A Different Imagination

Two books that can teach us much about the often misrepresented worldview behind the Maoist cause

Jangalnama:Travels in a Maoist Guerilla Zone Satnam translated by Vishav Bharti Penguin Books India, 2010 216 pages, ` 250
01 September, 2010

GIVEN THE NEWS of the Intelligence Bureau communiqué calling human and civil rights groups across the country fronts for the Maoist cause, and the Union Home Minister announcing that Maoist supporters will not be spared, the authors of both books under review are in danger. One of them (Varavara Rao) has already been in and out of jail for decades now, the other (Satnam) is absolutely clear about his sympathies with the tribals and the Maoists. Yet to read these books in the simplistic manner in which the state wants us to view the issue—Us (the state) vs Them (the Maoists)—is to do the authors a great disservice.

Writer-activist Arundhati Roy has been resisting the framing of the debate in these terms, and in a recent talk organised by the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights in Mumbai, questioned the category ‘Maoist.’ But looking beyond such reductionism is not what the State and the media are interested in and so Roy, and anyone else, is frequently forced to speak in the State’s facile terms or misrepresented as doing so. Reading Satnam’s Jangalnama: Travels in a Maoist Guerilla Zone is refreshing because (having been written a decade ago) it is unfettered by the current culture of paranoia, surveillance and undemocratic pressure applied by the State. Such pressure can be seen in Sudeep Chakravarti’s Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, published in 2008, where his use of adjectives and smart-alecky turns of phrase illustrate his need to come across as ‘objective’ and ‘unbiased.’ Like Satnam, Chakravarti calls his book a travelogue, but assumes a neutral position—the famed looking at both sides—that is untenable, and results in a voice quite different from Satnam’s.

Satnam’s narrative comes from a position that is not of the Maoists but of the powerless and the oppressed—the tribals who live in the jungle. Satnam is granted access to them by the Maoists, who mainly consist of, work closely with and are dependent upon the tribal forest dwellers. His book offers us the first comprehensive account of tribal life and Maoist organisation (it was published in Punjabi in 2002 and has since been translated into several Indian languages and now into English). Satnam spent two months in the jungles of Bastar with the tribals and Maoists. More recent accounts have been based on shorter visits by Arundhati Roy and Gautam Navlakha.

Divided into three sections—‘Entering the Jungle,’ ‘Inside the Guerilla Camp’ and ‘Walking Through the Jungle’—the book follows from Satnam’s decision in 2001 to go to the jungles of Bastar and see for himself what the Maoists were doing. As an activist, he does not have the illusion of objectivity. He says of his subjects: “Outlawed and declared rebels by the establishment, they wish to turn their dream into reality—the dream of a new era and a new life.” He says he is going to offer, in the community’s own words, an account of “the turn they want to give to history,” but of course these are their words filtered through him and he is not a transparent filter, not only because he does not speak Gondi or almost any of the languages of his subjects, but also because he brings to the narrative his own views as a non-tribal and an urban activist.

Satnam can frequently be patronising about the tribals but he seldom wavers from his purpose, which is to appreciate their worldview and understand their lives. It is very clear throughout that he finds the tribal engagement with nature far more sustainable than the urban, the lack, among the tribals, of the kind of religious prejudice that leads to murderous violence very refreshing, and the commitment and discipline of the Maoists in forging an alternative way of living utterly commendable. The most profound achievement of this book is that it offers us an unflinching account of the lives, the strengths and the difficulties of the Gonds of Bastar and a non-romanticised account of the Maoist guerillas working with them.

Captive Imagination: Letters from Prison Varavara Rao Penguin Books India, 2010 208 pages, ` 350

He manages both through meticulously assembling details about the lives of these two groups, which makes the occasional foray into soapbox rhetoric or patronising observation easy to forget. What stays with the reader is the hard labour of the tribals building small dams and ponds with basic implements, their day-to-day difficulties foraging for food and fighting disease (almost none of them live to old age; infant and maternal mortality rates are very high), their songs which are always sung collectively, the long periods for which they can dance as if possessed, their commitment to collective farming and fishing, and how they take to the Maoist path because it is in consonance with their worldview and protects them from the violent incursions of the state.

The Maoists come across as incredibly disciplined, committed and conscientious people, humanists in their struggle to protect the sustainable and ignored vision of the world of the tribals. The book features a gallery of characters, most of them tribal, who reveal the Maoists to be amongst the most committed to the democratic ideals of the Indian state—from Pavan, a doctor who takes the Hippocratic oath seriously and ceaselessly attends to sick tribals, teaching them elementary medicine, to Aetu, a fiery scientist always thinking up new ideas; from Raju, always asking questions, to Chandan who organises the cultural team; from Narang, who roams the jungles helping tribals with agriculture and who adopted a little girl, to the quiet and thoughtful Srikant. Somanna asks Satnam a series of rhetorical questions about the State at the end of the book, and points to Bailadila, Tatanagar, Sardar Sarovar and the World Bank. Somanna’s answer to the question of whether the gun is the only option is: “Had there been [another] one, there would have been no need to pick it [the gun] up.”

The descriptions of female Maoists are even more memorable. From Lachchakka, who ran away from an oppressive marriage and in search of the Maoists because of her burning desire to serve the cause of justice, to Sushma, a Bangladeshi who grew up in Orissa and has experienced what it means to be in a minority several times over; from Basanti, who is clear and articulate about how justice can be organised and delivered at the village committee level, to Jaya, whose anger and hatred for her father and patriarchy makes her hands shake and her lips quiver—these are women who will not take suffering anymore. They are the model feminists in this country. When Satnam persists in insensitively asking Jaya how she would feel if she were among the women raped and killed by state forces in the Karimnagar incident, she puts down her gun, asks for a notebook and pencil and writes: “Here lies buried a girl who dreamt of seeing patriarchy end forever. She joined the proletarian revolution because only that could prove effective in ending patriarchy.”

What these portraits offer is the kind of complexity the State needs to learn from rather than respond to with brute force and in favour of corporate interests. Indeed, the state features in the narrative only as a brutaliser of the tribals, ravaging their land (Bailadila), displacing them (Narmada), raping them (Karimnagar), and killing them (‘encounters’ in which members of cultural troupes—singers and dancers—are killed). Refusing simple binaries, what Satnam offers is a nuanced picture to which a state gone mad with power and money must pay attention to save itself.

A medicine man treating an ailing woman in a ‘liberated’ village in Chattisgarh in September 2009 . SAMI SIVA FOR THE CARAVAN

THIS ACKNOWLEDGEMENT need not be the unconditional support offered by Varavara Rao in his afterword to Satnam’s book, but more the kind of attention Rao pays to his own body, mind and the world around him in Captive Imagination, his diary from prison. As a member of the frequently outlawed Virasam (Revolutionary Writers’ Association) in Andhra Pradesh, and as someone who has been jailed several times by the Andhra Pradesh state for conspiracy and twice been an emissary of the Maoists to the State, Rao is clear in his politics, even clearer than Satnam. Rao is a revolutionary poet, fiery public speaker and radical voice of dissent.

Contemplative, lyrical and interspersed with delicate verse, his voice in Captive Imagination is different, however. The narrative is introspective—a contrast to the exteriority of most of his speeches and poetry. While his commitment to his ideology does not waver—Naxalbari, in his words, was an awakening—it would be deeply impoverishing to dub these 13 chapters, written as letters from prison for The Indian Express and published in Andhra Jyothy in Telugu, as mere Naxalite propaganda. Indeed, most of the book is not overtly ideological, but deals with Rao’s engagement with nature, with silence, with dreams and with language.

These letters document, through his own voice and those of others (he speaks, for instance, of a comrade he meets in jail who has been in and out of prison for 40 years from the time of the Telangana peasant struggle in 1946), the repressive and violent nature of Andhra Pradesh as a state. Rao was recently in the press because he has been getting death threats, not a new phenomenon in his life. Generations of civil rights activists have been brutally murdered or gone missing in Andhra Pradesh, killed by the state. Rao has lived through it all and continues to live through it in these letters from prison.

While the letters do mention all this, the bulk of them mine his resources for survival behind bars: planting seedlings and watching them grow into trees, watching birds and animals, the sky and the moon, and never losing one’s sense of humour even as mice edit one’s court papers in the cell. Tracking the body and mind as they wait, as they fall into routine, as they put together the news from censored and blackened newspapers, as they expect letters that often never arrive, as they send letters that will be checked, as they sleep and dream, wake and pace, Rao reminds us that ultimately one is inseparable from one’s own body and mind—one has to learn patience and equanimity.

For a writer and public speaker, learning the value of silence is important for Rao, even as he nurtures the abstract idea of freedom which continues to burn within. Books are a means of sustenance. Talking to others through books, others who are in prison or have suffered the denial of freedom, is as important as poetry, which creates individual space and allows for the sharing of experience, the “truth that cannot be concealed.” He writes of subcultures created out of necessity with comrades in jail—other writers, activists who become poets or whom poetry helps survive, even jail staff.

If there is a disappointing chapter on the figure and trope of the mother who has no agency but becomes the nurturer, the revolutionary force, the revolution, the earth and so on, this is countered by humane, real-life portraits like the one of the illiterate man who pores over newspapers every day or the woman who waits for the postman to bring her old-age pension and to whom Rao likens himself. There are insights such as how the Emergency taught white-collar people what being in jail is like and crucial questions about who will prosecute the State when it is the abuser.

Varvara Rao is a revolutionary poet, fiery public speaker and radical voice of dissent against the Indian state.. G Kaleshwara Rao/AP Photo

Particularly moving is an account of how the silence and the aloneness makes one lose control over language—the tool of the poet, the writer—and forget words, reaching for them when one finally meets someone, and yet how words are nourished through solitude and silence. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, in his foreword to the book (Rao was inspired in jail by Wa Thiong’o’s own account of being in jail in Kenya and translated his  Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary and some of his novels into Telugu), speaks of how at the heart of these letters is the imagination. Wa Thiong’o’s is a naïve and commonplace conception of the imagination as unfettered and unfetterable. But what Rao’s letters speak about is in fact the constriction of the imagination and how that constriction makes one see things anew. Birds, for example, are not silly symbols of freedom in Rao’s view but symbols “of bonds that must be forgotten,” and “of the past trapped in the present.”

Arundhati Roy has spoken about how it takes a different kind of imagination to understand the tribals, their world and how they live, an imagination we must learn to cultivate. Both these books give us glimpses into these alternative imaginations. It is up to the Indian State, up to us, to learn from them.