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Captive Imagination: Letters from Prison - Poet in the Political Activist

Captive Imagination: Letters from Prison by Varavara Rao (New Delhi: Penguin-Viking), 2010; pp 193, Rs 350 (hardcover).

Poet in the Political Activist

P K Vijayan

aravara Rao is one of the most well-known names on the Indian literary scene. A major poet in Telugu literature, who has published 10 volumes of poetry since 1964, Rao is known as a revolutionary poet in Andhra Pradesh. His Captive Imagination: Letters from Prison is a collection of meditations from the p oet’s time in prison, as a political prisoner under the Emergency regime (one of his collections of poetry, Bhavishyath Chitrapatam, was banned by the Andhra Pradesh government during the Emergency). Originally written in Telugu, with individual pieces translated by different people (six translators in all), Captive Imagination has a foreword by the Kenyan novelist and professor of literature at the University of California, Irvine, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There are totally 13 of these meditations, not including the foreword and an epilogue by the author.

Rao has been in and out of prison for political reasons several times, has spent more than 10 years in prisons, and continues to face that danger for the boldly critical stands he continues to take against the excesses of the Indian state – the latest threat of another incarceration being for his criticism of the Indian state’s stand on Kashmiri “Azaadi”. At the time of the writing of this book, he had been openly sympathetic to the Naxal movement, and continues to remain so. But this book is not directly about these issues, although they hum relentlessly in the background; it is not about Rao, the political activist, but about the poet in Rao the political activist, about the relationship between the poet and the political activist in Rao.

I have refrained from referring to these pieces as “articles” or “essays” because they are more than simply either of these. The title refers to them as “letters”. We are informed in the “Epilogue” that they were commissioned originally by Arun Shourie for the Indian Express, but published first in Telugu, serialised every week in the

Economic & Political Weekly

february 19, 2011

book review

Captive Imagination: Letters from Prison

by Varavara Rao (New Delhi: Penguin-Viking), 2010; pp 193, Rs 350 (hardcover).

Andhra Prabha. In the “Acknowledgments” we are also told that they contain “notes… scribbled in the loneliness of jail…[that]… turned out to be poetry when it was dense and intense”. And Rao adds, “The division between poetry and prose is fluid in these letters from prison” (p 197). Letters, especially personal ones, generally speaking, are characterised by a combination of r emoteness and intimacy: the addresser and the addressee are separated by (sometimes great) distance, but are intimately entwined in the very alphabets of the letter. This peculiarity of the form of the letter is compounded by the “univocality” of the person writing it, so that this addresser emerges strongly and vividly, but the addressee remains a shadow figure whose traces emerge only through allusions and inferences, a ghost captive in the imagination of the addresser. The addressee may or may not recognise himself or herself in this figure conjured by the addresser; but certainly he or she is invited to occupy the “empty space” of that figure. But when the addressee is not anyone specific but a large body of anonymous readers, these d yna mics of the letter are all i nvoked but s imultaneously transformed dramatically, as Rao’s “letters” from prison so brilliantly show.

Rao evokes the intimacy of the form of the letter to draw the reader into his world of solitude, filled with nocturnal sounds and moonlight, with books and imaginary conversations with their authors, with passing relations and infinite waiting, with endless pacing in insomniac circles, haunted equally by memories and by anticipations. (One of the truly alarming methods of the state that Rao describes is that of postponing trial: some undertrials

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wait in “remand” for periods as long as the longest sentence they could have been awarded, or more – and the political prisoner is particularly susceptible to this kind of postponement, so that he or she remains

incarcerated for unspecified periods even if ultimately found innocent.)

As we read about these days and nights in prison – where the body becomes stale and stagnant but the mind knows only, with increasing sharpness, the need to communicate, the growing impossibility of communication, and the endless waiting for the godot of dawn, real and metaphorical – we also realise that what sustains the writer through this slow suffocation of the spirit, is the vision afforded him by his politics. The reader as the implied addressee of these letters is drawn into engaging with that vision, not through conceptual and theoretical arguments – though these too may be found in plenty – but through anecdotes, memories, reflections and contemplations, each sparked off by the little details of prison life – the blossoming of roses, the cries of birds, the presence of a mouse in the author’s cell – in other words, through the minutiae of what it means to live that vision, and to have to suffer for it. For instance, while talking about the fact that all his letters are read and censored by the authorities, whether inside or outside prison, Rao remarks, with loaded irony, “how can one who is connected with Naxalbari expect any privacy until private property itself is abolished?” (p 56). The simple inversion of the meanings of privacy here produces rich matter for thought – and the letters are filled with such nuggets.

Formally, these letters may more accurately be compared to movements in music, except that each movement is itself more like a khayal, with each piece exploring a different aspect of the central raga. The tones of this central raga, that preoccupies Varavara Rao, are the diverse aspects of an enforced solitude, focusing on the condition, quality and circumstances of both, the fact of enforcement and of the solitude itself. In order to do so, Rao moves fluently between prose and verse; often the prose, as Rao has himself noted, is more poetry than prose, subtle to


the point of deceptive simplicity, then startling the reader with its revealed profundity. Sample this:

The days are piling up on me like age. An equal number of days must have passed for those of whom I took leave when I came here. But there is a vast difference between the experience all of us would have shared if I had been free, and my jail experience which I cannot share with anyone. The load in the basket of silence on my head grows no lighter because of this. Added to the heaviness is the burden of words massing up each day. As a consequence, my days and nights have come to a standstill (p 141).

Enforced Solitude

Not only is a central theme of the book – enforced solitude – captured here, but the specific effects of this on a writer are movingly caught, in the tension between “the burden of words” and the “basket of silence”, as he positions himself in the figure of a labourer bearing his burden on his head, imprisoned in his own way by the burdens of his labour. The metaphor is so subtly inserted that it almost escapes attention, but when it does catch it, we realise that even Rao’s metaphors are products of a profound political commitment, manifested in the implicit figure of the labou rer, rather than in the pursuit of some rarefied rhetoric or poetics. This is not to say that Rao either has no poetics or is not aware of his poetics; rather, that he is fully aware that his poetics, his poetry and his politics flow seamlessly into each other:

Poetry is an open secret That destroys the disquiet Stirring in my heart. It reaches in a trice Those it is meant to reach. Suddenly the ones who need to, Will understand. Rising in my thoughts, It inspires movements. The secret is, My poetry was born From the pangs of struggle. Cover it if you must – You will see it escape through The spaces of your fingers, Its vibrant, anguished notes Snapping in anger, Setting tears on fire And flowing forth – A river of blood-red syllables (80-81).

For Rao, the hand that imprisons him cannot hold captive his imagination: it will slip through as poetry – which is why, in his opinion, so many political prisoners turn to writing poetry when in prison. And which is also why, in Rao’s explorations of the experience of the prison, the prison itself transforms into a metaphor for the innumerable curtailments of freedom in the world outside it. At one point, Rao explicitly notes this as a “bitter truth” shared

o ften by his visitors to the jail: they say, “You are in a small jail whereas we are in a big jail. That is the only difference” (p 162). It is another way of indicating to us the extent to which the Indian state has extended its controls into the lives of its citizenry: if you cannot take the people to jail, because there are too many of the former, and too few of the latter, then take the jails to the people – by curtailing freedoms, revoking rights, silencing protests and dissents and other, less obvious but perhaps more sinister schemes (as for instance, through the diabolically conceived UID project). As we hurtle towards the transformation of the country into a vast, privatised, corporatecontrolled prison, we can expect many more cases of the sequestering of those who rise up in protest. (But who will be left to read the letters from this prison?)

Extension of the Prison

So, when Rao draws the reader into his world through his letters, he is following the direction of the state, and taking the experience of the prison to the world

Manipal Centre for Philosophy & Humanities

Manipal University, Manipal

on Philosophy for the Social Sciences and Humanities (Sponsored by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research) SIXTH SUMMER SCHOOL

outside. At one point he notes, “It was only during the Emergency when a whole class of future central government ministers e ntered jail that white-collared folk realised there were human beings in jails” (p 125). This is Rao’s way of bringing the jail, and the experience of the jail, to “white-collared folk”: while we read these “letters” to us, we are given the opportunity to enter the “empty space” of the a ddressee – but this is where the dynamics of the personal letter change dramatically. Precisely because we remain anonymous, we are not the addressee-figure we are supposed to identify with, we are left with nobody to identify with except Rao himself, and we – for the space of these few letters – are given the opportunity to “become” Rao-in-prison. We are allowed to enter into a world in which freedom is always in the future, but the present is defined by necessity – and this is the condition that awaits us, in the inexorable extension of the prison into the world that is underway. We are given the opportunity to engage with the meanings of one of the most powerful passages in the book:

When repression becomes an everyday reality and when there is no end in sight, how long can we postpone our needs?...[But]…In confinement, one cannot but treat necessity and freedom as equal (p 61).

We would do well to heed these words, b efore we reach the stage – if we haven’t

The Sixth Summer School on “Philosophy for the Social Sciences and Humanities” organised by Prof Sundar Sarukkai, will be held at Manipal University again this year. In this course students will not only enrich their conceptual understanding of social sciences and humanities through a series of lectures, workshop presentations and activities but will also engage with their own disciplines and research areas through writing, discussions and reflection.

The uniqueness of this year's workshop is the theme Banality of Evil. Under this broad theme we will discuss political and social philosophy drawing from both Indian and Western approaches.

Dates: Monday, July 4, 2011 – Friday, July 15, 2011

Who can apply

Students who are doing their PhD, MPhil or MA can apply for this course. We encourage young faculty in social science and activists who are interested in philosophy to also apply.

How to apply

Send a CV (with marks, email, phone, and contact address details) along with a statement on why you want to attend this course and particularly how this theme is related to your work or future interests. The last date for receiving the complete application is April 1, 2011. There is no course fee.


Selected participants will be provided accommodation at Manipal University during the course period.

Contact: Send your application as an email attachment to Manipal Centre for Philosophy Humanities (MCPH), or mail a hard copy to the address below. Please type “Summer School 2011” in the subject line.

Manipal Centre for Philosophy Humanities

Old TAPMI Building, Behind Post Office, Manipal - 576104, Karnataka, Phone: 0820-2923157

february 19, 2011 vol xlvi no 8

Economic Political Weekly


already – where we start understanding the curtailments of freedom as “necessity”, most often in the name of that holiest of holy cows, “national interest/ security”.

Rao’s is not a “captive imagination”; rather, it is we, the readers, who become captives to his imagination. Many years ago, discussing the future of Marxism and socialism with a friend, we speculated on whether they suffered from a failure of the imagination, on whether the depredations of capital had invaded the imagination so much that an alternative imaginary was near impossible. I still do not know if that is true; but that speculation is certainly





what Rao would call a “white-collar” speculation. If it were true, then Rao’s letters are among the many resurgent signs of such an alternative. Rao’s is not a “whitecollar” imagination – which is why the title of the book is both so true and so ironical. Treat it as a warning, or as a wake-up call, or even as a user’s manual for the days to come – but for all its dark, bleak passages and its blackly vivid evocations of confinement, it celebrates the power of the h uman spirit and the imagination to withstand, survive, grow, even in such conditions. There are minor irritants for sure – like a tendency at times to excessive





--self-consciousness, or the near-deification of some of the characters he evokes – but these are quickly subsumed in the rich, subtle flow of thoughts on the myriad matters that fill these letters. The deceptively simple language allows one to go quickly through these letters. But be warned: they are not to be read one lazy Sunday afternoon and forgotten: these letters demand time and reflection, and a slow process of digestion, for fullest satisfaction.

P K Vijayan ( is with the Department of English, Hindu College, Delhi University.










Economic Political Weekly

february 19, 2011 vol xlvi no 8

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