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Racing against the clock: Seven days of horror and hope
The week leading up to an execution demands the impossible from families, as the clock ticks down to the senseless murder of your beloved.
Chicken rice, nasi biryani, ice cream soda, and milo-flavoured sweets. These are the foods Tangaraju Suppiah (Appu) has requested from Changi Prison authorities in the week leading up to his execution. So far, they haven't been able to find the sweets he asked for, but after 9 years, he tasted some of his favourite dishes.
Appu had initially told the family that he doesn't want to go through the final photoshoot that the prison arranges before an execution, but yesterday, he gave in because a close family member said it would mean a lot to him to have some recent photos of his beloved boy. The last photo the family have of him is from when he was 19 years old.
Death row prisoners who get an execution notice are given a small amount of money to buy a treat for the others on death row, in the week leading up to their execution. Tangaraju used this money to get fish burgers, curry puffs and soft drinks for the others.
An ex-death row prisoner who was acquitted last year, after 7 years of incarceration, told me how he always felt dreadful eating or drinking anything that a fellow prisoner who was about to be executed got for them.
"How to swallow it, knowing that it is a gift from a man who will be hanged in a few days?" he asked me.
Appu is also allowed to use some money from his account to buy music CDs he wants to listen to in this last week, but he told the prison he'd rather have that money given to his family.
He shared with his family during yesterday's visit that he's only been eating one meal a day because he's afraid that he's putting on weight. He's gained 10kgs in the last four months, and was apparently told by prison officers to try and shed the weight.
"Maybe if I'm heavier, it'll take longer for me to go?" he pondered with a smile, to a childhood friend who was at the visit.
"I couldn't tell if he was joking...what's running through his mind. I wondered if he is also thinking about being lighter so that he won't burden his friends who will carry his body to the cremation ground, should the execution happen. That's the kind of guy he is. But he said the prison took his height and weight the day before," the friend trailed off, before asking me, hesitantly, "what really happens?"
Singapore uses the long drop method of hanging, where the prisoner's height and weight is used to determine how much slack the rope needs. The theory is that if the calculations are right, the distance dropped should snap his neck, but not decapitate him.
We can't say for sure what exactly happens at Changi prison, but families and undertakers have wondered if after the drop, the person is left hanging there for the next 20 minutes or so before the doctor on duty checks their pulse and confirms the time of death. This is based on the prison saying the hanging is scheduled for 6am, but the time of death stated on most of their death certificates is around 6.20am.
I've watched families completely shattered by the sight of their loved one's broken, swollen necks. Kalwant's sister, Sonia's words still ring in my ears often - "I saw him whole, laughing, healthy, last night. And this morning, they've given my brother to me, broken into pieces, Koki. I was dying to touch him, but he's so cold! His body is so hard. Why couldn't they let me hug him, just once, while he was still warm?" she wept.
During their visits this week, Appu has been asking his family to bring him photos from his childhood, of family events, the little bits of life they've shared together. He confessed that these photos and visits with loved ones he hasn't seen in 9 years are bringing back strong flashes of memory, making him recollect fond relationships he has tried to shut out of his mind for close to a decade now. With these images and feelings rushing back, he hasn't been able to sleep. It has rekindled a strong yearning to be with the people who love him most.
Appu's family is deeply saddened that they couldn't fulfil the two main wishes he had - one, to receive a special hanuman's rudraksh (a 11-faced prayer bead made from dried stonefruit) and some kungumam (more commonly known as kumkum, a red powder with religious significance) from the Selangor Sri Angalaparameshwari temple. The family, who were informed that these requests were approved, went to great lengths to obtain both of these items for him, but the prison wouldn't let them through in the end.
In the very short time they've had, a friend hunted for the special rudraksh and managed to get just the one he wanted. His sister Leela and other family members travelled to KL to visit the temple he mentioned, offered prayers in his name, and brought back the blessed kungukumam for him.
But when they tried to pass these to him during their visit, the prison informed them that the items they had brought would not be allowed, and when they approved the request, they meant that they would arrange for him to be given a run-of-the-mill, small rudraksh (but it was not at all the one he wanted) and they would also give him kungumam from wherever they would normally source it (but it was not blessed at this temple, which mattered a lot to him).
"Why can't they allow him even these small comforts? They want to take his life, and he has just these few wishes, of great spiritual value to him. How would it hurt to let us give these items to him? They can screen them first, make sure they're safe, whatever they need! But why deny him this? And why put us through such an ordeal?" they ask, at their wit's end.
I have no answers, other than that this is a system designed to deliver pain at every juncture. There is no room for human compassion - or, often, even reason - in this bureaucratic, callous machinery of death and deprivation.
Appu also told his family during yesterday's visit that at some point today, he would be taken to the execution chamber and the prison guards would explain to him how the execution will take place. We have not heard of this before from other prisoners, and at the time of writing, I haven't been able to confirm if this in fact happened, or is a practice the prison has. What I can say, however, is that hearing these things add incredible pain to a distraught family.
Today, the prison returned Appu's personal items to the family. When they called me from prison to tell me this, they were very shaken. It drove home how, even as the family continue to fight to save his life, the prison's protocols - each step leading closer to his death - unfold as a reminder that there are bigger forces at play, forces that are determined to give them no way out.
"Usually, they return your belongings when you're leaving prison, a free man. It is a happy occasion," his friend told me, tears brimming in her eyes.
But seeing and holding his things for the first time in nine years - the clothes and ring he was wearing when he was remanded, his shoes, the holy thread he had tied on his hand - it reminds them of the Appu they lost, and how they don't plan to give him back. They got his things, because they won't get him.
"They won't even let us touch him."
Here is a photo of Appu as a child, striking a Spiderman pose for the camera. This picture was taken by someone who loves him. The next - and likely last - time his photo is taken, it will be by prison officials who are party to his impending murder.