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What Telugu poet Varavara Rao’s prison diaries tell us about his politics

First published in an English translation in 2010, ‘Captive Imagination’, a collection of the writer’s dispatches from jail, remains a classic of prison literature

Telugu poet Varavara Rao has been imprisoned without a trial many times. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Telugu poet Varavara Rao has been imprisoned without a trial many times. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

It took testing positive for covid-19 to get noted Telugu writer and activist Varavara Rao the medical attention he sorely needed. Held without a charge since 2018 for his alleged role in inciting the Bhima Koregaon violence, the 80-year-old poet had been suffering from ill health for a while. His prison inmates had reported of his declining ability to carry out even basic daily functions by himself. On 11 July, Rao—a writer and orator with immense facility with words—sounded incoherent to his family on a phone call. He was finally moved from Taloja Jail in Navi Mumbai to Sir JJ Hospital in the city, after he complained of weakness and dizziness. The doctors at Nanavati Hospital, where he was shifted on Sunday, suspect him of having dementia.

Prison life isn’t unfamiliar to Rao. First arrested by the Andhra Pradesh government in 1973 under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (Misa), he has been in and out of jails for the past 50 years. As with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre, he was in disfavour with the Congress during the height of the Emergency, and was detained in 1975, once again under Misa. In 1988, Rao was booked for his alleged role in trying to overthrow the Andhra Pradesh government as part of the Secunderabad Conspiracy Case. After 15 years, in 2003, he was finally acquitted of all charges in connection with this case.

In all the years of being kept behind bars, Rao’s literary output hasn’t come to a halt. In 1966, he founded a literary journal called Srujana, a platform for revolutionary writing, followed by a collective of like-minded writers called Virasam in 1970. Like all political prisoners, he was under strict surveillance. His access to news was regulated, his letters were censored, and interviews with visitors limited. But he never ceased to feel wonder for the small daily diversions of such a regimented life, relentlessly questioned authority and injustice, and wrote some of his most affecting poems in captivity.

In 1988, Arun Shourie, who was then the editor of The Indian Express, commissioned Rao to write a column from prison, outlining his days, hopes, and state of mind. Rao wrote it in Telugu, and in spite of the delays and deletions by censors, it was published eventually as a book called Sahacharulu in 1990. In 2010, an English translation titled, Captive Imagination: Letters From Prison, was prepared by various writers—it remains, to this day, one of Rao’s few full-length books available to readers in English.

As the title of book indicates, and the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o says in his Foreword, “The real subject of these letters is imagination." Rao, who has translated Ngugi’s own prison diary and one novel into Telugu, admits as much. In letter after letter, he bemoans the true victim of his incarceration: his imagination as a humanist and writer. Following the champu style in Telugu literary tradition, where short bursts of prose are punctuated by outpourings of poetry, Rao speaks against this worst form of repression, but also, remarkably, rises above it through the sheer power of words. With his keen attention to the rhythms of each day, awareness of plant and animal life around him, and relentless curiosity about the world beyond the prison walls, Rao stands out as a writer capable of the most extraordinary feats of imagination.

When the strains of the iconic film song, Chaudvin ka chand, playing on the radio, floats over to the poet during one bright sunny afternoon, he wills himself to conjure up the romantic allure of a moonlit night in his mind. He is alert to the life of the pigeons, flying in and out of his cell, and lovingly tends to the garden on the premises. However, the irony of these concerns don’t escape his razor-sharp intellect. “To plant trees in a remand jail is perhaps the most selfless occupation. After all, who wants to remain for long in a jail?" he asks.

It’s the life of the mind, Rao feels, that suffers the most in prison: “In terms of culture, this is indeed solitary confinement." He is deprived of the company of his peers and comrades, though he has access to books, papers and writing material, even if all are heavily censored. But what good are the latter, Rao wonders, if he is unable to discuss his reading and writing with fellow intellectuals? As he famously asked in one poem, “Can I who am accustomed to reading/ Men like books/ Ever find in books/ A substitute for men?"

But the lack of company and his filtered access to news do not stop Rao from drawing on his vast repository of memories. Like fellow activists and writers—Ho Chi Minh, Nelson Mandela, Aziz ul Haq, Konstantin Simonov, Bhoomaiah are among the many he mentions in the letters—he gives the reader a masterclass in ideas of social justice, the continuing urgency of the class struggle, and the fight for peasants’ rights. But all of this is rendered in a tone that is far from grim proselytizing. Instead, we hear a voice that is inflected with warmth, wit and outrage in equal measure, a poet who is willing to sit up all night guarding the milk ration from the onslaughts of an errant cat as well as to ponder hard questions of punitive justice and prison reform.

Unsurprisingly, the most affecting sections of the letters pertain to Rao’s reckoning with the swathes of time he spent as a detainee without bail, or a trial and any charge. As he puts it: “What if one is found not guilty? Leaving aside the loss of health, family and other material comforts, who will compensate for the freedom and the time lost?" It’s a question that should haunt the Indian state and judicial system—as well as other nations of the world where political prisoners languish without remedy—for time to come.

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