Squeezing the olives

Published : Oct 01, 2014 12:30 IST

The cell at Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated.

The cell at Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated.

LIFE in prison has inspired or provoked writers throughout the world to think of the deeper meanings of history, freedom and punishment and to write poetry, fiction and autobiography as a way of asserting the freedom of the spirit even when physically confined within walls. From St. Paul’s writings, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress , Machiavelli’s The Prince , Thomas More’s A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation , Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World , Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’ Arthur , Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II , Richard Lovelace’s To Althea from Prison , Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience , Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics , parts of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus , Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis , Ezra Pound’s Cantos , Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers , Nelson Mandela’s Conversations with Myself , Ho Chi Minh’s Prison Diary , Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks , Julius Fucik’s Notes from the Gallows , Upendranath Bandyopadhyay’s Nirbasitor Atmakatha , Mahatma Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth and Hind Swaraj , Jawaharlal Nehru’s Autobiography and Discovery of India , Wole Soyinka’s Shuttle in the Crypt , Season of Anomy and The Man Died , Rajaji’s Jail Diary reissued as Rajaji’s 1920 Jail Life , Gopanna’s songs on Rama, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s poems and songs, Unnava Lakshminarayana’s novel Malapalli , Jayaprakash Narayan’s Prison Diary and Varavara Rao’s Captive Imagination to cite a few examples from various genres from history, autobiography and fiction to theology, politics and philosophy conceived or written in different periods in states of captivity. Some of them were prisoners of conscience, some political prisoners, some prisoners of war and some in prison for debt, robbery, murder or sexual “deviance” in the eyes of the existing law.

Prison and the writer

Governmentality has hardly existed without its centres of incarceration and its lunatic asylums, whose genealogy can be traced to the apparatuses of discipline and punishment that are born with power, whether that of the king or the state. There has hardly been any dissenting writer of the world, from Nazim Hikmet of Turkey, Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, Kim Chi-Hai of Korea to Ai-Ching of China, Mandelstam of the Soviet Union or Ken Saro-Wiwa of Nigeria, who has not turned the period of his/her imprisonment into a season for reflection, imagination and creative expression. When the literary critic Victor Brombert remarks “Prison haunts our civilisation”, he probably has in mind several canonical writers who have written in or about prison: Daniel Defoe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine, Andre Malraux, George Jackson, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Herta Muller and many others. Prison writing is now a regular subject of special study in many Western universities though whether it is a genre of writing in itself or a sub-genre of regular genres like autobiography, memoir, fiction, drama or poetry, is still a subject of debate. Often they cross borders. Many of the documentary prison novels, for example, represent artful intersections of autobiography and fiction, and their narrators often attempt to attain a sociological precision in depicting the conditions and the nature of relationships behind bars.

Beyond mimetic function

The prison novel represents a mode of literature that attempts to go beyond the traditional mimetic function of fiction; the texts claim to document carceral reality, rather than simply represent it. They do not often recount a life, but focus on telling the story of a specific experience. The telling is necessitated by the brutality of that experience and the narration is motivated by a desire to publicise the nature of the carceral life as it was experienced by the narrator-author figure. These works rely on a combination of textual and paratextual strategies to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction and open up the possibility for referential as well as fictional interpretations as pointed out by Andrew Sobarret in a study of the prison novel as an interdisciplinary subgenre exemplified by Francois Bon’s work, Prison . It is safe to quote Bon to conclude the debate: “The literary process is independent of genre: there is writing: the term ‘narrative’ (recit) is simply a bare minimum of generic definition. The term ‘writing’ (ecriture) is meant to encompass the broadest of connotations.” To examine prison writing is to look at what Michel Foucault calls “the history of the modern soul on trial”.

Punishment, a complex social function

Taking our cue from Foucault’s pioneering work Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison , we can regard punishment as a complex social function, a political tactic to make the technology of power the very principle of man’s knowledge. Punitive mechanisms have had different functions in different systems of production, if we can follow the arguments of Rusche and Kirchheimer ( Punishment and Social Structures ). In a slave economy they serve to provide an additional labour force and constitute a body of “civil” slaves in addition to those provided by war or trading with feudalism. In the early economic systems, the body was in most cases the only property accessible; the penitentiary, forced labour and the prison factory appear with the development of the mercantile economy. But the industrial system requires a free market in labour and in the 19th century, the role of forced labour in the mechanisms of punishment diminishes accordingly and “corrective” detention takes place. In our societies the systems of punishment are to be situated in a certain political economy of the body even if they do not make use of violent and bloody punishment. Even when the rulers use “lenient” methods involving confinement or correction, it is always the body that is at issue—the body and its forces, their utility and their docility, their distribution and their submission.

It is possible to write histories of punishment not only against the background of moral ideas and legal structures, but that of a history of bodies when such systems claim to have only the secret souls of “criminals” as their objective. The political technology of incarceration cannot be localised in a particular type of institution or state apparatus as they have recourse to it and can use its methods selectively. The body politic, the state or the sovereign, uses his/its surplus power to code the “lack of power” that marks the condemned man. Kautorowits would call it “the least body of the condemned man”. The readers of Louis Althusser ( Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays ) and Goran Thorborne ( What does the Ruling Class Do when it Rules? ) must have taken note of their discussions of the ideological and oppressive instruments of the state and their varied uses to generate consent and suppress dissent.

Seminal occasions

In India, we have witnessed four seminal occasions when the state deployed its ideological as well as oppressive instruments to suppress dissent. The first was the period of the pre-1947 anti-colonial struggle; the second was the communist uprising in many parts of India, especially during the 1950s; the third was the period of the Emergency (1975-77); and the fourth, the Maoist upsurge of the late 1960s and early 1970s. All these were occasions when the establishment was challenged and the status quo sought to be subverted from different points of view and with varying ideological biases. The class equations were also different on each occasion. The Emergency was perhaps unique in that it suppressed the liberties of not only those who rebelled against the system but even its long-time allies, the liberal democrats and socialists who had only raised the question of civil liberties and fundamental rights. That was the time when the entire civil society seemed to have been under threat and an ordinance was promulgated to subvert the rule of law, thus revealing the fragile nature of our democracy, which could easily be manipulated by a leader and his allies with vested interests. Other occasions were those of ideological battles where the colonial/class nature of the Indian state was under interrogation. Each of these periods has produced an interesting corpus of prison writing.

This does not in any way mean that the system has been asleep at other periods; on the other hand, many of the tools created or employed during periods like the Emergency—which Giorgio Agamben would call “a state of exception”—seem to have been imperceptibly incorporated into the very system in normal times. The sedition law and the Public Performances Act created during colonial times are invoked and abused even now; new rules such as the notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act are sometimes created for unruly regions and added to the existing legal artillery. Labelling someone “Maoist” or “terrorist” has become the easiest ruse to imprison or even kill anyone with no proper grounds. There are hundreds of cases where after years of incarceration the accused were found not guilty by the courts. Exception at times at least seems to be becoming the rule and if the recent trends are anything to go by, human rights are going to be endangered further. Governmentality, as Charles Taylor remarks, comes not only from the law, but the voluntary adoption of the law by the subjects, and anyone who refuses to adopt this law is considered an outlaw and a potential subject for incarceration. The employment of this law is not entirely free from social prejudices. Recent statistics show that 70 per cent of the prisoners in the United States are blacks; it may not be far wrong to presume that the Dalits, tribal people and minorities, especially Muslims, constitute the majority of prisoners in India. There are even tribes that were marked “criminal” by colonial law, a discrimination that continues even today against which writers like Mahasweta Devi have been raising their voice.

Exercise in self-analysis

A lot of writing has been done in India from prisons in our times though we are yet to take stock of the entire oeuvre. I have no intention to do a survey of such writing, but shall just point to some samples from post-Independence India, from the period of the Emergency. JP’s Prison Diary covers a period of 15 weeks from July 21 to November 4, 1975. The diary opens with a moving confession: “My world lies in shambles all around me.” Rather than a scream of despair, it was an open recognition of the situation after one month of cogitation in solitary confinement. There is no bitterness in the diary, nor any sign of hurt vanity. JP had made a strong comeback to politics in 1974 with his agitation against corruption, food shortages, increase in the cost of living and the dictatorial regimes that had come to power through corrupt electoral practices in Bihar and Gujarat. He had been at the Vinoba Asharm in Paunar, when he had felt a deep urge to give a call to the youth for “total revolution”, though he was 71 and in failing health and was in mourning for Prabha, his late wife. The enthusiastic response to the appeal filled him with a new energy. His call was all-embracing: it was against the caste system, unjust human relations, superstitions, evil customs and manners, and corruption in public life. The movement was given a push by the railway strike called by the socialist trade union leaders led by George Fernandez and by the unprecedented participation of middle-class women, forcing the government to recruit women constables on a large scale.

The diary is an exercise in self-analysis and puts forward a humanist vision of the good society, indicating the kind of effort that would be needed to bring about a sweeping change in society and the battle on many fronts: social, economic, educational, cultural and ecological. Contrasting his forced solitude to the self-imposed loneliness of Aurangzeb, he says: “It is galling…to be shut up like this when the country is being pushed over deeper down the abyss of personal dictatorship is no less than death for me.” He did not give up hope in the people of India and observed that dictatorships can never last in India: “History is witness to the fact that the effort to govern the whole of India from a single centre was never successful.” Each day he wanted to put down one thought in the diary that would together constitute his total view of the movement. He explains the changes in his life: “I had been bitten by the bug of revolution during my high school days. It was then the bug of national revolution and national independence…..The revolution bug took me to Marxism and through the national freedom movement to democratic socialism and then to Vinobaji’s non-violent revolution through love.”

The book also carries the poem quoted at the beginning of this column, where he calls himself a “revolution-seeker” and says how he is only trying to make the thorny passage to change smoother for posterity. The diary is a gripping, humane and realistic document of a dark period in India’s recent history. His vision was not realised in Gujarat nor in India as a whole, perhaps it was the very opposite that happened; yet he set a model for non-violent change through people’s struggles that has gone on being invoked in the later popular uprisings against corruption, the capitalist model of development and patriarchy.

Social analysis and poetic genius

The late K.V. Ramana Reddy’s Jaillo Munnella Muchchata: Virasam Mundu Venkalu and Varavara Rao’s Sahacharulu are different kinds of books written from prison. The authors were builders of the Revolutionary Writers’ Association (Vi. Ra. Sam, or Viplava Rachayitalu Sangham) of Andhra Pradesh. Ramana Reddy’s Detenue Diary reveals both the poet and the committed thinker and revolutionary in him (C.L.L. Jayaprada: “Form and Context: A Comparative Study of K.V. Ramana Reddy’s Detenue Diary and Varavara Rao’s Sahacharulu ”, Prison Writing in India , Sahitya Akademi). The diary reflects his powers of social analysis, critical abilities and his poetic genius in equal measure.

Varavara Rao is primarily a poet and was the editor of Srujana , a radical literary journal in Telugu. His Captive Imagination is structured by the fact of its having been serialised as a column in Telugu and English and its having been written under the nose of the jail authorities, compelling the author to be often indirect and suggestive. (One may recall how Gramsci had to coin new words to express radical ideas in his Prison Diary. ) It also carries several poetic passages. Both the writers felt that prison had given them an opportunity to read, reflect and introspect. They were mostly reading prison writings. Varavara Rao compares Mandela in prison to “iron in a furnace”. He thinks of incarceration as a “physical handicap”. He found that man’s isolation from humanity is the real solitude and unfreedom. He wonders why birds that are free to fly make jail their home; the pigeons seem to have even forgotten to fly. He buries a dead pigeon and links it to the death of several men in a religious riot he read about in the newspapers.

Ramana Reddy provides pen portraits of a lot of prisoners and also points to the caste discriminations and corruption within prison. He continued to take an interest in the outside world and collected information from all possible sources. For the first time he had to cook for his commune and he speaks of the joy as well as the drudgery of the chore. He helped prisoners by writing requests for improvements in the jail and settling their disputes. His health was failing, but he went on battling it with regular diet and exercise. He wrote several letters to those in power demanding the restoration of the rights of MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) detenues. He also continued his organisational work from prison and expelled from Vi. Ra. Sam Sri Sri and Ravi Sastry, two major Telugu writers, for supporting the Emergency. Sri Sri had even said that there was no need for revolution as Indira Gandhi’s economic reforms would usher in social justice! Ramana Reddy refused his wife’s pleas to give an undertaking to the government or even to apply for parole. Varavara Rao’s diary is a fine lyrical work while Ramana Reddy’s is a socio-political document.

It was poetry that got written most in jails during the Emergency. In Kerala, a group of poets brought out an anthology of poetry written in jail, Thadavarakkavitakal (Prison Poems) edited by Civic Chandran, activist and poet. Some of the poets in the collection, like the late P. Udayabhanu, later grew to be significant poets in Malayalam. Radical Punjabi poets like Avtar Singh Sandhu Pash and Sant Ram Udasi were in jail during the Emergency (Pash was arrested before the Emergency). They found jail to be another arena of class struggle and compared the Indian state to a jailer. Udasi writes: “How shameless sons we are/ of you, dear nation,/ who, like rebels taking shelter in your lap/ kept filing cases against you/ under section 212/216/And for these long 29 years we could not get a verdict/ as you remained till date/ the same old jailer” ( Disclaim ). Akshaya Kumar (“Punjabi Prison Poetry: From Ghadar to Emergency”, Prison Writing in India ) notes: “These poets do not mystify the prison as a site of self-purification; they challenge its powers to contain revolution.” “Light has kept the company of clouds for so many years/ None could withhold seasons/ coming in each other’s trail;/ only roofs have suffered/ the pangs of moments/ flourishing on the sharp edges of arrows ( Jail by Pash). If Varavara Rao spoke of the birds homing in the jails, Udasi, the Dalit poet, spoke of the birds flying away from the jail to “taste the fruits of the trees/ grown in the courtyards/ of the untouchables”. Harbhajan Singh Hundal, a moderate protest poet, wonders: “This poetry is a strange thing./ When I am at home, it stays away/ But when I am here/ like some spell it weighs on my nerves/ that aspires to be penned down.” That perhaps sums up the paradox of prison writing.

Email: satchida@gmail.com

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