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Telugu, Wheelchair & Blanket: How Prison Broke Poet Varavara Rao

Nikhila Henry
·6 min read

Varavara Rao was incoherent on the phone. The president of Viplava Rachayitala Sagham (Revolutionary Writers’ Forum) spoke in Hindi instead of Telugu, his mother tongue, in which he has penned many poems.

“Her body was taken to the mortuary. Many people visited,” Rao said.

P Hemalatha, his wife, patiently listened to him during the five-minute-long phone call in June 2020 from Taloja Central Prison, Maharashtra, even as she was unsure of what he meant.

Rao, 82, by then had slipped into dementia. It made him believe his wife was dead.

“Her body was sent for embalmment. Why would they use chemicals on her?” he said as he deliriously narrated an imagined experience of her funeral.

Hemalatha is 67 and lives in Rao’s hometown – Hyderabad.

Also Read: Activist Varavara Rao Gets Bail in 2016 Iron Ore Mine Arson Case

Ailing For a Year

Rao had lost 20 kgs in prison – and was neurologically troubled, his family found out in May 2020, two months after he fell ill in the prison.

Now granted bail on medical grounds, Rao is waiting for a discharge date from Mumbai’s Nanavati Hospital and a release order from the prison itself.

How did his incarceration break the writer and robust octogenarian, who was slapped with charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon case?

In what seems to be a case of severe neglect in prison, Rao has been ailing for a year.

Also Read: Varavara Rao’s Kin Welcome Bail, But Rue ‘Difficult’ Conditions

‘A Blanket, Please’

Soon after he was implicated, Rao was kept under house arrest for two months, after which the Mumbai Police under the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government arrested him on UAPA charges. He was soon lodged at Yerawada Central Prison.

Rao was coping well at first. He had been in prison before. In fact, his book Chained Muse is based on his time in prison.

In Yerawada, he was in a single cell in a barrack of around 13 cells. Though he had no bed to sleep in and no chair to sit on, the octogenarian complained only when the temperatures began to drop.

Accustomed to Telangana’s tropical weather, Rao found it difficult to cope in Maharashtra during winters.

He asked for a blanket – but that was not given at first.

“We went from pillar to post requesting the prison authorities to get him a blanket. When that did not happen, we went to court,” Rao’s daughter Pavana told The Quint. After the court order, it took two months for authorities to give Rao a blanket, his family said.

Also Read: ‘Frustrated, Enraged’: Sahba Husain on Gautam Navlakha Glasses Row

Rao asked for another blanket during his mulakat conversations, uttered over glass panes in the prison’s monitored common waiting room.

“When we gave a second blanket to him, the prison authorities took away the first they had given him,” Pavana said.

Ultimately, Rao had only one blanket for the entire winter. Wilful neglect of a political prisoner? During his one year in Yerawada, Rao, however, did read and write, mostly in English.

"“He wrote to us every week from Yerawada narrating prison tales. He wrote of the life convicts, especially the Muslims and Dalit prisoners who were incarcerated.” " - Pavana Rao

“After reading their books, he wrote to different authors, including Amitav Ghosh, about their work. He was keeping himself busy. But soon, when he was shifted to Taloja Central Prison, things changed,” Pavana reminisced.

Also Read: Activist Father Stan Swamy Given Straw, Sipper by Jail Authorities

NIA, Lockdown, His Mother Tongue

While Rao was incarcerated in Yerawada, a political power shift was underway in Maharashtra. After the 2019 Assembly elections, the Shiv Sena-Congress-NCP coalition government came to power in Maharashtra. And the Centre intervened to transfer the Bhima Koregaon case to the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

"“When the case got transferred to the NIA, the number of visits we were granted reduced. And then, the lockdown was the biggest blow.”" - Pavana Rao

The family lost contact with Rao as prisons across the country stopped court-mandated mulakats. From March 2020 to May 2020, Rao could not make contact with his family. The writer, who was not in contact with any Telugu speaking person, started losing touch with his mother tongue.

"“In Taloja, we were allowed to give him only English and Hindi books. Prison authorities did not allow Telugu books because they had no one to scrutinise the content.”" - Pavana Rao

As he had no Telugu books to go back to, the Rao slowly started talking in Hindi.

“He spoke to my mother in Hindi and we did not understand why. It was only when he started talking of her death that we understood there was something wrong,” Pavana said.

St George’s Hospital in Mumbai certified that Rao has dementia.

Also Read: NIA Asks HC to Deny Bail to Varavara Rao, Says He is ‘Stable’

A Wheelchair and a Press Conference

Vernon Gonsalves, another activist who was imprisoned in the Bhima Koregaon case along with Rao, was stationed at the same barracks with him. “Do something urgently... Vernon told us over phone,” Pavana said.

The family called a press conference in July 2020. In Taloja, Rao did not have a chair or a cot to use, his family claimed. He was ailing and the jail authorities were refusing to provide him medical aid, they added.

As life was slowly seeming to leave Rao, a respite came.

On a court order, Gonsalves was shifted to Rao’s cell for assistance. Another prisoner, too, was later asked to move in. Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government intervened and shifted him to Nanavati Hospital.

“When we met him at Nanavati, he was sitting on the edge of his bed because he had wet it,” Pavana said stoically. Rao had to be given adult diapers and food supplements because he was too weak.

The family had to fight for him another time.

In Taloja, it was the prisoners who took care of Rao, the family said. His barrack-mates asked authorities to provide him with a wheelchair. “He was an elderly person. For many inmates he was a fatherly figure,” Pavana said.

The family had moved for bail six times out of which four were on medical grounds alone.

“All were rejected,” Pavana said.

Will he have to go back? His family thinks he will not survive another stint in the prison. His readers and fellow poets at Virasam, however, have been asking, “Will he write in Telugu again?”

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