It is in Bastille where it all began. When the people decided that it was too much for them. That there was no way the king was going to eat a thousand people’s bread in a single day as they went hungry, not when this bread was from their hard-earned taxes. And so they had come in their numbers, not to beg for crumbs but to grab the whole bread. The thousand loaves on the king’s overfilled table.
It is around this bastion where the first head would be chopped off and shoved to the face of power, as a foretaste of what was to come – stripping the king of not just his powers, but of his very life.
They stormed this fortress to get away with gunpowder after arming themselves with stolen guns because no one goes to war with sticks.
At Bastille, they had come to take it all.
But it was not in Bastille where it would end. It would be in some secluded room along the banks of some river. The same room where the last queen of France had, a year earlier, sat quietly waiting for her fate. The room where opposers of the revolution had been prepared for the final cut.
The room, now, as dark even as it was then, appears to have undergone no changes over the years apart from the occupant it houses today. He is special in every sense. Unlike those before him, he is a friend to the state, one of the protagonists of the revolution.
If he were waiting to sign some deal he would have perhaps sauntered to the window to buy some time. Conceivably adjusting his spectacles and nodding at some bright thought that would have crossed his mind on this brief journey. There, he would have seen River Seine, flowing still with her grace, unaware of the grand terror that had covered her country.
But even though the man here is a lawyer, he is not waiting to sign any deal. Neither does he sport his glasses today. And the room he occupies does not have windows. It is a dank and rat-infested prison cell that does not even recognize kings or queens or the lawyer he is. You might be a king or a sweeper but the rats here won’t even tell. In this dark room.
He lies quietly waiting for men, men well known to him who only a few days before he had wielded great power over and had hailed him as their incorruptible leader, but who today hold his life in their hands. Like some hapless bird about to be slaughtered. Because revolutions have no eyes to see it’s one of their own they are about to kill. The men this prisoner waits for will soon walk in, unannounced, brandishing a scissor. They will trim his hair to prepare him for the fatal cut. Because no one slaughters a bird with its feathers intact. You first strip it neat.
But it is not just the prisoner here who is responsible for what now sweeps entire France. He has not sorely architected this revolution, billed as one of the worst revolutions seen in the 18th century. All forces seemed to have corralled to lend him a helping hand. Even nature seems to have conspired for it is during this period when France experiences one of the worst droughts in decades, a situation that aggravates the people more.
There is also the efficient guillotine invented a few years earlier by Dr Antoine Louis. In a good month, three hundred heads are chopped under its weight.
The guillotine leaves no room for a bungled attempt.
They say it is the best they can do to the victims because as far as they can tell, it offers a painless departure. At least no one has risen from their graves to complain of feeling any pain before their head detached from their body. It is instantaneous. The mechanism falls like lightning; the head flies off; the blood spurts; the man is no more. There is no struggle under the national razor, as it has been nicknamed. This way of exiting the world, they argue, is better than some rope being tied around your neck because, with that, there are chances of your neck being too strong for the rope. Because weak necks are for protagonists. And so you would be hurt instead. And given you are an antagonist on death row, they would have to kill you anyway, maybe using some bullets this round. They want to save people from such pains.
Such mercy and efficiency is found in the guillotine.
If they had an opportunity to advertise their killer-tool, they would perhaps brand it as Kills Once And For All. Zero Pains. Zero Struggles. Wanna Try It Out.
But they don’t need to advertise the guillotine because it sits upon Paris like a warning. Everyone can see it. And to make it even better, they have rotations. The national razor doesn’t stay at one point. They move it around like some mobile cinema, like a show on public demand. So if you were not lucky enough to watch the last episode, they give you another chance closer home to watch what happens to the enemies of the revolution.
The national razor is inclusive and leaves no one behind.
Not just that. These people are much aware of the fact that such scenes are likely to sap people’s strengths. And so around the guillotine are hotels where one can eat something before setting upon these scenes, or for those who would love to bite something to marinate the scene they have just watched. It is all provided.
It was that moment in history when horses were more humane than humans for the horses became aware of what was happening under this blade and refused to get too close. You could beat them all you wanted but they were not going to witness these horrifying scenes. Scenes that had a particular set of women called the knitters who were not just content in watching heads dropping off but who fancied watching them at a close range. Up-close.
And so each day, after biting something in those adjacent hotels, they would set their stools right under the guillotine. And knit their stuff like someone was cutting vegetables in the next stall. Like what was before them was a scene in some horror movie no one had forced them to watch. Then when it was all done, they would throw up their hands in the air and complain that it was too brief. That the man had gone without staging any struggle.
“We want the gallows back.” They would shout.
I was not there to see it but I imagine, even so, they would pack their things and leave. Perhaps stopping again at the cafeterias to see what new stuff might have been brought after them. Because France is in business. This has become their way of life. Restocking goes on even when a man is dying under the weight of some massive razor.
“Tomorrow will be more action-packed. They are bringing the queen.” They would say as they left for their homes, I imagine.
Because even the king and queen would not be spared under the guillotine. The king’s judgement would be simple. You didn’t need to have studied law to understand why the king had to die. It was a straightforward argument: If the king is right then the king should live and if the king lives, then the revolution is wrong. But the revolution can’t be wrong. Not when it is led by a man who has earned the name incorruptible for his firmness to his ideals. So it must be the king.
The king is guilty!
King Louis is found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. And because the only punishment known during the revolution is death – death by the guillotine, King Louis faces the national razor.
So inclusive is the national razor. Even kings go under it.
With the death of the king is ushered the new republic. The French Republic is birthed in blood, like all births. Like normal births.
The guillotine would later be added another name, the widow. Because that is what it does. It leaves behind widows. The king leaves behind a widow, Marie Antonniate. But if the people had known better, they would have added it another name. They would have called it the widower because six months later, even the queen suffers her husband’s fate. Other women are also sentenced to this star-crossed end.
The guillotine snuffs away the lives of men and women alike, leaving behind both widows and widowers.
Most important, during this reign of terror, was living the moment because anyone could face the guillotine. Any small action or talk that passed you off as one retarding the progress of the revolution could send you to your death, including serving sour wine. Even bearing a look that suggested you were not quite happy with the course the revolution had taken could call upon your death.
And so people learnt to swallow their words. They learnt not to whisper beyond their own ears. They taught themselves to look happy even when they felt this was not the cost they had imagined they would have to pay for unalienable human rights.
Except for one person. Charlotte Cordey watches all this from a different city then when she has had enough of the revolutionists, she travels all the way to Paris to kill the one she sees as the propagator of all this terror. She knocks on the door of Jean-Paul Marat one evening posing as an informer. Marat is the man behind a vitriolic newspaper L’Ami du peuple translated as A Friend of the People. He has an open-door policy because if your paper is a friend of the people, you have to be one too. He has a skin disease, however, that consigns him to a bathtub for most of his day. But Marat does not need good skin to incite the masses. If anything, his skin disease, years of an unsuccessful career as a medical doctor add up to make him the bitter writer he is. A quality that proves handy in the revolution. In the revolution, a dejected Marat will gain a powerful voice. He will receive acceptance once again. His philosophy is simple: If we only chop one more head, the revolution will be fed. It is an infinite loop that sets the course of the revolution upon a precarious edge.
And so on this day when Cordey knocks on his door, he readily accepts her and true to her words, Charlotte gives him the names after which she pulls a knife and stabs him. And he dies, only bringing forth a scream. A bad way to die – in the hands of a woman, if you ask me.
But Charlotte doesn’t struggle to escape. If anything, she has written a note to her family because she knows too well that killing Marat seals her fate. She hands herself to the revolutionists with the attitude of I killed him. You can kill me too if you want. And because the guillotine is yet to complain that it is tired of severing heads, the people oblige. She is killed under the guillotine, her dreams of a post-Marat peace buried with her, leaving behind Marat the hero.
But today if she were alive, the people would have instead hailed her as a foremost hero. They would have apologized for taking the life of a reasonable voice amidst a cataclysmic moment. They would have thanked her for stopping a bunch of madmen in their tracks. Because today, they are turning against their own. The spearheader of the revolution is about to meet the fate he had pronounced to thousands before him.
He lies here in this prison cell by a river.
The year is 1794. The month is July. 28th. If you care to know, it is about 2 in the afternoon. Maximilien Robespierre lies on a wooden table in the Francis Conciergerie Prison. Defeated and resigned to his impending death, his jaw bleeds from a self-inflicted wound in an earlier attempt to take his own life. Because even after five years of watching people die under the guillotine, he just doesn’t believe that dying under that thing is all painless. But if he does, then he simply prefers to leave with some little pain. Because painless deaths are for cowards and he is no coward. A coward does not sustain a revolution for five years.
The prison door will soon open. He will feel relieved to know this death he has so longed for now stands at the door, he will be glad for it will be better than the pain of a botched suicide. Yet, he will still feel that familiar sensation of doom looming over him, the one that he had first felt when he was declared an outlaw by the Convection.
He will be carted away to Place de la Revolution.
Robespierre will step upon the scaffold for the final cut. Unlike the king before him, he will not be assisted upon this final stage. He will be anything but eloquent today. The only sound the people will hear from him will be an agonizing scream as the bandage around his shattered jaws will be taken off. His head will be stuffed under the guillotine, his collar cleared. Even though he will have managed to keep his eyes shut all this while, he will see his friend George Danton, who years before he had sent to this blade, shouting, portending the doom that now stares at him. He will see the last King of France, terrified of his impending death. He will see the helpless Marie Antonniate pleading for mercy. His mind will drift back to a time when he was a student at the prestigious University of Paris, giving a speech to the king and queen he was to later preside over their deaths.
Then he will be interrupted by the razor. Because that’s what the razor does. It interrupts lives. The guillotine offsets long observed traditions. Overturns the church. It adds a few more days to the week. If possible, it even upsets the place of God in society. The French Revolution attempts to change the very nature of humanity.
And then in a moment, the man will be gone. Like a passing wind. Like he never was. The terror of the revolution gone with him.
It was callous, the French Revolution. But that’s how it happened. That’s what history chooses to tell us. And no one questions history. You simply pick the lessons it offers and walk away.■