[This is a guest post by Keerthik Sasidharan. It was first published at Medium.]
On 12th April, the Chinese media reported that Puren, the youngest half-brother of Puyi, the last emperor of the Manchu Qing dynasty, had died at the age of ninety-six. The outside world barely noticed. With Puren’s passing vanished last of the tenuous linkages to a medieval world that was as baroque as the eventual Communist regime of Mao was to be radical. To the outside world, however, replacing the Manchu Qing with the Communists was merely the replacement of one form of opacity by another. Well before the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci threw light on Puyi, the relationship between the Communist Party and the last of the Chinese royals was merely an historical footnote, albeit not as bloody as the Romanoffs in the wake of Lenin and his gang. Eduardo Galeano, the iconic Uruguayan writer died earlier this week, was one of the few reporters who managed to finagle an interview with Puyi in 1963. The red shadow of Mao’s persona, understandably, darkened the mood of the hour. During their conversation, mediated by a Mandarin to Spanish translator, Puyi let in Galeano on a secret with, what must have been by then, a well practiced routine of humility: the Last Emperor of China, who now lived as a gardener and librarian, was not a member of the Communist party. When asked why he hadn’t joined, Puyi confessed: “The title of Communist is a most noble title. I am very far from attaining that incomparable glory… I must finish changing my ideas if I am to reach such an elevated goal.” Galeano doesn’t write what he felt when he heard those words but he leaves behind a cryptic, but sympathetic, note about the cup in which his jasmine tea was served: “The dragons on the porcelain surface are fighting.” Such encounters with those cast away onto the sides of history fueled Galeano’s journalistic and writing career wherein he gently peeled away layers of self-deceptions that the defeated entertain, not to self-aggrandize themselves but often to eke out morsels of dignity.
Galeano’s death comes after more than half century long career wherein he wrote about the vanities and follies of men, the loneliness of back breaking labor in flea markets and coal mines, the worm addled utopias promised by demagogues on the Right (mostly) and the Left, the gray suited high priests of modern finance capital who have sacrificed countries to their great God called productivity, the historical amnesias of the global South and the post-industrial oblivions in the North. When he died, Galeano was 74, thrice married, bald and a prophetic voice who once dreamed of being a footballer.