People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 22

June 02, 2013


“Give Your Fire Until The Last Of Your Days”


R Arun Kumar


'ARE you curious to know', Eduardo Galeano seems to ask in his new book, Children of the Days, A Calendar of Human History. He is, of course, passionate to answer. Galeano quotes Albert Einstein, who was constantly watched by the US secret service agents for his closeness to the communists and whose brain is preserved for research for an explanation of his genius: “I have no special gift. I am only passionately curious”. Galeano is also passionately curious about human history, struggles and evolution. Through this book, he arouses and manages to sustain readers' curiosity throughout, taking them along in a fascinating journey, showing how for each day of the calendar there is a story.


Galeano might not be a professional historian, but many of his books deal with the history of the 'untalked' people. He, in that sense is a social historian. Social history, Raphael Samuel says, “prides itself on being concerned with 'real life' rather than abstractions, with 'ordinary' people rather than privileged elites, with everyday things rather than sensational events...The dignity of 'ordinary' people could be said to be the unifying theme of this line of historical inquiry and retrieval, a celebration of everyday life, even, perhaps especially, when it involved hardship and suffering”.


In chronicling events for each day of the calendar, Galeano precisely notes not the earthshaking 'sensational events' but the 'everyday things'. So when he talks about May 1st, the International Labour Day, he does not talk about the events that had taken place in Chicago which led to the marking of that day. Instead, he talks about the 'shared flight' of the goose and how they help each other in their long distance flights without any hegemony: “none of them believes he is super goose because he flies first or that flying last makes him a loser”. Isn't this how workers work, helping each other and building solidarity. The entire history of the working class tells us their sacrifices to organise and fight for their rights. History, for Galeano is replete with many such struggles and he captures them beautifully.


Similar is his description of March 8, International Women's Day. He neither talks about the struggles nor the market's vulgarisation of the Day. Instead, he chooses to expose the patriarchal mindset of various people across the ages. “Aristotle: Woman is an incomplete man. Saint Thomas Aquinas: Woman is the misbegotten product of some defect in the male seed. Martin Luther: Men have broad shoulders and narrow hips, and accordingly they possess intelligence. Women have narrow shoulders and wide hips to keep house and bear and raise children”. Quoting from scriptures: “Jehovah said to women according to the Bible: Thy husband shall rule over thee. Allah said to Mohammed, according to the Holy Koran: Righteous woman are obedient”. Galeano did not quote Hindu scriptures, but Manu and his smriti are no different: “Pita rakshati kaumare, bharta raskshati youvana, putrah rakshati varddhakye, na stree swatantryam arhati”. Bringing forth the fact that women participated for the first time in Olympic Games in 1928, he quotes the father of modern Olympics, Baron de Coubertin: “For women, grace, home and children. For men, competitive sports”. Being sporty and very religious, men even to this day strictly adhere to the scriptures and follow these wise words of the sages.


Galeano devotes many dates and pages in his calendar to expose the patriarchal oppression of women. He shows how heroically women fought in many wars, how courageously they had faced dictatorships and how they had excelled in many arts but were never acknowledged. He tells us about Manuela Leon, who rallied the Indians to revolt against the oppressive State and was executed on January 8, 1872 in Ecuador. Galeano writes, “The President in his decree called Manuela 'Manuel', so there would be no evidence that a gentleman like himself was sending a woman, even a stupid Indian, to the firing squad”. In a 1950 photograph published by the Life magazine, top artists of the New York city, for the first time appeared together. Among them was a woman, Hedda Sterne. “The men could not hide their disgust at her outrageous presence. One tried, in vain, to excuse the interloper. He praised her saying, “She paints like a man”.


Galeano traces the many struggles of women against such blatant discrimination. He narrates a brave incident of Susan B Anthony who voted in the elections for a representative in the US Congress, when women were not allowed to vote. She was prosecuted for this crime. When the court imposed a fine, Susan refused to pay even “a dollar”. She ridiculed the trial saying she was tried by: “forms of law all made by men, interpreted by men, administered by men, in favour of men, and against women”.


Just like today where women are blamed for everything, Galeano quotes from parliamentary debates in 1770 when an English law was promulgated to punish 'wily women' who were 'seducing' His Majesty's subjects using, “scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes or bolstered hips”. When we hear the arguments today about nail polishes, dress worn and make-up done by the women as the reasons today for the atrocities committed upon them, one cannot but ponder how far (or if at all) we evolved as a civilisation vis-à-vis our attitude towards women.


Apart from women, environment and imperialism are other two important concerns that Galeano deals in the book. On the World Environment Day, he writes: “Disasters are called natural, as if nature were the executioner and not the victim”. Applauding the Ecuador government for being the first country to constitutionally recognise nature too as a subject with rights, he comments: “It seems strange, this notion that nature has rights as if it were a person. But in the United States it seems perfectly normal that big companies have human rights. They do, ever since a Supreme Court decision in 1886”. And he concludes with a typical Galeano one-liner: “If nature were a bank, they would have already rescued it”.


Wryly writing about September 22, Car Free Day, Galeano questions: “Suppose it’s contagious and this day becomes everyday”? He answers: “God doesn't want that and neither does the Devil. Hospitals and cemeteries would lose their biggest clients...Silence would deafen all ears...Radio, television, magazines and newspapers would lose their most generous advertisers. Oil producing countries would face poverty”. And then, the finishing touch: “Corn and sugar, now food for cars, would return to the humble human table”.


For August 30, the Day of the Disappeared, Galeano lists what all had disappeared. “Old-growth forests, stars in city nights, the fragrance of flowers, the taste of fruit...the right to walk, the right to breathe...”. After environment, he goes on to list the other disappearances caused by capitalism, “ jobs, secure retirement...letters written by hand, old cafes where there was time to waste...a sense of community and common sense”. What had also disappeared is a sense of security in a capitalist State, which Galeano adds in his list as “doors without locks”.


An avid anti-imperialist, Galeano does not lose an opportunity to expose the colonial, racial and inhuman nature of imperialism right through history. A quote of Winston Churchill is so chilling that it bears many similarities with what is associated with Hitler. “I am strongly in favour of using the poisoned gas against the uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good...and would spread a lively terror”. Churchill doesn't end there. “I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race...has come in and taken their place”. Hitler tried to repeat it on Jews. Courtesy colonial rule, native populations in many countries were completely wiped out and even religion did not come to the rescue of the colonised. It always sided with the aggressor.


Galeano captures this role of the religion and the Church, when he writes about the day Pope Benedict visited Auschwitz where Hitler ran his notorious concentration camp. Moved by what he had seen of the remains, the Pope it seems had questioned, where God was and why he had remained silent. Galeano answers: “No one told him that God had never changed his address” and “no one pointed out that it was the Church that remained silent, the Church that spoke in God's name”.


Calling the IMF and World Bank, the Bretton Woods twins, he compares them with Romulus and Remus (twin brothers who were central to the foundation of Rome and the imperial dynasty. The legend says they were reared by a she-wolf). “In countries where no one elected them, the twins impose obeisance as if it were destiny: they keep watch, they threaten, they punish, they quiz: 'Have you behaved yourself? Have you done your homework?” This is exactly what the IMF is doing in Greece and in many other countries which are neck deep in crisis. In Iceland, where the IMF prescriptions of austerity were rejected in two plebiscites, Galeano says, that “this small island lost in the waters of the North Atlantic, offered us all a healthy lesson in common sense”.


The growing discontent amongst the people is not confined against the financial agencies alone. Many giant monopolies like the Monsanto, who are dominating agri-production with genetically modified seeds too are resisted. “A few months after the earthquake, Haiti received a grand gift from Monsanto: sixty thousand bags of seed produced by the chemical industry. Farmers gathered to receive the offering, and they burned every sack in an immense bonfire”.


True to his beliefs, he sings paeans of the occupation movement. He talks about their 26 page pamphlet in the same breath as that of the Communist Manifesto (23 pages) and Thomas Paine's Common Sense (48 pages) as some of the excellent works that were brief, but shook the entire world with their content. He celebrates the indignados of Spain, who called their compatriots to: “Turn off the TV and turn on the street. They call it a crisis but it's a rip off. Not too little money, too many crooks. Markets rule. I did not vote for them. They decide for us without us. Wage slave for rent. I am looking for my rights. Anyone seen them? If they won't let us dream, we won't let them sleep”.


To mobilise people onto the streets, there is a quote from Ho Chi Minh who was answering an activist returning from a village and reported that there was no way to organise those people. “They are a bunch of Buddhist yahoos. They spend all day meditating”. To this Galeano quotes Uncle Ho's reply: “Go back there and meditate”, meaning that he should stay put with the people, 'like fish in water' and organising then would not be a problem. This is an important lesson for all those striving to organise the exploited classes.


Galeano had done enormous research to fill in each day with many such incidents that speak about the common people. He wrote about various forms of discrimination, hunger for war, how media is used for manipulation, how acknowledgement of poverty is always forced, etc.


Keith Hopkins says this about a social historian: “The large gaps in our records highlight the social historian's obligation to reconstruct the past with imagination, even with artistic creativity, but constrained from flights of pure fantasy by the authenticating conventions of scholarship. Imagination is needed, not merely to fill the gaps in our sources, but also to provide the framework, the master picture into which the jigsaw fragments of evidence can be fitted...Social history has to be thought out, as well as artfully presented, as a story, a moral tale, a belle-lettre or an essay in intellectual adventure”.


Galeano, with abundant imagination and creativity doesn't fail. Some of the 'facts' he mentions are real startling: “In the year 1980 the American Psychiatric Association decided that shyness was a psychological ailment and included it in its Manual of Mental Disorders, which is periodically updated by the high priests of Science. Like all illnesses, shyness requires medication. Ever since the news broke, Big Pharma has made a fortune selling hope to patients plagued by this 'social phobia', 'allergy to people', severe medical problem'...”


Galeano pays homage to Anton Chekov on his birthday through these words: “He wrote as if he were saying nothing. And he said everything”. This is true for Galeano too.


He concludes urging us: “Give your fire until the last of your days”, which is what is meant in ancient Hebrew when someone said, Abracadabra. For socialism, Abracadabra.