HYDERABAD: “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times,” wrote the revolutionary German poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht. And whenever a revolution brews to stir the rusting roots of a socio-political-cultural landscape, words, especially of poets, become torches to lead the way.
Octogenarian Telugu poet, teacher, activist, and literary critic Varavara Rao needs no introduction for his fiery poems which fiercely attack casteism, oppression, exploitation of the poor, unchallengeable religious convictions along with neoliberalism policies. Several revolutionary movements shaped his political and poetical sensibilities. And now, at the age of 80, he’s behind bars for the Elgar Parishad-Maoist case. His poems, that hold the power of explosives, are written in Telugu have been translated into English.
Now, mainstream publisher Penguin Random House India is publishing a translated collection of his poems titled ‘Varavara Rao: India’s Revolutionary Poet.’ The book is edited by poet-journalist N Venugopal and poet-novelist Meena Kandasamy. The ailing poet, who has been locked up in Taloja jail, Mumbai, since 2018, has published 13 books of poetry and 16 collections of prose.
N Venugopal, the co-editor of the upcoming collection and the nephew of the senior poet, has seen Varavara Rao’s life quite closely. He stayed with him at his house at Kumarapally in Warangal since he was in class 8.
He shares, “I would watch him write his pieces. Later, I used to send his works to different magazines for publication. Now, it’s rejoicing to see that his poems will reach out to innumerable readers.” Varavara Rao used to publish a monthly literary magazine titled ‘Srjana’. It was started in 1966 and continued till 1992. “The magazine was a prestigious one and several of my uncle’s works were published in it along with the opuses of many other notes writers,” he adds. The book will have about 70 poems of the celebrated poet.
The translations are done by Venugopal. “The book deal was done the last year and it’s expected to be published by the end of 2021. It gives a large picture of the socio-political history of not just Telangana but the whole of India,” He informs as he quotes one of the most famous lines of Varavara written during Emergency: ‘When crime becomes authority / And hunts down people branding them criminals / Everyone with a voice and keeps silent / Becomes criminal himself.’
The senior poet has been arrested without a trial and the international writers/activists community has raised voice for his release from the prison. A few weeks ago, Dublin-based poet Gabriel Rosenstock penned a poem in Irish and English, titled ‘Flowers for Varavara Rao’ with lines like: ‘A few simple roses / Varavara Rao to perfume your cell / They may need some watering; / Your jailers, have they any tears / Invisible tears?’ Later, artist Masood Hussain based in Srinagar made a poetry film on it.
Varavara Rao isn’t keeping well. Signs off Venugopal, “We spoke to him 10 days ago. He’s got electrolyte imbalance in his body and is suffering from memory loss. After he was diagnosed with Covid-19, his condition has worsened.”