Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz was arrested on March 9, 1951 on charges of trying to overthrow the Pakistani government under Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and replace it with a Soviet-style communist government. The subsequent trial of Faiz and his alleged co-conspirators was called the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case; the poet was sentenced to four years in prison.
This was his first incarceration in Pakistan, at the end of which he went into exile in the West. The story goes that while in jail, he was taken to the dentist in a horse-drawn tonga one day. On the road, people recognised him and started following him. This incident inspired Faiz to write his famous ghazal: “Aaj bazar men pa-ba-jaulan chalo (Let us walk through the market in shackles)”. Its melancholic rebelliousness has made it an anthem for all rebellious spirits across South Asia.
Faiz is one of the poets included in a new anthology For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit: Encounters With Prison, edited by artist Shilpa Gupta and poet and journalist Salil Tripathi. The book is the textual avatar of an eponymous exhibition on which Gupta worked in 2017, in response to a growing atmosphere of intolerance in India, which, as we now know, was the first symptom of the country’s democratic backsliding. Gupta had read Tripathi’s talk and her work took a new direction as she decided to celebrate poets who had been incarcerated.
“Writers, thinkers and activists were being murdered,” write Gupta and Tripathi. “First was Narendra Dabholkar. Then, writer Govind Pansare and his wife, Uma, were shot at by unidentified gunmen in broad daylight. …Next was the writer and rationalist M.M. Kalburgi.” Even as the exhibition went live in Edinburgh in 2018, journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead outside her home in Bengaluru.
But it was not only in India that poets and writers were being targeted by undemocratic forces. In Bangladesh, secular bloggers and writers were being hacked to death by suspected Islamists and imprisoned by their government. In Pakistan, Baloch poet Rehmatullah Shohaz was shot dead near his hometown Buleda on July 21, 2015. Liu Xiaobo, who had been in prison in China since 2009 and was prevented from receiving his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in person, was released on medical parole in 2017, but soon succumbed to cancer.
W.H. Auden had infamously declared in his poem on W.B. Yeats: “(P)oetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making.” But autocratic governments around the world seemed to believe otherwise, and they put poets and writers in prison with alarming regularity. “In recent years, governments in Cameroon, Cuba, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Uganda, Vietnam, among many others, have jailed poets,” writes Tripathi, who till recently served as the chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, in his essay The Poet’s Work, included in the book under review.
Russia, too, has joined this list. On September 26, 2022, armed police broke into the house of Artyom Kamardin and his girlfriend Aleksandra Popova, after the former put up a YouTube video with a poem deriding the war in Ukraine. Kamardin was allegedly beaten up by the police and raped, while Popova was threatened with gang rape, reported Amnesty. The poet was forced to post an apology video and was taken away to an undisclosed location, reminding people all over the world of Soviet-era disappearances of poets and writers. Osip Mandelstam, one of the Russian poets who died in the Gulag, has been included in this volume.
It successfully provides a historic overview of poets in prison. “The earliest poem is from the 8th century, and there are contemporary poems by poets who are still in prison, or in hiding,” write the editors in their introduction. These include figures such as Giordano Bruno, a 16th century Italian philosopher, poet, and occultist, who was burned at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition.
Allen Ginsberg, who was charged with obscenity in the US in the 1950s for his poem ‘Howl’ that described sex between two men in graphic detail as well as Malay Roychoudhury, the Bengali poet and founder of the mercurial Hungry Generation, who was charged with obscenity in India in the mid-1960s for his poem ‘Stark Electric Jesus’ are included in this volume. Ginsberg had met Roychoudhury during his travels in India and came to his defence.
Other poets from South Asia include Habib Jalib (Pakistan) and Majrooh Sultanpuri (India), both imprisoned by the governments of their countries for leftist politics. Also included in this collection are Ram Prasad Bismil, who was hanged by the British for his revolutionary activities on December 19, 1927, and Kazi Nazrul Islam, the revolutionary poet of Bengal, who was imprisoned for several years for participating in the Indian freedom movement.
Faiz’s poem included in the book is ‘Speak’, an English translation by V. G. Kiernan of his Urdu poem ‘Bol’:
Speak, for your lips are free;
Speak, your tongue is still yours,
Your upright body is yours –
Speak, your life is still yours.
Besides the poets included in the original exhibition, the book also brings together others such as Varavara Rao, who was arrested in 2018 in the Bhima Koregaon case, and Karthika Naïr’s shape poem ‘Handbook for Aspiring Autocrats’.
Essays by novelist Nilanjana S. Roy, constitutional lawyer Gautam Bhatia, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, both of whom were imprisoned, and Umar Khalid, who continues to languish in prison on charges of abetting violence during the 2020 Delhi riots, map out the landscape of revolutionary desires, the limits of freedom, and the utility of poetry for those in prison.
Literature scholar Doran Larson, in her essay Toward a Prison Poetics (2010), argues that “prison writing bears not only a common subject but recurrent, internal, formal traits.” Prison writing, then, becomes a genre in itself, like travel writing or war writing, informed by the shared experience of incarceration but also the peculiarities of individual experiences. As poets and writers continue to be imprisoned by autocratic regimes for their words, this genre will grow.
Amy Washburn in her essay The Pen of the Panther writes that Black Panther poet Ericka Huggins’ work was often seized by prison authorities under the premise that she was writing “kites” — messages to other prisoners in prison slang. If one might extend this metaphor, it is possible to imagine that poems written by incarcerated poets are like “kites” to the world outside, soaring into the un-imprisonable skies beyond the prison walls. This gives us hope.
Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He teaches at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, and writes a fortnightly column on poetry, Verse Affairs, for The Wire.
Note: An earlier version of this article stated that the exhibition mentioned was a collaboration between Shilpa Gupta and Salil Tripathi. It has been edited to reflect that the exhibition was only Gupta’s, though she was influenced by Tripathi’s work.