Book Review: 'Why Do You Fear My Way So Much?' by G.N. Saibaba exhibits a fearless mind

A new collection of letters and poems by G.N. Saibaba brings us the undefeated voice of the jailed professor.

Published : May 18, 2022 06:00 IST

Still stubbornly “I / refuse to die / The sad thing is that / They don’t know how to/ kill me/ Because I love so much / The sound of growing / grass.”These powerful words from Prof. G.N. Saibaba, penned from behind a high-security prison wall, reach us like a searing indictment of not just the apparatus that incarcerates him but of our very conscience that stands helpless in the face of the state’s brute power. Despite our strong feeling that it is unjust to lock away an activist who is 90 per cent disabled in an ‘anda cell’ in solitary confinement for life, we are unable to, or I suspect even afraid to, do anything about it.

The title of his collection of poems, essays and letters is a question thrown not just at those who accuse him of waging war against the state but also at those amongst us who recognise the value of defending human rights. Why do you fear my way so much?

What are we afraid of? A legal notice or a sudden raid? An abduction in the name of arrest or a conviction without fair trial? All of which Saibaba faced in the line of defending the rights of others less fortunate than him.

At the launch of this slim volume of around 215 pages, writer-activist Arundhati Roy recalled how she, Saibaba, Gautam Navlakha, S.A.R. Geelani and Surendra Gadling had campaigned against Operation Green Hunt in Chhattisgarh. Gadling was, in fact, Saibaba’s lawyer; he is also behind bars now, along with the others accused in the Bhima Koregaon case. Professor Hany Babu, who was spearheading the campaign for the release of Saibaba, is also in custody in the same case. No one who stood up for Saibaba has been spared. Solidarity, which is inherently a nonviolent act, has been criminalised by the state. Perhaps that is why we are afraid.

But in this part-memoir, which has a detailed description of the injustices meted out to him in prison, penned with the help of his wife, Vasantha Kumari, Saibaba is showing us that he continues to be fearless. His shoulders were injured when security personnel threw him roughly inside a van, and his hands, which used to be the core source of strength for his wheelchair-bound body, are now almost paralysed from damaged nerves left untreated for years. Despite the pain and the weight of the state’s persecution falling heavy on his shoulders, he still finds it in his heart to preach about love. In his terrifying day-to-day existence, where he slips in and out of unconsciousness and feverish dreams, his writings still exude love. It is as if his resilient pen has soaked its ink in some deep reserves of love and refuses to run dry.

He writes affectionate poems to his wife, with whom he could not communicate in Telugu, their mother tongue, as it was declared seditious and difficult to grasp by the prison’s censor department. In fact, these poems were written as letters to loved ones to escape censorship.

In the preface to his book, renowned poet Meena Kandasamy says that denying somebody’s mother tongue is akin to cutting one’s throat. “It is a punishment like no other. This is thought policing at its most dire, a brutal silencing similar to cutting off one’s tongue at the root,” she writes.

She adds that while the country’s criminal justice system continues to be a colonial project, for Saibaba, love is a political project. Despite being shackled and suffering the pain of separation from his wife, Saibaba asks Vasantha to have patience and courage for a bright and breaking dawn. 

He has hope against hope, much like Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of the poet Osip Mandelstam, who was persecuted by Stalin until the very end. Saibaba writes with love to his daughter, Manjeera, encouraging her to empathise with others.

Saibaba feels love, even for the prison guard who wakes up every prisoner in the morning to check whether they are alive or have passed away in the night. In a letter to Sanjay Kak, Saibaba writes an ode to his prison guard, in which he looks into the soul of the prison guard. Does the prison guard ever wonder why he must guard a person who cannot even move or go to the toilet without assistance? What can a person so frail from ill health that he needs a hospital more than anything else do even if the locks on his gate were left open? Do such thoughts cross the mind of the guard, who is more a permanent prisoner in the jail than any of the other prisoners? We do not know. But we can surely ask these questions in the realm of poetry. Questions which can be deemed dangerous under an authoritarian regime but which are otherwise harmless.

In that sense, Saibaba has turned an inherently violent prison sentence into a beautiful and exhilarating struggle for love and freedom, one in which we can all participate through his writings. Through his poetry he is prodding us to think about who is really violent. Someone like him, who advocates love and freedom? Or the state that will not even let him get treatment for his many ailments? 

There is an overwhelming feeling, which few have dared to voice, that the state expects Saibaba to perish behind bars, just like Father Stan Swamy did. But, as Saibaba says, he stubbornly refuses to die. He is physically imprisoned, his wheelchair has been taken away, his hands are broken, his health is deteriorating by the day. He has a cyst in his brain, a bent spinal cord, a huge lump in his abdomen. He contracted COVID twice in prison, and yet his imagination roams free. The state must be at a loss. Even after convicting Saibaba and sentencing him to life behind bars, the man continues to ask questions and even talks of love.

The state has failed abjectly to cage his imagination or trap his spirit that jumps out of every page in the book. His immense love for his family and his ideals of freedom are as alive today as they were before this tragedy befell him. 

He cannot get up by himself, but he can stand up for what is right, stand firm in his convictions and, together with his wife, continue to dream of a world that is free of caste and creed discriminations.

When history is written, Saibaba’s name will be etched in the list of revolutionaries who lived and died for the betterment of society. A revolutionary who fights for a radical change in society, from tyranny to freedom. 

This is not a revolutionary who advocates gun violence, as the state’s narrative seeks to frame him. And he does not ask for pity or mercy either. He has embraced his current reality and is marching on the long walk to freedom, just like Nelson Mandela did, who also wrote his most poignant works while incarcerated.

Perhaps the state fears the power of his words, which even through prison bars can reach multitudes and leave an ever-lasting impact.

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