My discovery of Che Guevara started on a false note when I met “Guevara”, the tall, lanky leader of the student union. He had just managed to flunk, I believe for the second time, his second year in B.A in the local government college. A sticker on the front of his light chocolate coloured Vespa two wheeler had a picture of a man with flaming eyes and another on the rear number plate read “Guevara”. He called himself “Guevara”, all other students called him “Guevara” and that is what I thought his real name was– until I discovered his real name. My curiosity simply sky rocked: who is, or in this case was Guevara? Only then I discovered, that our local hero had taken the name after a person called Che Guevara, the harbinger of the Cuban revolution.
I went on to read Che’s biography at the library. The otherwise informative hagiography written with typical Soviet dryness failed, however, to transform me into a wide- eyed admirer of the Argentina born revolutionary, even as I sympathized with his politics.
Meanwhile, the “Guevara” that I knew went on to flunk a few more examinations, finally dropping off and taking up a distance education course to complete his bachelors and then his law degree from the local university. By then, his escapades were well known. He had always been very energetic and had once slapped a senior political activist in his face during a drunken brawl. I mean he was energetic in that sort of way.
Soon thereafter, on my first travel abroad, I chanced on a just published book in Amsterdam airport- The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara and found myself carried away by the adventures of the 23 year old medical student venturing to travel all over South America on a motorbike. His descriptions of a continent that he, as Simon Bolivar before him, believed to be essentially one, are evocative, touching and peppered with insights. For the brief time that Che and his friend Alberto spend with the inmates of a leprosy hospital, for example, they establish an instant rapport.
‘Although it was very simple, one of the things which affected us most in Lima was the send- off we received from the hospitals inmates. They collected 100.50 soles (the local currency), which they presented to us with a very grandiloquent letter. Afterwards, some of them came up personally and some of them had tears in their eyes, spending time with them accepting their presents, sitting listening to football on the radio with them. If anything were to make us seriously specialize in leprosy, it would be the affection of the patients’.
This is how Che describes a working class couple in the copper mines of Chuquicamata.
‘In the light of a candle, drinking maté and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken features stuck a mysterious, tragic note. In simple but expressive language, he told us about his three months in prison, his starving wife, and his children left in the care of a kindly neighbor, his fruitless pilgrimage in search of work and his comrades, who had mysteriously disappeared and were said to be somewhere at the bottom of the sea’. These copper mines – ‘ spiced with the lives of poor unsung heroes of this battle, who die miserable deaths, when all they want is to earn is their daily bread’- produce 20 percent of all the world’s copper…’
The book made me respect Che more than I did earlier and the reason was not far to seek.
Meeting the “Guevara” of my university had not been a pleasant experience. The Soviet book had dwelt on the political exploits and ideology of Che. The Motorcycle Diaries, on the other hand, presented the young Che, the Che that had not yet become a legend and was a well meaning, inquisitive medical student out to discover the people and humanity of South America– a continent bruised by centuries of colonization and conflict, much before he went on to discover an armed revolution there. The political Che, I realized, was an outgrowth of his deep seated humanism.
His legacy, however, has turned out to be an inversion in which his aura as an armed insurgent seems to overshadow his humanism.
To some extent this is understandable, after all if Marxism was the face of humanism for many in the twentieth century, armed revolution was nothing but an extension of the same in the 1960s South America and elsewhere. The appeal of his persona finds resonance in every upstart generation everywhere while the appeal of his humanism echoes only in the silence of the jungles as it were. The self- styled inheritors of his name and legacy continue to be all sorts- the lumpen as well as young people revolting without any cause in particular. Entrepreneurs profit from his name by printing his pictures on T- shirts and coffee mugs. Che, the revolutionary, has become a money-mill for his nemesis, Capital. Cuba wallows in his name to justify Castro’s dictatorship. His legacy, therefore, is confusing, and seems to appeal to all and sundry, and it is disconcerting to find his admirers especially among the ‘wrong set’ of people, sending out wrong messages about the man.
In my case, for example, my introduction to Che started with a person with whom I would rather not be friends. It created little interest let alone respect for Che. Nevertheless, I persisted and tried to discover him in his politics, first via the Soviet hagiography and then via his book On Guerrilla Warfare. Both left me cold and uninspired.
I finally found Che in The Motorcycle Diaries, in the deep humanism of a 23 year old student, as frightened by a pair of a cat’s eyes in the night as anyone else in his place would be.
I realized then that to discover Che, one has to trudge through various layers of reality, through the phases in his life and his deeply sensitive reactions to the world that he lived in.
To discover Che, one has to go with him to his youth and grow up with him.
To discover Che, one has to accompany him to the ruins of Machu Picchu, and observe with him in quiet poignance- ‘gold doesn’t have the same quiet dignity as silver which acquires new charm as it ages’.
To discover Che, one has to realize that Che is talking as much about himself as about the ruins of Machu Picchu.
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Tags: Che, Guevara, Books