Who is this man? A wheelchair-bound poet who sings the songs of love, freedom, and flight? A dangerous terrorist who threatens the unity and integrity of a nation with words? A lover who seeks and searches out love in the unlikeliest of places? These are some of the questions answered by a new collection of poems and letters by G.N. Saibaba. Why Do You Fear My Way So Much? is part poetry, part memoir of the English professor who has been incarcerated in the ‘anda’ cell (the innermost cell in the prison complex meant for solitary confinement. While other prisoners can see movement of guards and prisoners, an anda cell prisoner can see only the guard posted outside) of Nagpur Central Jail for the past few years after he was booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in 2014.
It is a slim A5-size volume of 215 pages but guttingly difficult to read. The cold words, difficult experiences, and the awareness that a polio-ravaged person is locked up in a prison where he has to crawl, leave you shaken. But in a triumph of imagination, Saibaba brings out with his free verse the throbbing, pulsating heart of a man who knows love, wants love, and is ready to run into the rain telling everyone about his love.
It is not the love of the physical kind but a metaphysical one like Walt Whitman’s, encompassing everything and everyone in its wake. It is a love that wants to overwhelm and defeat the hate sweeping the country. It is a love that is dense with meaning. Beneath the love is the awareness of reality. An understanding of realpolitik that can stir the conscience of a nation.
Tell Me, O Monk
how did you renounce
the worldly things?
The poems and letters are not the only literary accomplishment of Saibaba in prison. He managed to do a Telugu translation of the Kenyan author and revolutionary writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o called Yuddakalamlo Swapnalu — Balya Gnapakaalu. Batches of papers with Saibaba’s translation were smuggled out of the prison cell and the book was finally launched by him in Hyderabad in 2016 during a brief bail.
Ironically, the book includes a short message from Ngũgĩ about Saibaba’s poetry. Mentioning the recurring line, “I Refuse to Die”, the Kenyan author says, “He is talking of the death of the spirit, the result intended by those who cage progressive intellectuals and writers in prison. But opposed to the death of the spirit is Love”.
“Saibaba’s collection is not a cry for help. He doesn’t apologise. Rather there’s a stab at the conscience of the nation and citizens at large”
With this collection, Saibaba joins a long list of people who crafted literature and explored the human soul while being locked up — Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Oscar Wilde, Nelson Mandela, Jawaharlal Nehru, among others. Yet this glory is no safeguard against the cruelty of the system, a fact which comes out sharply in the introduction by his wife, Vasantha Kumari. She narrates in grim detail the ordeal of the former DU professor (he was sacked in April 2021) from the time he is picked up by police in Delhi to the months of the COVID-19 lockdown. Saibaba survived the virus to write this haunting nightmare about Indian education system:
I had a dream…
I failed in mathematics
in the Second Year Intermediate.
Now what to do
with my MA, PGDRE and Ph.D
or even with my BA?
Do they still stand...
The clipped freedom of Saibaba is not just physical and psychological. Even the language used by him is dictated by the gaolers. The poems which were sent as messages are in English as his mother tongue, Telugu, is considered seditious and difficult for prison censors.
Amidst the poems that are barbs of bitter reality, there are moments of reverie. Like the poem, ‘The Well’:
I used to peep into the well
in my maternal grandma’s compound
holding the top rim
of its round wall.
The short free verse moves from poems like these to lines of defiant hope like these:
Have no doubts, my sweetheart,
This season of hate collapses in no time.
Mere time is no history.
History is what changes the times.
While the poem is a play on the adage ‘history is the study of change over time’, this is given a twist in the realisation that the poet is biding the time when he will be outside and his tormentors are judged. The collection is a commentary on our times with a surprising level of awareness about the world, be it the digital promise or the reduction of Mahatma Gandhi to a symbol. The personages who pass through the mind of the poet are as diverse as Stephen Hawkins, Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, Rohit Vemula, Mahatma Gandhi, Kabir, and even Anjum, a character from Arundhati Roy’s novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Saibaba’s collection is not a cry for help. He doesn’t apologise. Rather there’s a stab at the conscience of the nation and citizens at large. Strangely enough, the rhythm of the words evokes jackboots though it is suffused with love.
Why Do You Fear My Ways So Much: Poems and Letters from Prison; G.N. Saibaba, Speaking Tiger, ₹450