The oxymoronic title ‘Captive Imagination' could not have been more apt. The 13 essays in this volume on the days he spent in prison compel the reader to empathise with the author, who eloquently portrays the helplessness of a prisoner when the state takes away the right to communicate with the outside world.
Varavara Rao, a poet and revolutionary who penned these essays, does not stop with detailing the physical suffering and hardship he underwent during the long periods of imprisonment. He goes on to show how the system could never shackle his imagination. So what if he has been confined to the four walls of the prison? His unflinching conviction and hope in the ‘New Democratic Revolution' is what sustained him.
When he speaks of the travails that go with incarceration, Varavara Rao is so realistic that the reader feels transported to the prison cell. So powerful is his narration when he gives vent to his irrepressible urge to communicate with the outside world that one is left dumbfounded.
“When the step falters… and to speak is to stammer. The mind swallows hardship…silence is existence.” The writer seeks to re-establish that the state would not succeed in its effort to extinguish the power of thought.
The jail; its environs; the inmates; the cat that saunters into the kitchen; the bird that flies in and perches itself atop a plant — indeed every animate and inanimate thing starts communicating with the poet-author as he strikes a rapport with them.
Prolonged incarceration could lead to introversion. But for some people, it provides them space for introspection. What is peculiar about human nature is that it will make one long for solitude while being amidst people, and yearn for company when one is forced into total solitude by the state, and this is brought out sharply and with a touch of poignancy.
“…I feel the word is an action-oriented creation. From out of such a world of words, I have stepped into the silence of imprisonment. Into such a silence that there is a dearth of words even to express this silence.” The longing for freedom to express oneself unfettered, so palpable in these words, is touching indeed.
The practice of censoring letters received by the prison inmates assumes a different dimension, as Varavara Rao sees it from the angle of a writer. As one committed to the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology, he is only too familiar with censorship. Whereas outside the jails the system operates rather subtly — though apparent to those under surveillance — it acquires a stamp of authority within the confines of a jail, and those who scan the letters leave them open, letting the recipients know they can have absolutely no privacy in jail.
Generally, for anyone who believes in democracy, this should be depressing. But the poet-writer in Varavara Rao views it in a different perspective. His indignation at the denial of privacy, so necessary for a writer to put down his thoughts, manifests in all it fury when he asks whether decency, patience, forgiveness, and other virtues are only to be preached to the people. Do they not apply to governments also? Do governments symbolise institutionalised cruelty? Coming as they do from one driven by the extremist ideology, these questions acquire a pointed edge.
The enforced silence leaves an indelible imprint on Varavara Rao's psyche. So much so that when visitors call on him in jail, much of the time is spent in silence. A lecturer who is used to teaching for hours together suffers silently as he runs out of words. Though ‘Captive Imagination' is no substitute for its original in Telugu, the translators deserve to be commended for their excellent work.
The Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, captures the essence of the book when he writes in the preface: “Captive Imagination stands in the frontline of resistance literature in the world. It speaks to the human will to freedom.” It is a must read for book lovers.