Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator who overthrew the first democratically elected Marxist government in history and who died today at the age of 91, may have been little known in India but he cast a short but eventful shadow on recent Indian history.
The overthrow of Salvador Allende‘s government in the Pinochet- led coup on 11 September 1973 sparked off rumors of similar events happening in India. Those were the years of the Cold War, and Mrs Indira Gandhi was in her early phase of a swing towards the Left in order to defeat the Syndicate within the Congress Party. JP’s “Total Revolution” was seen as a movement to upset her regime, even as the CIA was thought to be in the process of dislodging her regime.
It was in this background that the CPI supported her when she clamped down the Emergency in 1975. The coup in Chile had led the Dange faction within the CPI to strengthen their support of what was perceived as a Center- Left Congress government headed by Indira Gandhi.
Salvador Allende’s brief tenure became well known in India as an example of a socialist government taking power by democratic means, his death during the coup made him a hero in the eyes of the intelligentsia in the country.
However, in the last two decades as India moved towards the United States economically and politically, even this memory became hazy. A recent news story even had a headline that made me wrench: Former Chilean dictator’s health improves as if this was something to be celebrated.To me, it only illustrated the chasm that had come over in India in the intervening years and the ignorance of contemporary history.
The novels of Ariel Dorfman (The Last Song of Manuel Sendero) and more recently Roberto Bolaño made one aware of the brutality of Pinochet’s regime and today, the news his death came just as I finished reading Bolaño collection of short stories Last Evenings on Earth.
This particular collection of short stories is somewhat uneven and a bit of a disappointment compared to his very excellent novels By Night in Chile and Distant Stars. There is one story in the collection, however, that has India in its backdrop. I found it strange that Bolaño used India as a backdrop to illustrate the brutality of the Pinochet years. Reading it, I felt while India may have forgotten Allende and Chile, Chile had remembered India, even if it was in its nightmares.
I quote excerpts from the story Mauricio (“The Eye”) Silva:
It is customary in some parts of India, said The Eye, looking to the ground, to offer a young boy to a deity whose name I can’t remember… outwardly, the ceremony is like a Latin American pilgrimage, but perhaps more joyful, more turbulent, and for the participants, those who know what they are participating in, the experience is probably more intense. But there is one major difference. A few days before the festivities begin, they castrate the boy. The god whose incarnation he is to be during the festival requires a male body- although the boys usually no more than seven years old- purified of male sexual organs. So the parents hand him over to the festivals doctors or barbers, or priests, and they emasculate him. And when the boy has recovered from the operation, the festival begins. Weeks or months later, when it is all over, the boy goes home, by now he is an eunuch and his parents reject him. So he ends up a brothel. These brothels vary; there are all sorts, said The Eye with a sigh. That night, they took me to the worst one of all.
That night, when he (“The Eye”) went back to his hotel, he wept for his dead children, and all the castrated boys, for his own lost youth, for those who fought for Salvador Allende and those who were too scared to fight. Unable to stop crying, he called his French friend, who was now living with a former Bulgarian weightlifter, and asked him to send him an airplane ticket and some money for the hotel.
And his friend said Yes, of course, he would, right away and then: What’s that sound? Are you crying? And The Eye said Yes, he couldn’t stop crying, he didn’t know what was happening to him, he had been crying for hours. His French friend had told him to calm down. At this The Eye, still crying, laughed said he would do that and hung up. But he went on crying, on and on.
As Augusto Pinochet is laid to rest- something that he denied to many of his compatriots during his years in power, one remembers, nay salutes, all those who disappeared, or were silenced and whose silence lies buried in the sea or in lime pits.