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Hope does not yet grow dog-eared with Varavara Rao

Seizing syllables :Rao in custody at Chaderghat Police Station, Andhra Pradesh, in 2005 .   | Photo Credit: P.V. Sivakumar

As more and more poets and activists continue to be incarcerated under the current regime, public memory proves shorter than usual. Soon, the 81-year-old Telugu poet Varavara Rao may come to occupy an even smaller space in the neo-liberal urban mindscape than his erstwhile cell in Taloja jail. It is perhaps apt then to remember him now, as he battles a more permanent sort of oblivion than merely our collective amnesia.

Going through any of Rao’s translated poetry, one will be astounded at his prescience. For instance, in his poem ‘The Other Day’, Rao writes:

What language can translate the

utterance

That it’s felony to shackle

reflections?

Rao’s poems in their fluidity exceed the pragmatism of commitment to any ideology. His works are not unwaveringly the revolutionary poetry of a lifelong Marxist. They go beyond that, forged in a larger crucible of sensibilities. The sense of self abounds, as it does in the works of the Romantic poets. The personal meets the political. The “I” returns often. His poem ‘Words’, for instance:

Once again I yearn to learn the

utterance

At school and on the commune,

From pupils and plebeians

I dream of seizing syllables

From each of history’s furrows.

Without this voicing peal

How will this silence,

Loaded for so long in the self,

Explode?

The allusion to an explosion with a question mark may take one back to the work of Langston Hughes, who in his revolutionary poem ‘Harlem’ asks what happens to a dream deferred:

“... Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

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Through prison walls

The poems that have blossomed down the ages through the cracks of prison walls have always been very many. Rao himself is no stranger to incarceration. He was first jailed in 1973 by the Andhra Pradesh government, under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, on charges of inciting violence through his writing.

Since then, he has seen little respite — either from being jailed or from his own dogged commitment to revolutionary politics. He was jailed and released time and again for charges that all sound similarly glib — in 1975 during Emergency, in 1985 during the Labour Movement, in 2005 under the Andhra Pradesh Public Security Act, in 2010 for speaking on Kashmir, in 2011, in 2014 and then, finally, in 2018 until now.

Each time that he has been imprisoned for how he chose to employ his words, his poetry has become recharged with even more vehemence. Yet, there is that fragility in his words that one always expects to find in poetry. You see it in Rao’s memoir Captive Imagination: Letters from Prison: “... wave dissolving into wave, the silence of the prison becomes a disturbed lake. But these strokes are relentless on the waiting mind that knows no sleep — like the nails hammering Jesus to the cross. Then I begin to feel surely that Ngugi wrote his Prison Diary for my sake.”

Perhaps the yearning for freedom takes on other forms when you are imprisoned at the age of 81. Rao’s family has repeatedly spoken of his weakening health in prison — of his delirium and incoherence. Until he contracted COVID-19 and was only then shifted to Mumbai’s J.J. Hospital.

Yearning for freedom

That Rao’s poetic and political oeuvre is anti-establishment is no secret. Through the years it has captured and ignited the public imagination, especially that of the dispossessed. The Revolutionary Writers’ Association (Virasam), founded by him in 1970, was inspired by Bengal’s Naxalbari uprising and was banned twice by the Andhra Pradesh government.

Virasam was also closely associated with Dalit politics and peasant rights. Its members came to be branded as “literary Naxalites”.

It is not plausible, therefore, to expect that Rao’s poetry will be divorced from his activism, or that his self will not have all these tributaries flowing into each other. Perhaps no other literary pursuit lends itself to conjectures on the creator more than poetry does.

As such, a distinct image of the poet emerges from Rao’s poems — that of a feeling, breathing ideologue and now, perhaps, a bleeding one. Addressing an online press meet in July, Rao’s family, including his nephew and writer N. Venugopal Rao, said: “We make only one demand: Don’t kill him in jail.”

For revolution

The air around Rao changes as pathos seeps in. It is imperative then to remember how, in Captive Imagination, he spoke almost tenderly of his bond with the prison, describing Warangal jail’s trees and flowers with the turmoil and lonesomeness of a love affair. He wrote: “Almost as if to make people believe that flowers bloom even in jail, I used to pick a kerchief full of roses for my visitors before every interview.”

This spun-glass frailty of feeling finds its companion in the robustness of his politics. In an interview with activist and playwright Ramu Ramanathan in 2015, when speaking on a meeting disrupted by the then Telangana government in 2014 and the subsequent arrest of 700 people, Rao hinted that the meeting had nevertheless taken place. When Ramanathan asked how it had transpired, he joked: “Since all of us were together in prison, we could conduct our meeting peacefully and without disturbance.”

Despair gives way to hope in Rao’s poems, as it must in prison poetry that looks upward from the well of despair. Hope does not yet grow dog-eared with Varavara Rao. Sitting in Musheerabad jail in 1988, he wrote on peasant revolutionaries Bhoomaiah and Kishta Goud, hanged to death during Emergency in 1975:

“In November 1974, in this very jail, I saw Bhoomaiah and Kishta Goud. They had been waiting for the last two years. For what? For execution?

For revolution.

Fixing their lives

To the noose…”

shaoni.sarkar@thehindu.co.in

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