu, a puny
wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick,
sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the
moustache of a comic man on the films. Six tall Indian warders were
guarding him and getting him ready for the gallows. Two of them stood by
with rifles and fixed bayonets, while the others handcuffed him, passed a
chain through his handcuffs and fixed it to their belts, and lashed his
arms tight to his sides. They crowded very close about him, with their
hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, 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
unresisting, yielding his arms limply to the ropes, as though he hardly
noticed what was happening.
Eight o'clock struck and a bugle call, desolately thin in the wet air,
floated from the distant barracks. The superintendent of the jail, who
was standing apart from the rest of us, moodily prodding the gravel with
his stick, raised his head at the sound. He was an army doctor, with a
grey toothbrush moustache and a gruff voice. "For God's sake hurry up,
Francis," he said irritably. "The man ought to have been dead by this
time. Aren't you ready yet?"
Francis, the head jailer, a fat Dravidian in a white drill suit and gold
spectacles, waved his black hand. "Yes sir, yes sir," he bubbled. "All
iss satisfactorily prepared. The hangman iss waiting. We shall proceed."
"Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can't get their breakfast till
this job's over."
We set out for the gallows. Two warders marched on either side of the
prisoner, with their rifles at the slope; two others marched close
against him, gripping him by arm and shoulder, as though at once pushing
and supporting him. The rest of us, magistrates and the like, followed
behind. Suddenly, when we had gone ten yards, the procession stopped
short without any order or warning. A dreadful thing had happened--a
dog, come goodness knows whence, had appeared in the yard. It came
bounding among us with a loud volley of barks, and leapt round us wagging
its whole body, wild with glee at finding so many human beings together.
It was a large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah. For a moment it
pranced round us, and then, before anyone could stop it, it had made a
dash for the prisoner, and jumping up tried to lick his face. Everyone
stood aghast, too taken aback even to grab at the dog.
"Who let that bloody brute in here?" said the superintendent angrily.
"Catch it, someone!"
A warder, detached from the escort, charged clumsily after the dog, but
it danced and gambolled just out of his reach, taking everything as part
of the game. A young Eurasian jailer picked up a handful of gravel and
tried to stone the dog away, but it dodged the stones and came after us
again. Its yaps echoed from the jail wails. The prisoner, in the grasp of
the two warders, looked on incuriously, as though this was another
formality of the hanging. It was several minutes before someone managed
to catch the dog. Then we put my handkerchief through its collar and
moved off once more, with the dog still straining and whimpering.
It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of
the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound
arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never
straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place,
the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed
themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped
him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to
destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to
avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of
cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he
was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working
--bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues
forming--all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be
growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air
with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the
grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned--reasoned
even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together,
seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two
minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone--one mind less, one
The gallows stood in a small yard, separate from the main grounds of the
prison, and overgrown with tall prickly weeds. It was a brick erection
like three sides of a shed, with planking on top, and above that two
beams and a crossbar with the rope dangling. The hangman, a grey-haired
convict in the white uniform of the prison, was waiting beside his
machine. He greeted us with a servile crouch as we entered. At a word
from Francis the two warders, gripping the prisoner more closely than
ever, half led, half pushed him to the gallows and helped him clumsily up
the ladder. Then the hangman climbed up and fixed the rope round the
We stood waiting, five yards away. The warders had formed in a rough
circle round the gallows. And then, when the noose was fixed, the
prisoner began crying out on his god. It was a high, reiterated cry of
"Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!", not urgent and fearful like a prayer or a cry for
help, but steady, rhythmical, almost like the tolling of a bell. The dog
answered the sound with a whine. The hangman, still standing on the
gallows, produced a small cotton bag like a flour bag and drew it down
over the prisoner's face. But the sound, muffled by the cloth, still
persisted, over and over again: "Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!"
The hangman climbed down and stood ready, holding the lever. Minutes
seemed to pass. The steady, muffled crying from the prisoner went on and
on, "Ram! Ram! Ram!" never faltering for an instant. The superintendent,
his head on his chest, was slowly poking 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 bayonets were
wavering. We looked at the lashed, hooded man on the drop, and listened
to his cries--each cry another second of life; the same thought was in
all our minds: oh, kill him quickly, get it over, stop that abominable
Suddenly the superintendent made up his mind. Throwing up his head he
made a swift motion with his stick. "Chalo!" he shouted almost fiercely.
There was a clanking noise, and then dead silence. The prisoner had
vanished, and the rope was twisting on itself. I let go of the dog, and
it galloped immediately to the back of the gallows; but when it got there
it stopped short, barked, and then retreated into a corner of the yard,
where it stood among the weeds, looking timorously out at us. We went
round the gallows to inspect the prisoner's body. He was dangling with
his toes pointed straight downwards, very slowly revolving, as dead as a
The superintendent reached out with his stick and poked the bare body; it
oscillated, slightly. "HE'S all right," said the superintendent. He
backed out from under the gallows, and blew out a deep breath. The moody
look had gone out of his face quite suddenly. He glanced at his
wrist-watch. "Eight minutes past eight. Well, that's all for this
morning, thank God."
The warders unfixed bayonets and marched away. The dog, sobered and
conscious of having misbehaved itself, slipped after them. We walked out
of the gallows yard, past the condemned cells with their waiting
prisoners, into the big central yard of the prison. The convicts, under
the command of warders armed with lathis, were already receiving their
breakfast. They squatted in long rows, each man holding a tin pannikin,
while two warders with buckets marched round ladling out rice; it seemed
quite a homely, jolly scene, after the hanging. An enormous relief had
come upon us now that the job was done. One felt an impulse to sing, to
break into a run, to snigger. All at once everyone began chattering
The Eurasian boy walking beside me nodded towards the way we had come,
with a knowing smile: "Do you know, sir, our friend (he meant the dead
man), when he heard his appeal had been dismissed, he pissed on the floor
of his cell. From fright.--Kindly take one of my cigarettes, sir. Do you
not admire my new silver case, sir? From the boxwallah, two rupees eight
annas. Classy European style."
Several people laughed--at what, nobody seemed certain.
Francis was walking by the superintendent, talking garrulously. "Well,
sir, all hass passed off with the utmost satisfactoriness. It wass all
finished--flick! like that. It iss not always so--oah, no! I have known
cases where the doctor wass obliged to go beneath the gallows and pull
the prisoner's legs to ensure decease. Most disagreeable!"
"Wriggling about, eh? That's bad," said the superintendent.
"Ach, sir, it iss worse when they become refractory! One man, I recall,
clung to the bars of hiss cage when we went to take him out. You will
scarcely credit, sir, that it took six warders to dislodge him, three
pulling at each leg. We reasoned with him. "My dear fellow," we said,
"think of all the pain and trouble you are causing to us!" But no, he
would not listen! Ach, he wass very troublesome!"
I found that I was laughing quite loudly. Everyone was laughing. Even the
superintendent grinned in a tolerant way. "You'd better all come out and
have a drink," he said quite genially. "I've got a bottle of whisky in
the car. We could do with it."
We went through the big double gates of the prison, into the road.
"Pulling at his legs!" exclaimed a Burmese magistrate suddenly, and burst
into a loud chuckling. We all began laughing again. At that moment
Francis's anecdote seemed extraordinarily funny. We all had a drink
together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was a
hundred yards away.