Story goes about Mark Twain lying on his death-bed, and a lovely lady with big breasts from the local church, bending over him to ask ” Have you made your peace with God ?”, to which the redoubtable gentleman-American ( possible oxymoron there ?) replied ” But I never quarreled with Him in my life “,may be apocryphal, but becomes increasingly relevant, especially in our sub-continent, where the holier-than-thou sentiment sidesteps all other considerations.
Twain was regarded as a saint who failed to get canonized, by Kurt Vonnegut. A lot of Vonnegut’s writings, by his own admission, were rather nebulous, and he chain-smoked till into his late 80s, till he died, protesting in lectures about the US invasion of Iraq and such matters, and stating that smoking ” is a classy way of committing suicide “. There is a reverse swing in the ultimate statement of invincibility, that has to go to Britisher TE Lawrence ( better known as Lawrence of Arabia ), among whose famous quotes is ” They can only kill me with a Golden Bullet “, and that one statement of ultimate hubris, takes him to the upper echelons, where he is well and truly, and unwittingly ensconced as the Father of Modern Terrorism, long before he could wield anything close to the inimitable invention of the poet-turned-soldier Mikhail Kalashnikov.
There have been others like Hemingway too, who, for all his earthy writing, took recourse to Shakespeare in his brilliant short-story ‘The short happy life of Francis Macomber’, with the haunting words ” By my troth, I care not, we owe God a death, and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next “, before the Nobel Laureate took the ultimate step of ending his own life.
Which now brings me to the reason for belting out all this. Three men, now middle-aged, have been finally, handed down the penalty by the courts in India, of the ultimate price of crime, death. Their crime was, to be instrumental in the death of a former Prime Minister of the largest country in the world, to believe in the one-man-one-vote credo., 20 years ago, viz., Rajiv Gandhi.
It surprised me no end, when, after the courts handed out the verdict, there was a popular wave of sympathy for the three accused who had been found guilty. The primary sentiment was that justice delayed is as good as justice denied, but shouldn’t we also consider that it’s better late than never ? What price jurisprudence ?
And in Pakistan, a quick-fire verdict, all in one year this, a governor got bumped off in Jan, and the man guilty-as-charged, come September, handed over the death penalty.
Quick work, that.
In the state of Tamilnadu, one article in the leading daily the Hindu, that veered the thinking public, is the reproduction of a piece, no doubt a brilliant etch of concise writing, by George Orwell ( nom de plume of Eric Arthur Blair ), for the abolition of capital punishment, irrespective of the degree of the crime that called for it. Here it goes:
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 path. 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 world less. 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 prisoner’s neck. 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 noise! 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 stone. 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 gaily. 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. ===================================================================== So there ! Arthur Koestler, the other favourite writer of mine, a notch above Vonnegut, had commended Orwell for his ” uncompromising intellectual honesty that made him appear almost inhuman at times “Koestler himself was no stranger to death row. And that’s what probably made him write two voluminous tomes of autobiography by the time he reached 46, ( Arrow in the Blue, and The Invisible Writing )wonderfully charming to read, and his own experience in solitary, found expression in “The Call Girls”, which has a preface and finale, that has a vivid description of the Christ on the Cross. As a young stripling working in the Gulf, I was suddenly surprised to read in the morning papers, that Koestler had suddenly committed suicide in his London home, together with his wife Cynthia, who was 25 years his junior, in 1983. So the moral of the story would be…let’s concentrate on the well-being of the living, including ourselves. Justice being blind, may have to take its course. I just cannot resist reproducing the following piece from today’s Hindu, on a topic which a film called Peepli Live, dealing with suicidal farmers fallen prey to the circle of borrowing and loans, focused on:
“I knew the answer was Sant Tukaram but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to lose the money I had already earned,” said Aparna Malikar, a contestant on the reality game show Kaun Banega Crorepati. Aparna, whose husband Sanjay, a farmer in Vidarbha, committed suicide in 2008, won Rs. 6.40 lakh after answering three questions correctly and also used three lifelines permitted to ask her friends and the audience for help. Aparna, 27, never imagined that one day she would be answering questions in a quiz contest with the host being none other than Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan, who was so moved that he gave her an additional Rs. 50,000 to help her pay off her loans. Talking to The Hindu on the phone from her village Vara Kawtha in Yavatmal district, on Monday, she said she and another young woman were selected for the quiz contest Kaun Banega Crorepati and they were in Mumbai last weekend to shoot for the episode. The episode will be aired later this month. “I did not have words to be able to express my anguish and grief at this state,” Mr. Bachchan wrote in his blog early on Sunday after the shoot.” But there it was: stark, brutal and honest. Said Aparna: “I would have won Rs. 12 lakh had I got the last question I was asked correct, but I didn’t take a chance.” She will use the money for her two daughters’, aged seven and three, education. Educated up to the tenth standard, Aparna has been supported by well-wishers and Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti. Mr. Tiwari said that the television company got in touch with him to identify some women who could appear on the show to highlight the issue of suicides in Vidarbha. This was the first time Aparna visited Mumbai. She flew from Nagpur along with Manjusha Ambarwar, who was invited to be in the audience. “I come from a very small village and the city was all new to me,” Aparna said. She had to summon all her courage to speak about her life in the village and she did not allow all the glitz of show biz to unsettle her. “I spoke on the suicides, on the need for sustainable farming and the need to help widows in distress. There are others like me who are not so fortunate, they should be helped too so that we can all have a good future,” she said. Twenty-year–old Manjusha Ambarwar, a journalism student in Nagpur, said “I was not in the hot seat but was asked a question on farmers and so I spoke about the poor quality of seeds, the terrible impact on farming and the high cost of production,” Already a graduate, when she completes her media course she plans to highlight agrarian distress in her work. “I want to tell farmers not to commit suicide,” she said. “I expect that such TV shows should reach a lot of people and even Mr. Bachchan wants to help us. We should have access to good seeds not the spurious Bt cotton that is available now,” she added. Manjusha’s father Ramdas committed suicide in 1999. Mr. Tiwari said that his organization was helping the widows but there were 12, 000 to 13, 000 women who have been demanding a pension to support their families. The issue is highlighted when something like this happens. There is no sustained approach, he lamented. Writing about his guest on his blog, Mr. Bachchan was struck by the fact that Aparna still wore a mangalsutra. He said, “Aparna now is all alone. She was not even aware that her husband had taken a loan. She has gathered herself together somehow, and works on the fields in farming and making ends meet. She still keeps her ‘mangalsutra’ on her neck – the necklace worn by Indian women signifying her married status, because she fears harassment from other men, who trouble her with threats and envious motives. But she has resolved not to give up. She will fight her way through, she says, bring up her children, earn her living through hard work on the fields, build a concrete house, for the present one is weak and old and made of mud and broken tiles and give half of what she earns to the ——other widows in India, who she says are suffering with similar conditions … just incredible!” ——————————————————————————————————————————– What the Hell, if that story does not give you and I, the guts to face every eventuality, nothing will.