Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous
Telugu poet and activist Varavara Rao is a thin, wiry man with the kind of leanness that Julius Caesar found scary in Cassius in Shakespeare’s play. Rao was arrested in 2018 on charges of inciting caste violence and plotting to assassinate the Indian Prime Minister (and released on bail in 2022 on health grounds). The publication of this anthology of Rao’s poetry has been much delayed reportedly because of legal issues. Some words used by Rao have apparently been removed from the translation to avoid attracting the charge of sedition.
Varavara Rao: A Life in Poetry
But reading his poetry, all such fears seem unfounded, for there are no calls for weapons or violence here. Instead, there are powerful words laying bare inequality, injustice, and the wretched quality of life of the underclasses. There is seething anger, a call for justice, and words that speak the unvarnished truth. As in these lines from the poem “The Butcher”:
The real butcher is
This poem dating back to 1985 juxtaposes the life of a professional butcher with the one who kills wantonly, without any purpose. The framework is the legal testimony of a butcher who witnessed the killing of a student activist in Kamareddy in Telangana.
Edited by former journalist and Rao’s nephew N. Venugopal, and poet and activist Meena Kandasamy, the collection has poems from six decades of Varavara Rao’s literary career. A majority of the poems are translated by Venugopal. The brief introduction by Kandasamy frames the approach to the poems, which resonate with the yearning for equality, freedom, and justice for all.
One of the longer poems, called “Déjà vu”, translated by K. Balagopal, is about the 1986 agitation in undivided Andhra Pradesh when the State planned to increase the percentage of reservation. It goes:
“The poetry of Rao is tightly wound up with his motherland Telangana, which witnessed a prolonged armed struggle by peasants that began in 1946 and continued after Independence.”
You are meritorious
You can break the windows of buses
In a shape as symmetric as the sun’s rays.
The refraction of light suggested by the words reveal two distinct worlds—one inhabited by privileged upper-caste boys who are briefly detained in function halls and lionised by the media, and the other boys without generational privilege who end up in prison.
- There are no calls for weapons or violence in Varavara Rao’s poetry, a recently published anthology of which is reviewed here
- Edited by former journalist and Rao’s nephew N. Venugopal, and poet and activist Meena Kandasamy, the collection has poems from six decades of Varavara Rao’s literary career.
- The poetry of Rao is tightly wound up with his motherland Telangana, which witnessed a prolonged armed struggle by peasants that began in 1946 and continued after Independence.
The poetry of Rao is tightly wound up with his motherland Telangana, which witnessed a prolonged armed struggle by peasants that began in 1946 and continued after Independence. The state used the army to squelch it. But the reasons behind the armed resistance—the feudal system, unequal distribution of land, and ill-treatment of the peasantry—did not go away with the struggle’s suppression. Inequality persisted as powerful landlords and politicians controlled state power. The lingering resentment morphed into what has been labelled as naxalism or the Maoist insurgency. Rao engages with this conflict stemming from the persistent unfairness in society.
People of the day before may be missing yesterday
Yesterday’s memorial may have gone today.
Yet, Indravelli prevailed yesterday, today and the day before.
Indravelli is one of the places associated with the Adivasi struggle for land, water, and forest.
In “Paradise of Love”, the poet pays tribute to Warangal, the small town on the edge of Hyderabad where he grew up, was educated, and taught students. Warangal, as the fulcrum of the armed movement, has nurtured independent thinkers.
Oh, the city that taught me
Even as it learnt from me.
The city that spreads my words
While teaching me how to talk.
Rao turns inward when he reflects on the connection between words and poetry. There is a lilt and melody in Telugu words, meanings that can be found only in this language. Satyam is the name of a person and also means truth. Similarly, maaTalu can mean words, conversation, and also gossip. The translation captures the essence of the language—a rare feat indeed.
This spare and precise translation embodies the spirit of a rebellious poet without unnecessary drama. The original Telugu name of each poem is given in the footnote with a brief explanatory text laying out the context, to make the poems accessible to everyone. Just as the frail, ailing but still outspoken poet would have liked it to be.