Why Do You Fear My Way So Much?

As we speak, several academics, poets, and activists – Varavara Rao, Hany Babu, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj (since given bail), Stan Swamy (who passed away) Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, G. N. Saibaba – are/were languishing in Indian prisons simply because they raised their voices against injustice. The Indian state has wrongfully charged them under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (an anti-terror law) and alleged that they were linked to banned Maoist organizations. Most of these activists have spoken against Dalit and Muslim oppression under state violence. That’s pretty much their crime.

Why do You Fear My Way so Much? is a collection of poems and letters from one such activist, Dr. G.N. Saibaba, a professor of English at Ram Lal Anand College in Delhi University. G.N.Saibaba is a person with 90% disabilities and is wheelchair-bound. He was arrested under the UAPA in 2014. In 2017, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for alleged links to a banned Maoist organization, which Saibaba has denied. An activist from his student days, he became the target of the state when he played a major role in the campaign against Operation Green Hunt, the paramilitary offensive against Adivasi people. In 2021, Ram Lal Anand College terminated Dr. G.N. Saibaba’s services.

In Why do You Fear My Way so Much?, we read letters and poems written by Dr. G.N. Saibaba as well as a few letters that his wife writes to him. He is not allowed to write letters in Telugu from the prison, his mother tongue. Even worse, he has been denied the medical care that he needs, even during the pandemic. The poems tell us about the dire state under which Dr. G.N. Saibaba has been detained by the Indian state and the resilience and hope he harbors in spite of it all. Here are some of my favorite ones:

The True Prison

It’s not the high walls
nor the solitary cell.

It’s not the clanks of keys
nor the sounds of surveillance.

It’s not the monotonous food
nor the cruel hours of lock-up.

It’s not the pain and suffering in isolation
nor the fear of death.

Neither the emptiness of days
nor the blankness of the nights

My friend, it’s the lies that spread
on the high tables of justice.

It’s not the canards thrown at me
by the enemy of the people,
nor the intrigues of criminal jurisprudence,
nor the demagoguery
of the political establishment.

My friend, it’s the silence of voices
against injustice done to the vast multitudes.

Some silence is imposed,
rest is self-imposed.
Some censorship is ordered
rest is self-practiced.
It’s this web that is cast around us.

It’s not the fear for the powers-that-be,
but it’s the fear in the voices
to give voice to the voiceless.

It’s the moral decrepitude.
It’s the hubris of a civilization.
It’s the amnesia of our combined
histories in struggles for a free society.

Dear friend, it’s it
that turns our world
into a true, dreary prison.

If you needed any reason to get this book and read it, this poem is the justification you needed.

Here’s a small excerpt from another poem, Mother, Weep Not for Me which demonstrates his resilience.

Mother, fear not for my freedom.
Tell the world,
my freedom lost
is freedom gained for the multitudes
as everyone who comes to stand with me
takes the cause of the wretched of the earth
wherein lies my freedom.

[post script: Mother, I hope someone translates this letter in Telugu for you. Mother, pardon me for writing this in a foreign language that you don’t understand. What can I do? I am not allowed to write in the sweet language you taught me in my infancy in your lap. – Your child, with love.]

I refuse to Die

When I defied death again,
tired of my life,
my captors released me.

I walked out
into the lush green valleys
under the rising sun
smiling at the tossing blades of grass.

Infuriated by my undying smile,
they captured me again.

I still stubbornly refuse to die.
The sad thing is that
they don’t know how to kill me,

because I love so much
the sounds of the growing grass.

Reading this book, one gets a glimpse into Dr. G.N. Saibaba’s politics that speaks of injustice against Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, Palestinians, and Yemeni people. His compassion even extends to the prison guard who surveils him. It is perhaps one of my most favorite poems from this collection, only because its expansiveness is challenging for me personally.

Ode to a Prison Guard

He smiles,
he laughs
through the bars
to shake me up
from my early morning dreams
with a hug
of a good morning
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
girded with 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 were 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 favors
for his untiring services.
He calls the unattending doctor
repeatedly on his wireless set
when I am sick and unconscious.

he hides
his own sad stories
lending his patient
and compassionate ear
to the voices of the chained
melancholic souls
never bothering for their
crime or innocence.

He listens,
and damns
the evil forces in power
with scorn
and a frown on his brow
when the bosses
are away into their offices.

he stomps
on the dark steps
of the devilish states
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
day and night
behind the high four walls
and closed gates,
he spans 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,
a pious perseverer
of patience.

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.

Highly recommend this book to free ourselves from the prison of silence that’s being cultivated in India.
Review on good reads:

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