Recently, Dublin-based poet Gabriel Rosenstock sent Srinagar-based artist Masood Hussain a poem in Irish and English, titled ‘Flowers for Varavara Rao’ – a tribute to the ailing 81-year-old poet-activist who has been imprisoned since 2018, arrested in the Elgar Parishad case. All appeals to seek his release, on the grounds that keeping the undertrial octogenarian in prison during a pandemic when he is suffering from ill health is unethical, have been in vain, and it was only about a month ago that he was shifted to hospital for the treatment of several serious conditions including COVID-19. The poem is Rosenstock’s way of affirming his solidarity with a fellow-poet.
Flowers for Varavara Rao
I send you invisible flowers
Varavara Rao to perfume your cell
And bring a smile to your lips
That I will not see
They may not last very long
A few simple roses
Varavara Rao to perfume your cell
They may need some watering;
Your jailers, have they any tears
You know full well it’s not their fault.
This goes all the way to the top.
Varavara Rao to perfume your cell.
Prime Minister Modi, sniff the air
What is the scent of freedom?
In keeping with the camaraderie between the poet and the artist that brought forth the book Walk with Gandhi last year, and striking posters reflecting on a pandemic-struck world earlier this year, Hussain chose to make a short poetry film (2.44 minutes) to capture the essence of the poet’s tone.
The result of the collaboration: a reminder that just as the captor seeks to obliterate the captive’s identity, the creative spirit is inspired by the idea of remembering as an act of resistance.
The delicacy with which Hussain brings alive Rao’s face from an inchoate grey mist of water colours, then draws thick black lines across it to ‘put him behind bars’, matches the poet’s poignant offering of “invisible flowers of compassion from the heart of a fellow-poet”.
Rosenstock, who has written three poems on Varavara Rao (including ‘Flowers…’) writes below about the need for poets across the world to consciously cultivate solidarity.
How can one be inspired by a stranger?
He is a poet. Therefore, a stranger he is not. He is my brother, my father, my son: he is you and me.
The imprisonment without trial of an undertrial elderly poet and activist besmirches the name of India. Varavara Rao’s nephew, Venugopal Rao Nellutla, very kindly takes the time to keep me informed – insofar as information can be had – on the poet’s condition.
Solidarity on this issue, even among poets, globally, cannot be taken for granted. I believe it must be cultivated. There is no justification for the attitude that says, “This is not my fight.” It is everybody’s fight.
By dishonouring her poets in this manner, India is dishonouring herself. Treat one poet with contempt and every poet feels the lathi of your brute ignorance.
Let me say that Irish-language poets have a historical insight into cruelties inflicted on their kind. One of the most prominent English settlers in Ireland was the poet Edmund Spenser who advocated the extermination of the Irish language and the oppression of Irish-language poetry, music and minstrelsy; so it is part of our DNA, so to speak, to reach out to a poet – wherever she or he may be, whatever language she or he may write in – with words of succour and encouragement.
What can I do, here in Ireland, but send the fragrance of invisible flowers – poetic compassion – to the stricken poet. I garland him with the only thing I can offer, invisible flowers of compassion from the heart of a fellow-poet.
Masood Hussain says he is new to making poetry films. However, as he reflected on my poem and its reference to a state with iron in its soul, he mentioned that he wanted to include in the film one of his relief works of 2004 titled ‘Me – Kafka’s K’, showing a huge scroll weighing down human figures.
Part of a body of work that had chronicled everyday events mirroring the human predicament in 15 years of strife in the Kashmir Valley, the 2004 work expressed the burden of history that ordinary Kashmiris were carrying.
Now, 15 years later, following the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status in August 2019, ‘Me – Kafka’s K’ has gained new relevance – in the last one year, the crushing burden of history has been felt afresh by ordinary Kashmiris who have been corralled by all manner of lockdowns and internet blockade.
As Masood placed the image of Rao within the frame of ‘Me – Kafka’s K’, the meaning was clear as daylight: the narrative of the iron-fisted state is plainly visible, be it with regard to an entire population of a state that is no more, or one ailing undertrial poet-activist in a Mumbai jail.
What creative acts of friendship instinctively do is encourage references from different times and cultures so as to prompt new meanings, associations and action. That is the only marching tune that a poet believing in solidarity listens to.
Gabriel Rosenstock is a bilingual poet and author from post-colonial Ireland who has chosen the Irish language, which could be classified as endangered, as his literary medium of choice. Among his recent works is Walk with Gandhi, a book of haiku, with commentary, illustrated by Kashmiri artist Masood Hussain, and a volume of poems, Glengower: Poems for No One in Irish and English (The Onslaught Press).