Guntur (AP): He was smiling all the time. In fact, his smile was quite infectious. He appeared determined, defying his age and frail health as he has been resisting the arm-twisting State with an unfailing grit and resolve.
I have this image of 81-year old revolutionary poet Varavara Rao etched in my mind since I met him in the midst of several fellow-prisoners in the Pune’s Sivaji Nagar district court more than a year ago.
The lanky and grey-haired man has remained a puzzle to me since then. I keep wondering how this man with his innocuous poems looks dreadful to the mighty State and allegedly conspires to overthrow the powerful governments of the day?
It was April 11, 2019, the day when the world’s biggest democracy went to the polls, delivering a mandate to the BJP’s Narendra Modi to begin his second innings. In the bustling court I gleefully shook my hands with him unmindful of a gun-toting policeman grudgingly watching me a few steps away. And, I still feel the warmth. He looked weak but he had his ailing health condition consciously hiding by his cheerfulness.
As a flock of under-trials moved ahead, I prompted Rao from behind into a brief interaction before he got into the court hall. When the talk centered on “Matruka”, a feminist magazine which I am editing, Varavara Rao, turned to me saying he would write a poem for the magazine. I felt it’s a reward for my painstaking efforts that went into reaching out to him in the mid-summer.
I hoped he would fulfill his promise after he would get a little time from his family members. His little granddaughter was sitting on his laps. But those hopes are still not fulfilled as he remains incarcerated.
I handed him a copy of the March edition of the magazine. He glanced through the articles it contained and turned to one of the women advocates present there. “You must read this magazine,” he told her in Telugu. The woman advocate told him shying, “I cannot read Telugu. I can only speak it.”
“No, you must learn,” he said to her, getting ready to teach the rudiments of the language then and there itself.
My trip to Pune was impromptu. It was only the face of Varalakshami which was familiar to me. I saw several faces in the court corridors which I had never seen before.
In the crowd were Sudha Bharadwaj and Shoma Sen, in their simple cotton chudidaars. Then six other persons escorted by Maharashtra Police arrived. They all sat on benches, having lost themselves in conversing with their beloved visitors.
Any court, for that matter, with mundane things overtly looked unanimated. But the Pune court seemed lively, pregnant with human emotions. Some under-trials anxiously searching for their near and dear, to see them and to talk to them. Some of them got engrossed in talking with their dear ones. The court gives the prisoners a whiff of freedom, although for a short while, when their cases come up for trial.
Rows of undertrials were made to sit on a small bench without any back support for hours together when the trial was going on. Disturbingly for them the phrases like ‘conspiracy’, ‘Nepal’, ‘Terrorist’ were being flung upon them at will. The defenceless elderly detainees with failing health, subjected to oppression under the draconian laws, were seen just laughing it away.
A few months after my return from the Pune court, in December, I received a letter from one of the poet’s lawyers. I know the writing of Varavara Rao. But this time it is strikingly different from his previous ones. But the tone and the tenor was the same. The letter was about the horrific story of a girl gang raped by the UP’s Unnao BJP leader Kuldeep Singh Segar and his followers. The write-up was blended with his natural poetic expressions. His unique way of storytelling made it worth-reading. He had an acquaintance with that place, Unnao. Just one month back I too wrote about the plight of the rape victim with the comfort of sitting confortably in my bedroom aided by a laptop. But the work of Varavara Rao is distinctly different from mine. He did this from his crowded cell in the jail, experiencing nausea that the toilets close to him produced.
More than two years have passed since his incarceration on flimsy and baseless grounds. From Jammu and Kashmir to Kanyakumari people are struggling and fighting, although feebly, against the State’s repression. Jails are crowded with more and more ‘Urban Naxalites’,‘anti nationals’ and ‘protesters’. Men, women, elders were put behind the bars. The young boys separated from their mothers, were hauled into the jails. The dissenters, cutting across the gender and the age, who attempted defending the voiceless from the State-sponsored violence, were not spared. East Delhi soaked in blood. Aesthetic beauty of Kashmir came crumbling. The news of everyday killings of civilians and militants, burning of houses are spreading across like a wildfire. Voices of journalists were gagged under draconian laws. News agencies, media houses and print media are crawling on their knees. Every pillar of democracy has collapsed.
Now, it is quite disheartening to hear of Varavara Rao, infected with Covid 19, lying on his bed sick, wearing urine-soaked clothes, speaking incoherently. No political leader is raising his voice in defence of the poet. No media outlet is bothered to spare a little space to highlight the plight of a person who is crusading for the cause of subalterns. An octogenarian, who waged a war against the State to defend people’s cause, is now fighting with death. Yet, I am sure he will triumph the pandemic. I am sure he will not give up his fight for survival, given the way how he is not allowing the State’s attempts to cow him down, to prevail upon his steely resolve.
Rama Sundari is an editorial board member of Matruka magazine and a socio-political activist based in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh.