#20. Varavara Rao

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Every year, I teach Margaret Atwood’s Notes Towards A Poem That Can Never Be Written to my Undergraduate students and talk to them about how year after year, in many parts of the world, the freedom of speech and expression is squashed by unlawful regimes. I tell them about how people go missing in the middle of the night on account of an article, a sentence, or maybe just for frowning while listening to the rhetoric of a dictator. We talk about Liu Xiaobo and others. We go onto journalists who are never heard from again or are imprisoned for years either in their homelands or in distant lands where their brave coverage of ground realities gets them arrested for conspiracy, treason or dissent or just like that. Like Mahmoud Hussein of Al Jazeera who is being held in an Egyptian prison for more than three years and to mark which, the channel runs a ticker counting off the number of days he has been imprisoned. The personal losses this man suffered while in prison are inestimable. I tell the students, it hurts physically to see that ticker that says Mahmoud Hussein imprisoned for 1200 days and then to see it turn into1201 days and so it has gone on for days and days.

And then from the poem I read out:

This is the place

you would rather not know about,

this is the place that will inhabit you,

this is the place you cannot imagine,

this is the place that will finally defeat you

where the word why shrivels and empties

itself. This is famine.


I tell them that this poem was written when Atwood learnt of the atrocious state of human rights in El Salvador. A white woman from a First World country writing to other First World countries about their complacency while smacking of white privilege, does send home some hard truths. Intentions have to count for something. And then we watch a movie (this happens in years when we have a bit of time- I generally operate on borrowed oxygen)- La Historia Oficial about Argentinians who went missing under the Videla regime. The film that shows the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza of Mayo) and deals with the story of a woman who placidly believed in the official version of History despite (or maybe because of being) a teacher of history also examines torture of prisoners and ends in graphic violence. Something that we then deal with in the third and fourth stanzas.


The woman lies on the wet cement floor

under the unending light,

needle marks on her arms put there

to kill the brain

and wonders why she is dying.

She is dying because she said.

She is dying for the sake of the word.

It is her body, silent

and fingerless, writing this poem.



It resembles an operation

but it is not one

nor despite the spread legs, grunts

& blood, is it a birth.

Partly, it’s a job,

partly it’s a display of skill

like a concerto.

It can be done badly

or well, they tell themselves.

Partly, it’s an art.

By now the students know who political prisoners are and what can be done to them. Above all, they know of the powers of the State. And to the insidious ways Power operates- arbitrarily, brazenly and with impunity. And then some one invariably asks, “so what about India?” and I visualize a satellite dedicating an ear to my answer. Still, we talk about the Emergency that gave draconian powers to the wielders, we speak of young Rajan who vanished without a trace and then returned only as a confession. The laws such as UAPA, MISA and TADA. We discuss Section 124A- the sedition laws in India and about Kovan, Arundhati Roy and so on. We speak of disabled men who are carted off for allegedly endangering the security of the nation, of doctors arrested for treating tribals, writers arrested or charged with sedition for expressing an opinion or talking about people we all were meant to forget. We talk of Universities being rendered toothless, questions being interpreted as sedition, identities being squashed, trampled underfoot by booted feet, the binaries of consent and dissent, knowledge being watered down. 

And then we come to the last stanza of the poem.

In this country you can say what you like

because no one will listen to you anyway,

it’s safe enough, in this country you can try to write

the poem that can never be written,

the poem that invents

nothing and excuses nothing,

because you invent and excuse yourself each day.

Elsewhere, this poem is not invention.

Elsewhere, this poem takes courage.

Elsewhere, this poem must be written

because the poets are already dead.

Elsewhere, this poem must be written

as if you are already dead,

as if nothing more can be done

or said to save you.

Elsewhere you must write this poem

because there is nothing more to do.

Elsewhere is here. It has been drawing closer with each passing regime and now it is at our doorsteps. And it must be written about. Varavara Rao, veteran writer, poet, thinker and activist has been in prison for nearly two years. Awaiting trial. He is an accused in the Elgar Parishad case and thereby is being held culpable for the violence that broke out in Bhima Koregaon in 2018. His co-accused are (it is just as important to name them so that they do not fade from memory) human rights lawyer Surendra Gadling, writer-activist Sudhir Dhawale, Mahesh Raut, a young grama sabha activist from Gadchiroli, Shoma Sen, a retired professor from Nagpur University, Rona Wilson, a Delhi-based prisoners’ rights activist, Arun Ferreira– human rights lawyer and author of  Colours of the Cage: A Prison Memoir, Sudha Bharadwaj-lawyer, Vernon Gonsalves academician and activist, writer and academician Anand Teltumbde (arrested on Ambedkar Jayanthi no less), scholar and activist Gautam Navlakha (Teltumbde and Navlakha have been jointly awarded this year’s Shakti Bhatt book Prize).

On December 31, 2017, a massive rally was organized by the Elgar Parishad at Shaniwar Wada (the historic seat of the Peshwas) to mark the 200th anniversary of the clash between the British and the Marathas in which Mahar soldiers played a decisive role in defeating the strong army of the Peshwas. The battle effectively brought an end to the dominance of the Peshwas in the region. The British erected a pillar to honour their soldiers, most of whom were Mahars. This then came to be known as the Vijay Stambh (Victory Pillar) and has in living memory come to symbolize the valour of the Dalit community. Ambedkar is said to have visited the spot in 1927 and it has become a point of major visibility for the community. The site is also linked to the long struggle of the Mahars to be re-inducted into the British army that finally culminated in the Mahar Regiment of the present-day Indian Army. A job in the British Army was seen as a way to obtain education and get out of grinding poverty. Soldiers of the regiment come to Bhima Koregaon to pay their respects.

The caste-based implications of the Bhima Koregaon battle and the effect it has on the modern-day stakeholders and their political and social participation is not lost on anybody.

On January 1, 2018, which is the actual anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle, there were clashes between the Dalit and non-Dalit communities leading to the death of one person and several others being injured. The above mentioned eleven people were arrested on the grounds that their speeches had incited violence and that they also had links to underground Maoist groups. Further, they were accused of conspiring to assassinate the Prime Minister.

In the state elections held in Maharashtra in 2019, a coalition government came to power and there were calls to re-examine the case but just then, the case was taken away from the Pune police and handed over to a central investigating agency. The details of the sudden transfer of the case is available in the public domain. The accused have been detained beyond all permissible limits of incarceration without a trial. The lockdown following the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the steady deterioration of the health of most of the accused who are above 60 years of age and have co-morbidities. This makes their state very precarious. But because ‘justice’ must be served- though it be stone-cold and tasteless, bail has been denied.

This mid-week, out-of-turn edition of SamyuktaPoetry is dedicated to Varavara Rao who has spoken out of turn all his life.

Born in 1940, in Warangal, Andhra Pradesh, Rao began writing poems as a teenager. After his post-graduation from Osmania University, he worked as lecturer for a while. The 1967 Naxalbari movement and the Srikakulam Armed Peasants’ Struggle (1967-70) had a profound impact on Rao. In 1970, he founded the Viplava Rachayitala Sangham (Revolutionary Writers’ Association), popularly known as Virasam, It is engaged in publishing literature as well as helping writers connect with issues that must be discussed. Virasam has been a collateral in the State’s actions against Rao and has been banned a number of times.  Rao has spent a good part of his life either in jail or in fighting cases that sought to land him in jail. He has not been found guilty in any of them. Some cases have gone on 17 years.  He has been arrested under the MISA, the Public Security Act and now, the UAPA.

Varavara Rao has written significant works on critical thought and Telugu literature. He has 15 collections of poetry to his name. Many have been translated into several Indian languages. He also founded Srujana, a literary Telugu magazine. Bhavishyatthu Chitrapatam, carries some of his poems on oppression. Muktakantham, a collection of poems written in prison, is one of his signature works. And so is Sahacharulu published in 1990 which was published in English as Captive Imagination by Penguin. Sahacharulu is a compilation of a series of letters written by Rao, at the behest of Arun Shourie for the Indian Express. The mandate was to talk about life in prison  and how prisoners perceive news from the outside world. In an article in the Leaflet, N. Venugopal writes, “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.” (https://theleaflet.in/even-prison-walls-have-not-been-able-to-stop-varavara-rao-from-writing/)

I quote from the article, excerpts from three of his poems:

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.


When crime becomes authority

And hunts down people branding them criminals

Everyone with a voice and keeps silent

Becomes criminal himself.

This is a call out to all who have the agency -to write, to act or to think- to not stand on the sidelines and watch but to protest against authoritarianism and the systematic dismantling of voices that speak for to those whom no one gives a second thought. There are among us, people who foreground the rights of others over their own, who are whistleblowers, who find silence more difficult to swallow than their words. History has shown that in the end, it is these people who bring the change that we later take for granted. That we go on to call our Rights. These incarcerations are a blatant violation of human rights and the right to life that is guaranteed by the Constitution.

  I am gratified that there are people speaking out against the unlawfulness of this imprisonment and are asking for the release of the 81year old Rao who is battling COVID-19.

 I would like to mention here, the poetry group, The Quarantine Train and its founder, the poet Arjun Rajendran who mobilized voices across the globe to translate and post readings of Rao’s poems in languages as diverse as Malayalam, Marathi, Kannada, Bangla, Tamil, Urdu, Hindi, Nagamese, Gujarati, Manipuri, French, Swedish and Italian. I am sure there are many more to come. The poems have been posted on The Quarantine Train’s Facebook page.


A special mention must be made of Rohith, a member of the group who translated many of these poems into English from Telugu, which in turn made all other translations possible.  We have used some of these translations here. Rohith is a poet from Anantapur, who is studying to be a doctor, but can be generally found in dingy bookshops or exploring the outskirts of the town. His poems have found a place in The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Punch, Sunflower Collective etc. Muktakantham is his personal favourite and a companion on long journeys.  


I also thank Prof. D Venkat Rao, from the Department of English of the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, for granting us the permission to use his translations of Rao’s poems. These translations have previously featured in Pretext: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory and in Poetry International’s website. Dr. Venkat spoke of Rao with great warmth and offered any creative assistance within his power to help with this post.

 He once wrote of Rao, “His life in poetry spans over half a century. From the ’70s till 2006, he spent protracted periods in prison for his political convictions. Convinced of poetry’s potential for redressing imbalances in the world where people are actually killed for their convictions, VV risked his life and writing over decades. He sees poetry, love and collective struggles as primal forces to contend with the violence unleashed by the state on the nameless and common people who begin questioning. No wonder he has made public his profound conviction in the ‘counter-violence’ of the Naxal-Maoist movement….VV persistently raises questions about naming and these questions are inseparable from the critical issues of land, living and livelihood in his poetry.”

(https://www.poetryinternational.org/pi/poet/15346/Varavara-Rao/en/tile )


As you read these poems, you realise that the very soul of the poet is soaked in the spirit of freedom. This freedom is a far ranging universal one that respects no walls or claims of ownership. Tenderness breaks through in the form of caresses and cuddles- that appear as interludes between the constant engagements with the Law. The questions Rao raises are very simple. But these questions made of words bore holes in the walls and barricades made of concrete and metal. There are no answers save bars that keep getting thicker.

Sonya J. Nair


The Bard

When the order is amiss

And billowing pitch-clouds of time

Strangle the throat

Neither blood trickles

Nor tears drop

Lightening swirls into thunder,

Drizzles surge into deluge, and,

Absorbing mother’s tears of agony

Purl out from prison grills

Voice of the poet’s missive.

When the tongue pulsates,

Tone manumits the air, and

Song turns missile in battle

The foe fears the poet;

Incarcerates him, and

Tightens the noose around the neck

But, already, the poet in his notes

Breathes among the masses

The scaffold

Like a gravitating balance

Disseminates into earth

Challenges to death

And hoists the paltry

Hangman colonist

Poet’s Note: For Benjamin Franklin Molaise

© 1986, Varavara Rao

From: Bhavishyattu Chitrapatam

Publisher: Vijayakrishna Printers, Vijayawada, 1986

© Translated by D. Venkat Rao

From: Pretext: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, Vol. 18: Nos. 1-4

Publisher: Victor Vitanza, Clemson, 1997


Poetry is the Truth that need not be hidden

Like a People that don’t need a government

or a life that doesn’t require an elixir.

You may frisk the pockets,

or pour the papers and books

on the table

to probe, or scan the drawers,

or explore the long tunnel of the heart

that opens as a beera-flower:

you cannot find a single secret

there’s only poetry.

You don’t understand:

It is the secret called poetry that is most dangerous

about my being.

You think that the moon is forever trapped in the

rectangle of the dark sky

until you, who bury your hands in the pockets,

rise your head to insult me: see

a moonlight spreading across the sky as my poetry.

You will be dazzled to know of the story of this

strange moon that cannot see

the moon of the sky.

I used to feel repulsed, like insects crawling

on my skin

when you groped my body for contraband,

in the beginning.  Now, in this loneliness, as I

drained out my old blood and transfused it

with poetry, I feel bad for you

fumbling for your own humanity desperately

as you search me.

I give myself to you

to have a collar fixed around the throat

or a metal-machine rubbed on my heart,

to strip my clothes, to rinse my skin,

and to follow the secret lands with me.

Poetry is the sound of the hands

heavily shackled,

birds of freedom fleeing out of chains

for every movement.

The conspiracy of prosecution comes to light

on the court-days.

Poetry flares up

the more you surveil,

Poetry keeps inspiring masses

the more you do government,

Poetry will swim in your own conscience

the more you spread the death-trap.

Poetry is the open secret that

abolishes the State,

it reaches its reader even while

it is forming in heart, it renderes itself

meaningful by default,

for the one who can understand,

it spurs protests while

it is still dawning in my conscience,

the real secret is that

my poetry came to life drinking the

breast milk of social movements.

From the hands you tied, as an


string of grief and rage, as a sight

that blazes tears,

poetry keeps streaming

through the red veins of my language.

(Translated by Rohith)


(Rohit reads Poetry in Telugu and English)

Unburdening Song

Like the East Wind

You came to recount

The heart-rending tales that

The tear-filled Godavari told the sea.


Stunned like the tree

Anguished for the very breezes of life

I opened my mouth.

Has some invisible hand stood between us?

Are we, decreeing injunctions on ourselves,

Turning mute?

To avoid your sight

I swallowed tear streams

Down my throat.

All day long tears continue to pierce my throat.


Now, this night,

The night when the sea has taken

Godavari into its lap and is consoling,

Composing tunes, that have gone discordant

In sighs.

Breathing into my repressed, harmonium-like heart

With two hands.


I washed my whole face

With the elegy surging from memory.

Now there are no more thorns in the throat

Nor in the eyes.

On this bridge of abyssal time

Between us

– We could not open mouths to converse –


This unburdening lyric I delivered.


This may reach you either as a bird or flower

Or even as a mad breeze.


Won’t you be soft in response?


© 1990, Varavara Rao

From: Muktakantham

Publisher: Samudram Prachuranalu, Vijayawada, 1990



© Translated by D. Venkat Rao

From: Pretext: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, Vol. 18: Nos. 1-4

Publisher: Victor Vitanza, Clemson, 1997


The Dream Pigeons

Pigeons released by the heart

alight on the eyelids

You know that I am scared to open

my eyes and break the wings,

and so, I pretend, eyes closed.

I know very well that my

dreams are not my creations alone

and that imagination is not

anyone’s solitude.


© 1990, Varavara Rao

From: Muktakantham

Publisher: Samudram Prachuranalu, Vijayawada, 1990


 Translated by Rohith

A Petition to the Court of the People

Dispatch those laws with stones

and greet the diffident

in a confetti of flowers.


Build a tomb to the dictatorship

of death and liberate

the caged love.


© 1990, Varavara Rao

From: Muktakantham

Publisher: Samudram Prachuranalu, Vijayawada, 1990


Translated by Rohith

The Other Day

Not that my coming is without intimation

What needs be said always remains unsaid

Not an unanticipated occurrence

But yearning for the propitious in the unintended


No word chain disrupted

No effort aborted

And each experience . . . halfway


Yet that is not the problem

Time has not come to a standstill


Time has simply

Uncoupled us


Our sleepless wait

Altering the date

Was to efface

The bittersweet divides.


Our cuddle,

The nestle of twenty springs

Snuggled in the nest of feathers

Dissolving in the bitter actual . . .


Even as you say, alas,

Will they take you away tomorrow?

It’s already the day




Even as you agitate in agony

Alas, do they already take you

Even while you look on

I am shackled


The scene,

Arrested word

Like the broken tear

Slashed through the

Squares and rectangles

Of the gratings at

Our counter meetings.

I can only pityingly


The escort van roars

And stirs up dust.


Something smells

As I turn my view inside

Rifles and Khaki uniforms do

The surveillance.


My self writhes

I am agitated

As the petrol smells,

My wailing entrails move

I turn in

My view from you

In the outer world

Towards you

In the inner world.

Time and I have only two limbs

Day and night

With the desire to work a bit faster

Time grasping its arrow-seconds

Me clasping my quill

Move on

And go on moving.


The enemy has four legs

Tele-ear, tele-gaze, radio-mouth

And armed palms.


Above all,

The rapacity to live on

All alone.


It is for this

He annihilated his heart,

For this he smothers its vibrations.


In what discourse

Can we converse

With the heartless?


Bloodhound’s gasping tongue

His neck-strap,

The whip in the prodding master’s hand,

He assumes, from his rank.

What language can translate the utterance

That it’s felony to shackle reflections?




Fractures the human world

Into custodians and criminals

But when I assert and declare

Banishment of the very thing

Property’s cage turns me a defendant, all right,


For the overlord’s eyes

I am a Communist


As if nothing can surpass it

He arraigns me as a



Let us persist to actualize it exactly

Let us perpetuate ‘treason’

For the purpose of multitudes



Poet’s Note: Any forcible separation from loved ones is of course very painful. But even worse is the sense of utter helplessness. There is nothing we can do about it. Such a person feels that there was something unsaid, a sentence cut in the middle, a melody abruptly stopped. It now feels as if even a minute’s re-union would enable the unsaid to be said, the sentence or the melody completed. If only . . . if . . . if . . .

Ngugi [Detained: A Writer’s Prison Dairy]


I did not supply the explosives

Nor ideas for that matter

It was you who trod with iron heels

Upon the anthill

And from the trampled earth

Sprouted the ideas of vengeance

It was you who struck the beehive

With your lathi

The sound of the scattering bees

Exploded in your shaken facade

Blotched red with fear

When the victory drum started beating

In the heart of the masses

You mistook it for a person and trained your guns

Revolution echoed from all horizons

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Anupriya Vijayan

    His poems clearly depict the fact that he was wrongly accused. Each and every word in those poems are filled with his ardent desire for freedom. Its really sad to know the fact that he is battling Covid-19 in his old age. His body may be weak, but nothing can put out the fire that is going on igniting him, every moment.

  2. Afra Meera Ahamed

    “When crime becomes authority

    And hunts down people branding them criminals

    Everyone with a voice and keeps silent

    Becomes criminal himself.”

    Intense reality lies within these lines. I would quote all of his lines because each of them has so much depth. The words of his poems resonate his fearlessness.They could shut out the world from him but not his words. It is indeed depressing to know that he is battling with Covid-19 in this situation. May the Almighty grant him quick recovery.

  3. Moses

    Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
    Where knowledge is free
    Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
    By narrow domestic walls
    Where words come out from the depth of truth
    Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
    Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
    Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
    Where the mind is led forward by thee
    Into ever-widening thought and action
    Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
    This is the India Rabindranath Tagore dreamt of. Where are we today? Even Facebook comments are hunted and trolled. Threatening comments are openly posted by people with full back up by the powers that be…..

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