“A World of Silence is Blown into Smithereens”

GN Saibaba’s poems from confinement

GN Saibaba during a 2016 interview at his residence in Delhi, India, after he was released on a three-month bail for medical reasons. Vipin Kumar / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
24 April, 2020

GN Saibaba, a professor of English at the University of Delhi, was arrested in 2014 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2017, under the allegation that he had links with banned Maoist groups. The draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act had been invoked in his case. After his initial release on grounds of medical treatment—he uses a wheelchair as a result of post-polio residual paralysis of his lower limbs—he wrote about the conditions he had faced in an anda cell in the Nagpur prison. His partner, Vasantha Kumari, passed on the following poems he had written in confinement. 

On 11 April, the Committee for the Defence and Release of Dr. GN Saibaba put out a statement  asking for his release in the face of a threat to his life because of the COVID-19 virus. His health has deteriorated during his incarceration, and he suffers from pancreatitis, high-blood pressure, immobility and sleeplessness.

This Day, Too, Will Pass

Dizziness, nausea, breathlessness.
In the morning’s glossy papers of the day,
the colourful maps of my country
blur my vision.

Rich businesses celebrate
for super profits
with discount offers
up to ninety percent.

The GDP is set to take the plunge this quarter, to an all-time high,
official estimates foretell.
The markets roar 
in one loud and fierce voice
on the holy day.

Outside the high walls of my state’s abode,
the destitute children
in uniforms of half-nakedness,
asking for alms,
parade around the islands
of busy traffic with flags of patriotism made in China
in their wretched and delicate hands,
it’s reported.

Dizziness, nausea, breathlessness…
The prison doctor has a question,
“Are you taking the capsules every morning?”
Thundering shards of pain throw up
dusty storms in my shaky eyes.
He completes the check-up:
“Your B.P. is under control,
nothing to worry about.”

The prosecutor tells the Hon’ble Court:
“His vitals are stable at present.”
The defence counsel raises his voice,
“Which of his vital organs are stable
and for how long since each one?”

 Dizziness, nausea, breathlessness…

 The economists of the regime point out, 
“Markets are charged with animal spirits,”
even as half the people
squirm in distress.

 Amazon, Flipkart—
Sorry, Walmart,
Hindustan Lever—
I mean, Unilever UK—
Thomas Cook,
Alibaba, Oppo
Google, Apple,
OnePlus, PayTM,
Sony, Samsung,
Microsoft, BigBasket,
BigBazaar, Jio, Jaguar,
Honda, Tata, Bata,
Reliance Defence, 
announce special offers
in the tri-colour,
on the solemn occasion.

The nation thrives on colourful commercials.

The demagogue declares,
in flowery oration,
This nation is not made;
it was born in times immemorial—
the oldest nation on the earth,
the largest democracy in the world,
the radio blurts out. 

Inside my god’s abode,
Sacred pakodas come
from his blessed kitchen at 9:30 am,
oily and brown,
but fundamentally entrepreneurial in appearance,
like the ones made by nation’s unemployed self-employed
outside the rail or bus stations
or on pavements perfectly
made in India.

Dizziness, nausea, breathlessness…

Doctors’ advice against oily food comes to my mind.
My pancreas ails,
like eighteen other vitals.
But you shall not refuse
Independence Day pakodas,
lest you be counted for sedition.

Like your caste,
you can never deny your nationalism.

Outside the main gates,
guards salute, 
a large flag 
preceded and followed by Bollywood songs
of patriotism flourishing from loudspeakers.

Dizziness, nausea, breathlessness…
It’s a holiday for free people.
But inside, it’s early lock-up,
like on every public holiday,
or feverish festival.
Special dinner is served at 1:30 pm
Oily, rich aaloo pulao,
with eighteen long hours
of lock-up to follow.

I retreat to the glossy sheets.

Written around 15 August 2018

The Ocean is His Voice

The feisty poet walks up and down,
measuring the yard of gallows,
as Faiz did five decades ago.

Bhima-Koregaon ignites history.
A world of silence
is blown into smithereens.

Poona was the capital of chitpavans.
Once again, their last bastion
raises its ugly fangs.
The ghosts of the Peshwai lash their whips.
Nana orders,
Ghasiram the Kotwal chains humanity
with red-hot iron balls.
Spitoons are hung
to the necks of the earthy hearts.

Here, once the Mahatma
planted a mango tree,
and nudged Ambedkar
into acquiescence, in a war of peace.

A lamp burns everyday
On the tree’s chabutara
As the tourists come and go
In silent obeisance.
The octogenarian poet gazes on
The shadows of its branches
Swaying on the walls of the deathly yard.

A ruthless streak of terror
Is unleashed outside the high stone walls.
Yerwada rises again.

The shadows of Poona’s tyranny
Cast across the stone walls of the nation.

Memories abound,
the tracks of history.

Socrates was given a glass of hemlock,
Galileo was walked to the gallows
for mapping the skies,
for defying the idea of the sun going around the earth.
Hikmet was incarcerated, 
for the Turkish soldiers
read his poems hidden
under their pillows in army barracks.
Faiz faced the death sentence,
as he sang paeans of labouring hands.


Upon seeing the poet handcuffed
and walking through the gates
of an imprisoned court of law,
a dazed scribe of eminence cried, 
heart-broken tears rolling down his cheeks.
Decades have passed.
Now again, 
farcically enough,
history repeats itself.

His poetry smells of the soil.
In it, the oceans churn,
the whirling cyclonic
Eastern winds roar,
the thunderous western monsoon winds
carry torrential rain.
The collective voice speaks
through his nimble words.
His lullabies are hummed to children
Who fall into vivid dreams of the future.
His words echo
in the great mountains,
voluptuous forests,
recalcitrant boulders of the soil,
and the resistance of the earth
flows in tiny streams
through the crevices of the jagged
rocks of the Deccan Plateau,
gathering into the mighty rivers.

It’s poetry, stupid.
It’s stupendous poetry.
It doesn’t need weapons
to smelt break the iron heels of history.

His poetry has winged seeds
that float over to every shore,
sailing on a gentle breeze of love
and embracing the earth’s moisty crust.
The ocean is his voice.

Written on 14 May 2019, for Varavara Rao

I Think of Your Evergreen Smile 

I think of your evergreen smile,
sitting in my solitary prison cell, 
far away from your shining eyes of hope,
while my heart whines and body throbs. 
My life is like that of a tree chopped of its branches, with its roots chopped off. 
My heart throbs with heavy thuds, 
a thousand Himalayas dropping into the Pacific Ocean from the high skies. 
It’s the pain of the farmers, uprooted from their ripe golden fields of crops, 
to make way for a high speed train to roll on them.
It’s the pain of the Adivasis, whose villages are burnt and loved ones shot dead,
to clear the forests to mine the minerals, for the nation to gallop
at a double-digit growth rate. 
In the Maximum Security Prison of the nation, 
on this cloudy monsoon morning, 
I think of the pain of the people and their everyday struggles
for life and death,
while the pain shoots through my left hand, 
and there are twirling aches in my shrunken legs 
and agony in my grisly gut. 
I think of the burning empty stomachs of the millions,
as their pain comes to dwell in my each limb. 
My heart moans, my body trembles,
as there is no treatment for my creaky heart. 
The pain kills me, but I still refuse to die. 
I wonder what you must be doing, lonely,
at this hour, in our garden of love.
Even as my pain speaks eloquently
in the solid silence of my barred cell,
My life is strewn across prisons, police, courts, false-media propaganda
and stinking  corridors of hospitals.

Integrity comes with a thousand days and nights 
of howls of suffering,
stung by the termites of penitentiary power. 
My face shines under the flames of my burning pain,
in the dark entrails of the prison house
of tyranny.
They have imprisoned us, me inside the high walls, you outside,
in the wider prison. 
But who has been spared that dreams of freedom, of a hopeful future? 
They are scared of our dreams, 
frightened of our love for the people of empty hands and bare feet, who love their lands of hope. 

I see the moving August clouds in my mind’s eye,
from the closed gates of my cage.
This morning rain is pregnant with
your message of love. 

The fertile clouds pour onto sprouting seeds of love.

The powers that be
may fell all trees of life,                                                                                                          

but can never hold back                                                                                                           our growing forests of love. 

My fingers’ grip on the iron bars tightens 

as my mind writhes, recalling our days in the fields of freshly soaked grass of rice with
honeyed drops of morning rain.

Written on 17 August 2018 

Declare Yourself a Liberal 

Declare yourself a liberal if you so wish.
Put on a Gandhi topi
or a Nehru hat. 

How does it matter, 
till you internalise a sense of equality? 

If running to temples brings votes,
your rivals run smarter,
and without any running,
every priest would be in a seat of power. 

If magic runs the democracies,
wizards should be the rulers.

Why waste public money on elections? 

If your offerings to Lord Shiva get you into power,
why go around campaigning? 

And brother, if your secularism is at the top of the mountain, 

why do we need a Constitution? 

Kabir says:
“Listen brother,
without justice to the people,
who has ever changed society?”

Written on 28 April 2018 

A True Story of my Heaven and Hell 

This Mahar
didn’t do anything
but a crime
against the state, inviting disaffection by smashing a signboard of the future smart-city,

under the intoxication of self-dignity.

He was contained
under sedition. 

This Chamar
didn’t do anything
but a crime
against the state
inviting disaffection
by refusing to clear a dead cow
from the future smart-city 

under the intoxication of self-assertion. 

He was detained
under sedition. 

The hairy magistrate
behind the golden high table passed his verdict banishing the Mahar and the Chamar from the future smart-cities
for life and the after-life. 

The Mahar was taken to heaven,                                                                                             and the Chamar to the Hell.

Both were entrusted with the holy work of cleaning the shit of gods,
every morning and evening
for life and the after-life
And for  the rest of the day,
all they have to do is clean the sewage. 

Written on 12 April 2018 

Ode to a Prison Guard

He smiles,
he laughs
through the bars
to shake me up
from my early morning dreams,
his morning greeting is
clanking a huge bunch of keys into the cage of my life sentence.

A dark blue Nehru topi
on the scalp,
brutal khaki robes
from top to bottom,
a snake-like black belt around the waist, 
he stands and sways
in front of my sleepy half-opened eyes
like a devil
guarding the gates of hell.

He appears like an apparition from an enemy’s army
but with a warm smile
and friendly face,
checking if one is alive or dead as the day breaks,
counting each live head.

He opens and closes
the locks of the iron gates a thousand times a day,
without expressing pain or complaint.
He demands no tips
or favours
for his untiring services.
He calls the unattending doctor repeatedly on his wireless set patiently
when I am sick and unconscious.

He hides his own sad stories,
lending his patient and compassionate ear 
to the chained melancholic souls,
never bothering about their crime or innocence.

He listens,
and damns
the evil forces in power with scorn
and his eyebrows twist into frowns
when the bosses are in their offices.
He stomps
on the dark steps of the devilish state all night long
with his eagle eyes of surveillance. 

He comes from
the deepest well
of our social misery.
He has no time for his beloved ones languishing outside the gates. 
Imprisoned by his duties,
days and nights
behind the high four walls
and closed gates,
he wastes away
a lifetime in prison,
for a pittance.
The cursed souls come and go,
but he is a permanent prisoner,
he has no holidays
or holy days and weekends.

He is a nun,
a nurse,
and a priest,
pious, persevering and patient.
A tireless slave sticking everlastingly to the bars of my cage, 

He is a friend,
a cousin and a comrade.
He is the guard,
and the guardian
of my life’s sentence, phrases, words and syllables. 

Written on 1 May 2017 

Remembering Justice Rajinder Sachar

You lived life a full circle, into your nineties. 
You remained young at heart, 
in the battles
for the people’s rights,
till you passed away from us.

Many a task at your hand
was crying out for resolution.
If you had lived
a hundred years,
we would have hoped for you to live longer, for our sake.

You would have been young still, 
raising your gentle voice for the rights of the oppressed souls.
In your short and frail body, you weren’t an individual; you were an institution. 
The bugle you blew against the laws of injustice continue to resound in our ears.
The laws of sedition still occupy the dark statute books.
Draconian laws run amok lawlessly. 
Free speech is as elusive as ever, social justice a mirage.

Muslims still live
in the crib of backwardness.
The macabre dance of the death penalty has taken the centre stage
of our public life.

And in the land of the “karmabhoomi, genocides go in the name of encounters.

O Justice,
the thunder dust-storms have darkened the skies over our heads.
People are dying like flies.
You left behind
many of us orphaned.
Now, in these strangest of times
where do we turn to? 

When this impending
shadow of tyranny
started looming large
over the horizon of our democratic space, 
first Balagopal and Krishna Iyer left us, followed by Kannabiran.
Before we recovered from the shock, Shankaran and BD Sharma too, had gone. 
MT Khan, Surendra Mohan passed away. Now you have left us.
We can’t mourn,
or swallow the bitter truth
that none of you are among us today.
You launched a thousand battles to bring down justice
from the ivory towers. 

Your frail figure
stood unwavered like a beacon, 
against the stormy land’s failed gods of democracy.

No forum was too small for you.
No protest was insignificant in your eyes. 
With boundless patience,
you walked the streets of protests.
You sailed along the ups and downs
of the road to people’s rights.
Your gentle words soothed
the despondent hearts.

We knocked at your door
whenever demonic powers
crushed the lives of the people.
You used to open the doors of your heart with outstretched arms,
and warm embraces.

We never left your presence without a plan to confront injustice.
We are the proud inheritors of the architecture of people’s rights, 
Of the jurisprudence you built for us to work with.

Written on 26 April 2018