THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: If rebellion had a face, it would without doubt be that of Che Guevara - the windblown hair, sharp eyes with a look of exceptional determination and a mouth curling into defiance. To see that face real-time and to talk to this ultimate revolutionary would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that no journalist would want to miss.
So it was with E R Gopinath, then a bright young journalist based in Delhi. Now on the threshold of eighty, yet very active as the editor-in-chief of Asian News International, Gopinath still has a shine in his eyes recalling that memorable interview, not many journalists in the country would have the fortune of retelling.
Of course, he was a bundle of excitement as he went to Ashoka Hotel in Delhi where the Cuban delegation was put up. "Che was stocky, short and in his army fatigues. I was twenty-nine years old then and he was a little older, but we got along really well,’’ recalled Gopinath, who is now settled in Chennai. He was in Thiruvananthapuram a couple of days ago on an official visit.
Che and Gopinath talked about the problems that plagued Latin America, especially Cuba, how Batista had turned the island nation into a holiday resort for Americans and why Cuba needed the support of other developing countries like India to fight imperialism and so on. "But I clearly remember him getting asthma attacks even while we were talking. He almost always had them throughout his life,’’ said Gopinath.
Che, who was on a mission to consult important statesmen such as Joseph Tito of Yugoslavia, Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria and Mao Tse-tung of China soon after the Cuban revolution in 1959, had come to see Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi. But this did not prevent him from giving almost three-fourths of an hour to Gopinath for the interaction. At the end of interview, Che, just before saying goodbye, had to say just three words to Gopinath - "You Come Cuba.’’
Unfortunately, this was the only visit Che ever made to India.
"His execution was something that pained me a lot. I came to know of the horrid details from the Cuban newspaper ‘Granma,’ which I used to get,’’ remembered Gopinath.
But before his death and after his return from India, Che did not forget to send him an informal invitation from the Cuban Embassy. Gopinath went via Cairo, Rome, Milan and Madrid to Havana, where he was put up at the Hotel Havana Reviera. There, Che arranged for him to meet Fidel Castro.
"I met Fidel and Raoul too. Fidel was nice, extremely nice. But I felt Fidel to be less adventurous than Che. Fidel knew the games of world politics as well as local politics. But Che had only one thing in his mind, to free people from misery,’’ said Gopinath.
In Cuba, Gopinath spent a long time visiting and studying key locations of the rebellion, the Playa Giron, interviewing people, and even attending a meeting at the Havana Plaza de la Revolucion. "And while Fidel spoke, there was a small blast and I remember an American newspaper writing that the Indian invitee at the meeting had turned pale,’’ recalled Gopinath with a smile.
When asked about the American slander campaign attributing a number of innocent killings to Che, even calling him the ‘Butcher of La Cabana,’ Gopinath vehemently defended Che. "Of course, he was a soldier and he might have had to kill on the ground. But beyond that, he would never do that,’’ said Gopinath, who also said that Che never for once regretted his decision to leave his medical profession.Gopinath was in touch with Che for a few years after his visit to Cuba.
Che, whose dreams knew no frontiers, who was deeply incensed by the social injustices that he saw in the world all around him, who was a personification of courage, and who fought and died for what he believed in, now lives on in the heart of this 79-year-old journalist.