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Last suppers


BYE BYE BITES: James Reynolds, a British artist, recreated a series of last meals of real death row prisoners. The requests included everything from premium ice-cream to a fruit platter, a KFC meal to a doughnut

Did Ajmal Kasab have tea or tomatoes before he died? Some reports say he didn't feel like eating, but only drank two cups of masala chai. But the Times of India reported that when asked if he wanted food from outside prison he declined, but asked for tomatoes. A basket was given to him, from which he took two, but just ate one.

What is interesting here is not the odd, and oddly touching choice of tomatoes, but the fact that the prison authorities were following the principle of giving the condemned man his choice of last meal. Because executions are mercifully rare in India we have no large history of last meals, nor does there seem to be a very set procedure, yet the prison authorities instinctively allowed Kasab this one small grace.

This is not a universally followed principle nor is it generally mandated by prison codes. Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, an 18th century compilation that is an influential guide to common law in Anglophone countries, simply decrees grimly that "during the short but awful interval between sentence and execution, the prisoner shall be kept alone and sustained with only bread and water. "

Yet, prison authorities often end up allowing the prisoner, within reason, a few final treats. This could simply reflect the fact that jailers are human too and having had contact with the prisoner as a person, can't quite reduce him or her to the abstraction condemned by the law.

For example, in pictures from China, taken in 2003, but only recently leaked, showing the execution process in the No1 Detention Centre in Wuhan, guards in the women's prison are shown interacting with the condemned in a friendly, even affectionate way, helping them choose their outfits for the end and giving one of the women a lychee before she is led away. A woman named Dai Donggui, who was executed for drug smuggling, is shown with a last meal of green bean soup along with McDonald's fries and a burger, which must have been procured from outside the prison.

In the US, which is much more open than China about its executions, last meals are a subject of much popular interest. The requests are studied for what they say about those executed (the amount of junk food requested may show their class composition) and some photographers have recreated them.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice used to list on its website the last meals of the many people executed by them. This is no longer done, and the Department has stopped fulfilling every request in full after one prisoner requested an incredibly large meal (two steaks, an omelette, okra, barbecue, pizza, ice-cream, fudge, soft drinks), which he got, but then didn't eat any of it.

Such willful wastefulness might show how some inmates use their last meal as a way of making a statement. Texan Odell Barnes asked for a serving of "Justice, Equality and World Peace" which was probably beyond the scope of the prison kitchen. Philip Workman asked for a large vegetarian pizza to be distributed to the homeless, which the prison declined to do, but volunteers did, across the US. Victor Feguer asked for a single unpitted olive, and was buried with the pit in his pocket.

Yet while such quirkiness is intriguing, and the humanity of the authorities is to be applauded, this business of last meals is really rather odd. Why eat when you know you won't live to digest the meal? And is the kindness of the jailers just an attempt to cover up the basic brutality of state-sanctioned killing? But the fact that it is done, across the world, and almost instinctively, shows that it speaks to a deep part of our nature, and perhaps one answer might lie in a famous parable from the Mahabharata. It is told in the Stree Parva how, after the destruction of his sons and kingdom at Kurukshetra, King Dhritarashtra gave in to wild grief and wondered what the purpose of life was. Vidura then told him the story of the man in the jungle running from wild beasts, who fell into a pit. His fall was broken by vines and creepers, but as he dangled there, he saw a large snake stirring at the bottom of the pit. Above the pit, the wild beasts waited, and the man saw black and white mice nibbling at the roots of the creepers that held him. Bees living on the side of the pit flew out and stung him, but from their hives drops of honey fell and, almost without thinking the man reached a finger out and tasted it. The honey tasted incredibly sweet and despite facing certain death in all directions, the man could only think of how sweet it was, and wanted more.

This parable has found its way into other traditions, with different interpretations. A Christian one from the 16th century, for example, faults the man for giving in to pleasure, instead of praying for a friend to rescue him. But Vidura's interpretation is more material, if not as easily conducive to lessons. The man is us, the jungle our world, the serpent is time, which waits for us all, and the black and white mice are the nights and days that eat away at the creepers that are our life's journey. The honey is then the pleasure that we get from this world and our lives, or the intense desire to live that keeps us dangling, despite the sure death we face. Jean-Claude Carriere used this as a climactic moment in the script of the Mahabharata he wrote for Peter Brook's production, putting it in Bhishma's mouth: "Threatened by so many dangers, with hardly a breath between him and so many deaths, he has still not reached indifference. " Ricky Ray Rector, who was executed in Arkansas in 1992, asked for steak, chicken and pecan pie for his last meal, but he didn't eat the pie, saying he would keep that "for afters". Rector had tried to shoot himself in the head while being arrested and was considered brain damaged. His remark about the pie was seen as further proof of his diminished mental state, but one has to wonder if instead it showed something more truly human. At that moment of death, in no really rational way, do we offer food and is it taken, as Kasab did with the tomatoes, as a way to affirm our still intense commitment to life?

vikram. doctor@timesgroup. com

Reader's opinion (1)

Mohan PatelNov 26th, 2012 at 09:02 AM

very interesting well written article, and goes in deep. thank you.

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