Poet, Marxist critic and activist, Varavara Rap (VV) has been continually persecuted by the state
and intermittently imprisoned since 1973, but he never stepped writing during all these decades, even
from within prison. When he was subjected to ‘one thousand days of solitary confinement’ during
1985-89 in Secunderabad jail, a leading national daily invited him to write about his prison
While prison writing is a hoary tradition. No writer has had the opportunity to publish his
writings from jail. VV, however, did meet the demands placed on him as a writer, despite constraints
of censorship by jail authorities and the intelligence section. He decided to test his creative powers in
jail on the touchstone of his reader’s response and expressed himself in a series of thirteen
remarkable essays on imprisonment, from prison.
Collected for the first time in English, the essays in Captive imagination are fiercely
personal in their experience and evocatively universal in their expression.
Varavara Rao is a well-known Telugu poet and an ideologue of Maoist politics. He is one
of the founders of VIRASAM-Revolutionary Writers’ Association, the first of its kind in India,
directly inspired by the Naxalbari and Srikakulam adivasi peasant struggles. He has published ten
volumes of poetry and his work has been translated into a number of Indian languages. He was also
one of the spokespersons in the first ever talks held between the Maoists and the Andhra Pradesh
government in 2000.
Among the many telling stories that Varavara Rao narrates in these brilliantly written prison letters is
that of an illiterate prisoner who squats by a heap of newspapers each of which he holds in his hands
and then stares blankly at for a long time. Asked about it, he says that he is just looking at the
pictures. Rao reads more into this: through the senses of touch, sight, smell and feeling, the prisoner
can certainly grasp some news. The news may not be necessarily what is in the newspaper but does
exist in another reality—in some ways more real and vital—provided by his imagination. His
imagination carries him into the spirit of the letters—which he cannot read—and in so doing, takes
him beyond the walls of his confinement. In the man’s imagination, the words become the world.
The title, Captive Imagination, is ironic. Of all the human attributes, the imagination is the most central
and most human. An architect visualizes a building before he captures it on paper for the builder.
Without imagination, we cannot visualize the past or the future. Religion would be impossible, for
how would one visualize deities except through imagination? How would one undertake a purposeful
journey without imagination, the capacity to picture our destination long before we get there? The
arts and the imagination are dialectically linked. Imagination makes possible the arts. The arts feed
the imagination in the same way that food nourishes the body and ethics the soul. The writer, the
singer, the sculptor—the artist in general, symbolizes and speaks to the power of imagination to
intimate possibilities even within apparently impossible situations. That is why time and again, the
state tries to imprison the artist, to hold captive the imagination. But imagination has the capacity to
break free from temporal and spatial confinement. Imagination breaks free from captivity and roams
in time and space.
The real subject of these letters is imagination. In prison, Rao looks for meaning even in the
apparently trivial and inconsequential. He looks at birds that fly and they speak to him of freedom.
He looks at nature, flower, and he sees images of motion, change and growth. Through the windows,
Rao can behold the enormity of a sky that no prison can contain. Nature that speaks of endless
motion, interconnection of being and endless possibilities is his companion. He also finds
companionship in history: from a whole array of Indian writers of times past and present to
imprisoned artists and intellectuals across cultures and continents. These voices from the world range
from the Korean poet Kim Chi-ha to the African American George Jackson. Nelson Mandela
speaks to him from South Africa as the very image of a spirit that would not die or quit the struggle.
Pablo Neruda from Chile tells him that the word is born in blood, the word is blood itself In the
American Walt Whitman he hears the call and the challenge of solidarity: Who but I should be the
poet of comrades? The Russian Yevtushenko tells him that a poet’s word should cut through silence
like a diamond. In solitary confinement, it is Faiz Ahmed Faiz of Pakistan who assures him that those
who brew the poison of cruelty may put out the lamps ‘where lovers meet’ but ‘they cannot blind the
moon’. Varavara Rao experiences this and exalts in recognition of the truth in Paiz’s words:
On a personal level, I felt touched that my own words, forged in similar places of confinement in
Kenya, reached him.
These letters from prison are really from the heartland of resistance. They are a celebration of words
that sing solidarity with those who struggle against confinement in and outside prison walls. They are
lyrics to freedom and social justice everywhere. Imprisoned in order not to make history with others,
the poet, through words, still makes history. Rao’s book, Captive Imagination, stands in the frontline
of resistance literature in the world. It speaks to the human will to freedom.
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