It usually takes an average healthy person about 60 days to die if he goes without food. After three weeks of fasting (no juice, only water), the body starts breaking down drastically. By 40 days, constant pain and illness take over. The body lacks the energy to conduct basic cellular functions and starts to fall apart.
All this sounds dire on a Sunday morning. But with Ramdev on his ninth day without food and Anna Hazare having gone on a day-long (10 am to 6pm) fast on Wednesday, my thoughts have turned towards those who reached the logical conclusion of a fast-unto-death. So, as I tuck in two sunny side up eggs on two pieces of toast, I won't be talking of Gandhi who because of his size and weight, didn't ever go beyond the 21-day mark. Or those who inspired him to use the hunger strike as a political weapon: the suffragettes in the early years of the 20th century fighting for womens' voting rights in Britain.
Instead, my breakfast thoughts linger on 27-year-old Bobby Sands, a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who refused to eat for 66 days from March 1, 1981, to the day he died on May 5, 1981. As well as the nine others who joined him in a bid to force the British government treat them as political prisoners (not as criminals) and to internationalise the IRA cause.
Unlike the suffragettes and Gandhi, these men weren't believers in non-violence. They had chosen terrorism to drive the British out of Northern Ireland. So in terms of having a moral right to shame the powers-that-be to meeting their demands by refusing to eat, they had none. But even though the government did not give in to their demands, the string of hunger deaths in the Belfast prison made an impact. People were moved by the 'spectacle' of people killing themselves by 'wasting away'. Even if many realised that they were fasting for a wrong cause, they saw their refusal to eat until they died as selfless. As was the case with others who actually died by starving themselves - such as LTTE ideologue Theelippan who died in 1987 after a 12-day hunger strike protesting against the Sri Lankan government and the Indian Peace-Keeping Force.
The slowness of a hunger death with the media spotlight on it (a starvation death in some corner of the world won't make the grade) makes it strangely dramatic in a world used to 'quicker' forms of self-death such as suicide-bombing or even self-immolation. Death-from-fasting has a medieval 'religious' awe-inspiring aspect to it, like a karva chauth with a vengeance.
My favourite hunger striker, however, is a fictional one. Franz Kafka's hero in his 1922 short story: 'A Hunger Artist'. "I always wanted you to admire my fasting," he tells the supervisor of the fairground where he's displayed in a cage for spectators. "But you shouldn't admire it... Because I had to fast. I can't do anything else." On being asked why he can't do anything else, he replies "Because... I couldn't find a food which tasted good to me. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart's content, like you and everyone else." Those were his last words.