FOCUS: The Fate Of Two Men

Emeritus Professor Satendra Nandan’s book, BRIEF ENCOUNTERS: Literature and Beyond, will be published on 15 May and launched at a Literary conference in Europe on July 27.   Canberra, the
10 Feb 2015 07:31
FOCUS: The Fate Of Two Men
Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

Emeritus Professor Satendra Nandan’s book, BRIEF ENCOUNTERS: Literature and Beyond, will be published on 15 May and launched at a Literary conference in Europe on July 27.


Canberra, the political capital of Australia, is in a crisis. Tony Abbott, the current prime minister barely 18 months in the top job, survive the ‘spill motion’ for change of leadership in the Federal Parliament.

Votes in the Queensland election are still being counted, a week after       the elections. And this in a state election. Imagine how democracy’s   final reckoning is done in countries like India where half a billion people cast their votes. Delhi elections were held. Greater Delhi has a population larger than the total population of our island continent. In our incredible globe, both Delhi and Canberra mean a lot to me. I’ve spent time in both these national capitals—one ancient where you’ll see the ruins of many empires rotting in the heat and dust of Delhi or the detritus of civilizations washed away by the mighty monsoon rains through the drains of Delhi.

It’s winter in Delhi now; in Canberra it’s glorious summer. But there’s turmoil in both capital cities—will Modi’s BJP win in Delhi state election? If it does, Modi’s triumph would be considerable and his image enhanced in perhaps the most tumultuous capital of the world, where the Congress Party had ruled for at least 15 years of unbroken governance.

Then came a tax official named Arvind Kejriwal. He changed the political landscape of Delhi radically but was the Chief Minister of the state for 49 days only. He resigned when his Anti-corruption Bill was rejected by the State assembly. Since then he has been a voice in the wilderness. He stood against Modi but made no impact in the General Elections of last year. Delhi elections have given him a chance to revive his and his Party’s dwindling fortunes.

Normally my mind would be preoccupied with the political shenanigans and tales of the two cities in my mind. The third, of course, is Suva.

But this weekend I’m more harried and harrowed by two condemned men and their imminent fate. The two young men are Australians: Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Their desperate faces looking through the prison bars haunt the Australian TV so much so that some people simply switch their TV off when their story is broadcast. They are seen hounded by the polisi from the crowded courtroom to their cells. They have lived in that prison for ten years.

Terrible images of terror fill the media: the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot; the shooting of cartoonists—one can’t get lower than that. There’s a terrible brutality afoot in our world. We see it daily as we watch the evening news on our TV screens, while having our dinner.

In such an atmosphere the fluctuating fortunes of a couple of prime ministers—from Canberra to Delhi—to me doesn’t seem all that important.

What preoccupies my mind is the fate of these two very young, healthy men. They could face the firing squad of Indonesia tomorrow or day after. They have been in jail for over a decade—for smuggling 8 kgs of drugs.

To kill them after keeping them on Death Row for ten years seems a cruel fate indeed.

The newly elected Indonesian President is adamant. Justice tempered by mercy doesn’t appeal to him. Here was a chance for him to lift Indonesia to another level of humane gesture by an act of human kindness. Indonesia has done terrible things to its own people, including to the East Timorese. It’s the largest Muslim state in the world; it’s the third largest democracy. It could be a leader of genuine democracy in the so-called Islamic states. It can set a high standard.

Whenever my mind fills with grief over which we’ve little or no control, I turn to my favourite writers who I read in my student days in Delhi. The summers in Delhi were really hot: we stayed in our lonely rooms with a fan rattling and revolving like a wounded bird. We had many sleepless nights; so we read as the loo, the Delhi hot wind, blew across the dried and dusty courtyard of the hostel.

One of my favourite writers was Victor Hugo. I read him in translation—in a sense we’re all translated people. Hugo was born on February 26, 1802 and died on May 22, 1885. Essentially a poet, he wrote two unforgettable novels The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Miserables. Hugo was a lawyer and a member of the French Assembly but the criticism of the ruling monarch had forced him into exile.

His lifelong concern is reflected in his impassioned writing on social injustice and the nature of good and evil in the French society. The story of Jean Valjean, the hero of the second novel, relentlessly pursued by a detective who wouldn’t let him forget his past, nor let him redeem himself.

The epic story of Jean Valjean has been made into films, plays, and memorable musicals.

But to me a more unusual book by this writer is The Last Day of a Condemned Man. I just found it in an old library and have spent reading it. Like the Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, the novella is barely 100 pages. In revolutionary France, the blood-stained slogan of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity created havoc. Victor Hugo grew up in the revolution’s aftermath, soon after the birth of the guillotine.

Hugo wrote: ‘Humankind’s wounds have no boundaries, social problems do not have frontiers.’ Our generation knows it more brutally than any other. Hugo embraces entire humanity. Like Shakespeare, he belongs to the ages. Like Voltaire his concern, too, was freedom of humanity, not just speech.

His novella was written when he was 27 years old. Hugo was sickened beyond belief by the steel efficiency of beheading by the new invention –the guillotine. Dr Gullotin( 1738-1840), the inventor, had recommended the bloody machine to the French Assembly, with the words: ‘Before you can blink, I shall cut your head off without you feeling the slightest pain.’

We know better—films like The Green Mile paint a horrible picture of death by electrocution. Or lethal injection as the recent botched up executions in the US have shown.

The fact is that there’s nothing like instant death. The posthumous pain that lingers in the brain and the spinal cord and in the parts of the victim’s body can last a long time after the head is severed from the body, or the bullets have passed through the heart’s aorta.

It took almost a century after Hugo’s death for the French to abolish death penalty. Most civilized societies have done this.

The Last Day of a Condemned Man has harrowing passages that only the great writer could imagine and filter through his brain to touch ours:

‘But who is to say that after my death the wind shall not whip these papers across a muddy prison yard, or plaster them over the cracks in some gaoler’s window, where slowly they would rot in the rain.’

Of course the written pages of the condemned prisoner’s diary never reaches the condemned man’s daughter. And that makes the human fate more poignant and heart-rending.

Years ago, I’d read an essay by George Orwell titled “A Hanging”. A man in the Indian subcontinent is being taken for the hanging— the British Empire excelled in this form of punishment as it did in the Opium Wars. Orwell then was a policeman in the Burmese force.

The man is barefooted. As he approaches the gallows, he comes across a puddle. He avoids it. In that one numinous moment Orwell shows the preciousness of life itself.

Victor Hugo’s book written much earlier is full of such marvelous insights. I’m glad I found it in an old library among very old books.

It’s a small consolation to read it knowing full well that Andrew and Myuran, two very young men, in their prime of life will die for drug-trafficking which is increasingly being decriminalised.

It will all be done with an odious sense of justice by the firing squad of a well-trained army in a democracy.


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