Imprisonment basically consists of restrictions on movement as well as on freedoms of speech, expression and association. Prison walls, however, will only be able to restrict the movements of a person successfully, but fail to do so in curtailing one’s imagination. A thinking person’s imagination blossoms literally everywhere – be it in a desert or an ocean or a no-man’s land or a solitary summit and more so amidst prison walls that reverberate loneliness. Jail, at best, can only restrict the open propagation of expression, but cannot stop a person from expressing his or her desires and dreams as well as thoughts and ruminations. There are thousands of examples of writers behind bars continuing their writing with added energy and as many of those who began expressing themselves in jails.
In one word, prison walls cannot stop imagination and expression, however much they try to curb freedom of expression. A case in point, for the present, is of Varavara Rao.
The renowned poet and public intellectual is again behind bars, this time round as an under-trial prisoner in Pune’s Yerawada Central Prison in the infamous Bhima-Koregaon or Urban Naxal case. In his public life spanning about 60 years, the 78-year-old poet spent more than seven years in various prisons in the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, beginning with his first arrest in 1973. Despite implicating him in as many as 25 cases, with grave charges ranging from unlawful assembly to rioting, murder, attempt to murder, use of explosive substances and lethal weapons, the prosecution could not prove a single charge in a single case and law courts acquitted him in all the cases as “not guilty”.
Even as the state wanted to limit his freedom of expression, the 84 months in prison gave him ample free time to continue and hone his writing with more vigor, thoughtfulness and insight. Indeed, prison writing forms such a major part that it occupies almost half of his body of literature. More than 300 pages out of his over 1,000-page collected poems of sixty years (published as Varavara Rao Kavitvam 1957-2017 in two volumes in 2018) were written in jail and at least five out of his 16 collections of essays and two major translation works were all done in jail.
Varavara Rao’s sojourn in jail began in October 1973 when he, along with two other writers, was arrested for the first time under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). Andhra Pradesh High Court struck down the detention saying that writers cannot be imprisoned for their writings unless their writings had any direct connection with any crime and released the arrested in November. His third poetry collection, published in January 1974, contained eight poems in a section titled “in jail”. Thus his first incarceration for a little over a month produced at least two poems per week!
Ironically, his first poem in jail, written on October 12, 1973, was titled Comma suggesting that the jail life would only be considered as a comma in the sentence he was thinking, writing and practicing!
From amidst the people who speak
Came into the trees that do not.
From the rocking movements
And the air filled with slogans
Came into the swinging dumb trees
And the high walls trying to arrest wind
was the first stanza of the poem. In another poem written two days later, he said,
This is jail for the voice and the feet
But the hand hasn’t stopped writing
The heart hasn’t stopped throbbing
Dream still reaches to the horizon of light
Travelling from this solitary darkness…
Of course, in this jail moon is not allowed
To share his light,
But who can stop me from
Marching into the dawn of the eastern sun.
He was again arrested in May 1974 as an accused in the Secunderabad Conspiracy Case. Though he came out on a conditional bail in the last week of April 1975, he could not be outside for barely two months as Emergency was imposed and he was among the first to be arrested. Even though every other prisoner across the country was released on March 23, 1977, he was again arrested in front of the jail gate, to be released only after a week on bail. About 36 poems, written during this 30-month imprisonment formed part of his next collection of poetry, paradoxically named Sweccha (freedom), published in April 1978.
Breezes blow in the night,
As a poet-friend fancied
The moon gets caught in the barbed wire
Over the prison walls
And we, after singing and discoursing,
Lose ourselves in the dreams of revolution
But the poor lonely policeman
Exiled from sleep and shelter
Yawn out at every hour
Sab Theek Hai!
During this incarceration Varavara Rao wrote his characteristic, oft-quoted poetic lines,
When crime becomes authority
And hunts down people branding them criminals
Everyone with a voice and keeps silent
Becomes criminal himself.
During Emergency, more than 30 members of Virasam (Viplava Rachayitala Sangham — Revolutionary Writers Association) were imprisoned in various jails in Andhra Pradesh and in each of these jails, they produced their own hand-written literary magazines, to be shared between different jails and even smuggled out sometimes!
By the time his next poetry collection, Bhavishyatthu Chitrapatam (Portrait of the Future) came out in September 1986, he had again to be in jail. In 1985, the then chief minister NT Rama Rao’s government unleashed severe repression by announcing a ‘no dance, no song, no speech’ policy. At the height of this repression, Dr A Ramanatham, Varavara Rao’s close associate, a popular pediatrician and vice president of Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC), was shot dead in his clinic by policemen passing in a procession on the main road of Warangal. Those in the procession also raised slogans naming Varavara Rao and K Balagopal the then general secretary of APCLC as their targets. In that grave situation Varavara Rao cancelled is bail in Secunderabad Conspiracy Case (in which he was acquitted of all charges in February 1989, after 15 years of trial) and chose to go to jail in December 1985. Even while in jail, he was shown as accused in another conspiracy case named Ramnagar Conspiracy Case in May 1986 (in which he was acquitted of all charges in September 2003 after 17 years of trial).
Bhavishyatthu Chitrapatam contained a few poems written about repression and his time in police custody, but not any jail term. The book was promptly proscribed by the government in January 1987 and the ban was withdrawn in March 1990.
The incarceration between December 1985 and March 1989 was a prolific period for Varavara Rao as a poet, writer and translator. He wrote about 80 poems, collected in a volume titled Muktakantam (with two meanings — free voice and unified chorus) published in January 1990. The themes and forms of these jail poems are so diverse, contemporary and all-encompassing that almost there was no single major issue on which he did not express his stand in poetic terms.
This jail term not only produced poetry, but also a lot of prose writing and translation. Besides several essays on contemporary literary, social and political issues, he also wrote a full-length book of literary criticism on Sri Sri’s Maro Prasthanam in this jail. He came in touch with the writings of Kenyan writer in exile Ngugi wa Thiongo just before going to jail this time and he used the occasion to translate two of Ngugi’s books — the novel Devil on the Cross and the jail memoir Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary — into Telugu.
Most important of his contributions during this time was a series of letters from prison he wrote at the request of Arun Shourie, the then editor of Indian Express. In August 1988 Shourie asked him to write a column from jail, with a three-fold demand: “You should be able to tell us what it is like to live as a prisoner confined in a small space for such a long period. You should be able to show us the anxieties that characterize the small society inside jail. You must make us understand which news from the outside world reaches you and how it appears in the light of the reality inside”. Varavara Rao wrote it in Telugu to be published in Indian Express’s Telugu counterpart Andhra Prabha and translated simultaneously.
The Indian Express Group secured the necessary permissions from the jail authorities and the government. Each letter had to be submitted to the jail superintendent, who in turn sends it to the state intelligence for their approval. Varavara Rao chose to write thirteen pieces on his “unthirteen companions” – trees, flowers, waiting, periodical meetings, co-prisoners, books, writings, hope. Except one, all the others passed through intelligence scrutiny and the last one was rejected and sent back a couple of days before his release and appeared in print later.
The column ran for about four months from December 1988 to April 1989 in both the papers, as English translations were done by Vasant Kannabiran, K Balagopal, MT Khan, K Jitendrababu, N Venugopal and Jaganmohana Chari. The column was compiled into a volume Sahacharulu published in 1990 and the English translation was published as Captive Imagination by Penguin in 2010.
In his preface to the book, Ngugi wa Thiongo said, “the title, Captive Imagination, is ironic. Of all the human attributes, the imagination is the most central and most human. An architect visualizes a building before he captures it on paper for the builder. Without imagination, we cannot visualize the past or the future. Religion would be impossible, for how would one visualize deities except through imagination? How would one undertake a purposeful journey without imagination, the capacity to picture our destination long before we get there? The arts and the imagination are dialectically linked. Imagination makes possible the arts. The arts feed the imagination in the same way that food nourishes the body and ethics the soul. The writer, the singer, the sculptor – the artist in general, symbolises and speaks to the power of imagination to intimate possibilities even within apparently impossible situations. That is why, time and again, the state tries to imprison the artist, to hold captive the imagination. But imagination has the capacity to break free from temporal and spatial confinement. Imagination breaks free from captivity and roams in time and space.”
Again he was arrested in August 2005 as the government banned Virasam, after the talks between the government and the Maoists failed Varavara Rao was an emissary of the Maoists during the talks. This time round he was imprisoned for eight months and his 18 jail poems of this period were compiled in his June 2006 collection Antassootram (under current). He also wrote several essays on various political, social and literary issues which were later brought out as a single volume Jailu Raatalu (Jail Writings).
Thus, given this history of prison writing on the part of Varavara Rao, one may expect that the days in Yerawada prison will deliver more of his writings. Here it would be pertinent to remember his comment on his prison writings, in Captive Imagination.
“I do not need to describe the murder of writer’s literary creations in the course of watches, searches and raids during imprisonment, when it is inescapable even in the world outside.
It is true that beginning with October 1973, I have written intermittently while within the embrace of prison bars, but not sitting ‘on the hard floor’. This I wish to confess in all humility. I always sat on a chair and wrote at a table either as a detainee or a special class prisoner. I was always allowed to write. I never experienced the slightest inconvenience in the matter of physical amenities, either. It was the intellectual, emotional, cultural and political isolation that troubled me.”