Having the last word

Second thoughts

From Gandhi to Guevara to Gaddafi, they’ve all had their last words. But who knows whether they were really uttered or not, wonders Giridhar Khasnis. 

Last October, television channels throughout the world were frantically breaking news on the death of Libyan dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

No one seemed to know the exact circumstances of his death, but what seemed fairly certain was that the 69-year-old erstwhile ruler who was on the run had been captured from his hiding in a stinking hole in District 2 of his hometown Sirte.

One soldier who claimed to have apprehended Gaddafi told the BBC that the captive had shouted, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”

How the wheels of destiny turn! How even rich and powerful people behave when faced with the inevitable? Do the famous last words of ruthless dictators as well as benefactors of humanity reveal something of their own personalities? Here is a peek at a few legendary instances.

If we mount the time machine and take a long trip down memory lane to reach the historic date, March 15, 44 BC. Yes, the Ides of March. The Roman general and ‘dictator in perpetuity,’ Julius Caesar, is being stabbed — not once or twice but 23 times — by a group of senators. The scene, immortalised by Shakespeare in his play, has it that Caesar, on seeing Marcus Junius Brutus among the conspirators, utters his famous last words: “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar.”

Let us now fast forward to the fateful evening of January 30, 1948, when at 17minutes past five, three sharp bullets from a black Beretta pistol shattered the stillness of the prayer ground in Birla House, Delhi. And perhaps altered the course of a nation’s destiny. “Nathuram Ghodse had not failed,” wrote Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in their well-researched treatise, Freedom at Midnight. “All the three rounds tore into the chest of the slender figure advancing toward him…the red stains spreading over the gleaming white khadi. Gandhi gasped, “Heyē Ram!” Then, a lifeless little bundle, he slowly sank to the ground…”

Gandhi’s memorial (or Samadhi) at Raj Ghat, New Delhi, bears the epigraph “Heyē Ram” to this day. While it is widely believed that Gandhiji did utter those last words, there are people who dispute the account. “Gandhi was shrewd to use his saintdom for politics,” said Gopal Godse (Nathuram’s brother and co-conspirator) in an interview to Time Magazine in February 2000. “After his death, the government used him. The government knew that he was an enemy of Hindus, but they wanted to show that he was a staunch Hindu. So the first act they did was to put ‘Heyē Ram’ into Gandhi’s dead mouth.”

Godse gave his reasons why Gandhi could not have said those famous words after all. “You see, it was an automatic pistol. When these bullets pass through crucial points like the heart, consciousness is finished. You have no strength. You see, there was a film and some Kingsley fellow had acted as Gandhi. Someone asked me whether Gandhi said, “Hey Ram”. I said Kingsley did say it. But Gandhi did not. Because, that was not a drama.”

Only a man

From 1948, let us move on to 1967. There are several versions of the death of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (1928-1967), but it is commonly held that the Argentine Marxist revolutionary and guerrilla leader was captured by the Bolivian Army with assistance from the CIA, in early October 1967. It is said that Che and his fellow combatant, Willy, were taken to a school building in the village of La Higuera on 8th October. Next day, a young Bolivian Army sergeant, Mario Terán, carried out his execution with his M2 Carbine rifle. Che’s last words were evidently addressed to him: “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, you are only going to kill a man.”

Today, 72-year-old Terán is said to be living under a false name, Pedro Salazar, in Bolivia’s largest city, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in a typical middle class neighbourhood. Wrote German journalist Jens Glusing (Spiegel/August 08, 2007): “In 40 years he has never spoken publicly about Che, and his address is Bolivia’s best kept secret… Mario Terán never returned to La Higuera. He is rumoured to have become an alcoholic and to live in constant fear.”

Play it pretty

When Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he became the youngest person ever to receive the honour. Four years later, on April 3, 1968, the leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement who, like Gandhiji, believed in the principles of social justice, civil disobedience and non-violence, made his stirring speech: “I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The very next day, at 6.01 pm, as he stood on the second floor balcony of Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis, a bullet entered his cheek and smashed his jaw before lodging itself in the shoulder.

Jesse Jackson (born October 8, 1941) was present on the occasion and remembered King’s last words. They were addressed to the saxophonist and bandleader Ben F Branch who was to play in the next prayer meeting. “Ben, make sure you play Take my Hand, Precious Lord in the meeting tonight,” said King, “play it real pretty.” Jackson’s assertion has, however, been disputed.

Mother Theresa

From violent deaths, let us now move to some peaceful ones. In her acceptance speech of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Theresa narrated an interesting incident in her life, recounting the last words of an unknown woman, whom she picked from the street. “(She) was in a most terrible condition... I did for her all that my love can do. I put her in bed, and there was such a beautiful smile on her face. She took hold of my hand as she said one word only — ‘Thank you’ — and she died.”
The Mother’s own end came on September 5, 1997 in her beloved city, Calcutta. One version says that her last words were “I can’t breathe”, while another has it: “I love you, Jesus.”

By the way

French writer and philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), it seems, was on his deathbed in Paris when a priest asked him to renounce Satan. Voltaire’s response was: “Now, now, my good man, this is no time for making enemies.” Full marks are also due to Karl Marx (1818-1883) who suffered severe ill health and was also on his death bed, when his housekeeper approached him for his last words. “Go on, get out,” he told her. “Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.” And then there was the great musician Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) who bid farewell with these few words: “Friends, applaud. The comedy is over.”

Before closing, let us not forget to say three cheers to Jack Daniel (1846-1911), the famous American distiller, whose final words were: “One last drink, please.”
Whether all these people actually cited the above exact words or not — well, you can have your own last word on that!

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