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When the Moon Gets Caught in the Barbed Wire, Over the Prison Wall

Life in Poetry is an anthology of 48 poems written by Telugu poet-activist Varavara Rao, written over a period of 50 years.

Revolutions are born in the heart of injustice. To some extent, good poetry is also the product of injustice – injustice in love, in life, in nature. What then happens when a revolutionary writes poetry? A life in Poetry happens. It’s an anthology of 48 Telugu poems by Varvara Rao, written over a period of 50 years or so. The poems have been perfectly translated in English by N Venugopal and Meena Kandasamy. This happens to be the first translation ever of Rao’s poetry in English. 

A Life in Poetry by Varavara Rao. Publisher: Penguin Random House India, 2023

In his essay Necessity of Atheism, Percy Shelly identifies three indicators for the non-existence of God – lack of sensory input, presence of reason and an absence of testimony of God’s presence. Rao’s poetry is similar to these three “excitements” as Shelly calls them, for rightly refuting the existence of order and equality in Indian society. The 48 poems trace the timeline of the historical inevitability that India is. It’s a book of modern India’s most defining moments captured through absolutely stunning language and pain. 

Even as we set on a path to decipher Rao, the poet, he reveals himself. His own analysis of poetry is like the spirit of a free bird and his language its wings. In a poem titled Poetry, Rao says:

Poetry is truth that need not be concealed

People who do not need government

Life that doesn’t need ambrosia

And keeping up his words, Rao has not hidden any truth which was worth the salt throughout his life as well as in this anthology of his poetry. The unwanted ambrosia of life is akin to Faiz’s sheereeni-e-farda in his famous poem called Dua. Faiz had written: 

Aaiye arz guzarein, k nigaar-e-hasti

Zeher-e-imroz mein sheereeni-e-farda bhar de

(Come let us pray that the creator may fill sweetness in tomorrow,

taking away the poison of today).

The sweet nectar of tomorrow is thus a promise of hope for both the hopeful Faiz as well as for the not so hopeful Rao but it is the ‘poison of today’, which fills the lives of common people, that finds its way in their recitations. Both are thus peoples’ poets. 

As a young teenager I still remember the day when in September, 1987, Roop Kanwar, a married Rajasthani girl was burnt on the pyre of her husband as part of the Sati tradition. One of the most haunting poems of this anthology is a poem describing Roop’s plight. It’s called Chunri and is a revelation of this mediaeval tradition of gruesome patriarchy. The last verses of Chunri are heartbreaking:

It is true that

He dragged her on his pyre

As he would drag her on his bed

With the same authority. 

She performed Sati as freely

As she lived

Qualifying something as brutal and ugly as misogyny through poetry is what makes Rao a poet worth reading. He holds our hand and walks us into a cold dark space where life is not what we are made to believe. There is rather an infinite absence of life all around in that real space. His poem reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus. In it, she says:

“I have done it again.  

One year in every ten  

I manage it—

“A sort of walking miracle, my skin  

Bright as a Nazi lampshade,  

My right foot

“A paperweight,

My face a featureless, fine  

Jew linen…

This ‘Nazi lampshade’ of Plath’s, to me, finds reflection in Rao’s Sati. Both have a poignant theatrical value in their verses. 

In the introduction of the book, Meena Kandasamy says that Rao is perhaps the longest jailed poet in independent India’s history. Like the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, imprisonment probably sets the poet free. Lorca in The Prisoner tells us about that girl lost in the dark night who reflected daylight with the splendor of her unclouded forehead. Rao uses less metaphors and more realism when he writes about the prison. 

Also read: ‘Attack on Varavara Rao Is an Attack on All of Us’: Young Poets Urge Release of Activist

In a poem called Sab Theekh Hai, written during his second jail sentence between May 1974 and April 1975, Rao describes how the tired night guards screamed sab theekh hai (all is well) every hour. The metaphorical beauty of this poem is difficult to describe in words. Rao writes: 

The moon gets caught in the barbed wire

Over the prison walls. 

And we, after singing and talking

Lose ourselves in the dreams of revolution 

The difficulty of these verses is not the presence of metaphors but the inability to distinguish between metaphors and corporeality. They are blended like the dusk and the night. The moon, the barbed wire, prison walls, singing or maybe the dream of revolution – all fall in the preview of our own perception and conscious volition. 

What can we infer in a society which harbours death and life, joy and sadness, poverty and richness, hunger and satiety with equal passive perception? What happens when nations make sad metaphors an actuality? Isn’t it ironic that such a poem is published in times when the highest executive of the nation made a similar comment ‘Sab changa si’ (all is well). Remember? 

Indeed, poets have a prophetic appeal! They know the future better than us. 

Friedrich Nietzsche had once written that if you kill a cockroach, you are a hero, if you kill a butterfly, you are evil. Morals have aesthetic criteria. The aesthetics of morality is thus a slippery slope. The reality of this aesthetic criteria is best demonstrated by Rao in a poem called Déjà vu. He writes:

Lucky?

You are born rich.

As you say in your lingo

‘Born with a silver spoon in the mouth’

Your agitation sounds creative

Our agony appears violent.

You can deflate tyres

With artistic elan

While indulgent police look on

Their jaws nestling on rifle butts.

We are told that this poem was written by Rao following an agitation of the upper caste, upper class youths of Andhra Pradesh in 1986 against a state level commission’s recommendation for increasing reservations. It’s an apt representation of what Nietzsche had inferred a few decades back. In ‘merit hungry nations’, the right to protest is only with those who hardly need protests. 

When we speak of poetry, we speak of chaos. Poetry which invokes chaos is poetry which gives hope. Hope lies in the heart of chaos. In a nation which is reeling under majoritarianism, communalism and casteism, what hope can we infer from Rao’s poetry? 

The pretence of hope has been endured since eternity and poets are the harbingers of this pretence. Some like Rao have been bestowed the job of making the pretence real. They work to make us believe in hope. Despite incarceration, despite state suppression to curb his spirits, and despite all methods to drown his voice, Rao roars with his poetry like a waterfall. His infectious courage makes those in power nervous as armed with such poignant beautiful poetry, Rao is a force to reckon with. 

In The Dream Pigeons, he writes:

Pigeons released by heart

Alight on the eyelids

You know I am scared to open

My eyes and break the wings

And so, I pretend, with my eyes closed.

I know very well that my

Dreams are not my creations alone

And that imagination is not

Anyone’s secret. 

May his dream come true and may his imagination be on fire, always.

Shah Alam Khan is a professor at the Department of Orthopaedics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi.