Verse, ablaze: Excerpts from 'Varavara Rao: A Life in Poetry'

It is a collection of poems in English by the Telugu poet and activist

68-Varavara-Rao Varavara Rao | Sajeesh Sankar

Varavara Rao: A Life in Poetry is a collection of poems in English by the Telugu poet and activist, edited by Meena Kandasamy and N. Venugopal. Below, an excerpt from Kandasamy’s introduction

Varavara Rao is perhaps the most-jailed poet in independent India’s history. He also holds the distinction for being the only poet to have voluntarily opted to cancel his own bail....

My first memory of encountering the name ‘Varavara Rao’ was in the newspapers. This was in the early 2000s, when warring guerrilla groups came to peace-talks tables. As a young Tamil woman, I consistently followed the Norway-brokered talks between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Government of Sri Lanka. Likewise, I was fascinated by what was happening on home ground: the talks between People’s War and the Indian government. Perhaps because of the way in which the print media at that time both valorised and demonised the guerrilla fighters, I was fascinated that three people had dared to be emissaries between the governments and the fighters. One of the interlocutors was Varavara Rao, the other two were Gaddar and Kalyan Rao. Growing up in a household without television, I would wake up every morning and read about the progress in these talks as if it were a serialised novel. (Both talks ended in failure; in both cases the state used the ruse of the talks to go on a spate of naked aggression.) To my younger self, being an interlocutor seemed like an act of absolute courage and immense responsibility. At that time, little would I have imagined that one day in my life, I would get the opportunity to work with the poetry of this fierce, larger-than-life poet.

My second memory of encountering Varavara Rao’s name was during a particularly traumatic episode in my brief marriage. The man I married was a self-professed Maoist; he asked me to read aloud a particular poem of Varavara Rao: ‘Photo’. The poem speaks about the risks that await were a revolutionary’s photo to fall into the hands of the police. ‘I lost all my desire for a photo,’ he writes and equates the smell of a burning photograph to the ‘stench of/ iron heels and brutal feet/The stink of khaki dress’. Knowing that my (then) husband was looking for validation for his poetic tastes, I said something to the effect that ‘this poem strikes deep’. I savoured the poem, little aware that it was going to be a precursor to something very sinister. I did not realise that this poem would form the philosophical basis for my abuser embarking on a process of my erasure. Upholding this poem by Varavara Rao as the truest example of a poet committed to the revolution, he would taunt me.

‘Why this narcissism? Why do your photos float around on Facebook? Do you realise that if we were to ever go underground, we would be haunted by all these pictures of you that are everywhere?’

Such intellectual bullying would be followed by strict, supervised action: I would be forced to delete my pictures from social media, from my own laptop, from my website, from wherever they existed. Because: a future threat, the fear of the state, the fear of repercussion. Those terrors lay in the faraway unknown, but the terror of displeasing a violent man was immediate. I did as told, believing that my obedience would pave way to his kindness. It did not. These days, as I poke around my internet presence, trying to find my pictures before 2011, I remember this poem. Written by a radical poet to call out state surveillance and intimate memory, I had the misfortune of inhabiting a lived reality where these powerful lines were deployed to serve the purpose of a toxic-masculine act of female erasure. For the many years that followed, I associated the name Varavara Rao with a painful memory; the poet had no role to play in the emotive violence inflicted on me, and yet, his words were appropriated to serve the most unintended cause.

Subsequently, I would come across Varavara Rao’s name in the usual, predictable ways: an invitation to a conference of leftist writers, or the signatory to a petition condemning the state one way or another. In 2018, when I was away teaching in New York and pregnant with my second child, I read news of my friend Rona Wilson’s arrest.

This time Varavara Rao’s name also surfaced—as someone who was under the state’s scanner in the same infamous Bhima Koregaon conspiracy case. He was also arrested. It was during his time in jail that I established touch with N. Venugopal and the idea of this anthology became concrete. Reading Venugopal’s book, Varavara Rao: An Intimate Portrait by a Nephew, I learnt that Varavara Rao has spent close to a decade in various prisons around the country, beginning with his first arrest in 1973. He has been implicated in more than 25 cases, often under various draconian anti-terror legislations such as the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), the National Security Act (NSA), the Terrorist And Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), but the prosecution has never been able to prove a single charge in a single case against him.

Varavara Rao is perhaps the most-jailed poet in independent India’s history. He also holds the distinction for being the only poet to have voluntarily opted to cancel his own bail (in the Secunderabad Conspiracy Case) and instead choose imprisonment. So severe were the threats to his life from state forces that he ‘forfeited the borrowed freedom on bail in order to enjoy the freedom of writing and the security of life’. At the time of this incident, Varavara Rao embodied the angry young man; he was in his early forties. Today, he is double that age (in his eighties), but his fiery verses sparkle with the same rage.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House.


Edited by N. Venugopal and Meena Kandasamy

Published by Penguin Random House

Price Rs499; pages 119

What We Need is Poetry


Translated by Rohith

The poetry

Of tears, of dreams, of enchantments

Poetry of memories and futilities

Poetry of hope, dashed hopes

Aspirations, experiences and emotions.

The poetry with an embryo

That explodes into a blossom

The poetry that flowers

Releases fragrance and

Comes to fruition.

The poetry with a spine

That can stand up to the system

And hold it accountable,

The poetry that refuses power

The poetry that challenges the state.

The poetry with a vision

A foresight and an eye

On the ground.

The poetry of the smile of an infant

That spreads like love, motherly poetry.

The poetry that won’t shy away from disdain,

The poetry that can bring a world of affection

To its reader.

The poetry that’s as much a synonym to

Melancholy as it is to solace

The poetry that can stand

On either side of the proletariat

The poetry that paves the way

For the workers’ tomorrow.

The poetry that’s churned out

Of the immensity of existence

The poetry that’s a symbol

Of the ocean of abysmal lives.

The poetry that’s a metaphor of our fights

And another world

The poetry of democracy

The poetry of people’s struggles.