Telugu poet Varavara Rao was 20 years old when he started penning poems. Six decades on, the 81-year-old poet’s lifelong work is now in limbo as Penguin Random House has stalled the publication of a collection of his poems, citing its concerns about the “nature of charges” levelled against him, The Quint has learnt.
Rao was arrested in November 2018 under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case. He is currently on medical bail and is stationed in Mumbai.
The collection titled 'Varavara Rao: The Revolutionary Poet', which was expected to have 65 poems, was scheduled for publication between June and July 2021. However, by July 2021, Penguin, on the recommendation of its legal team, decided to publish the book only after the court looks into the case. Even though the publisher was to take a subsequent legal opinion on the matter, this too has not materialised, a reliable source in the know told The Quint.
The Bhima Koregaon case is hinged on a complaint filed on 8 January 2018 that accused Left-leaning organisations and activists of having orchestrated the violence that occurred during the bicentenary commemoration of the battle of Koregaon. The assaults targeting Dalits who had gathered at the historic site was, however, allegedly triggered by Hindu Right-wing groups. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is investigating the case. Though arrests related to the case took place through 2018 and 2019, it is not yet clear when the trial will commence.
This would mean that the publication of Rao’s book too could be stalled indefinitely, if Penguin sticks to its legal team’s recommendation. Meanwhile, The Quint has learnt that even before delaying the publication, efforts were on to select poems which are “less controversial”.
Rao’s writing which leans towards the ultra-left has been the raging voice against human rights violations.
In the poem Rising Sun (1978), which was expected to be part of the stalled collection, he wrote:
After pulling the trigger
You turn to the east
Only to find the sky blood red
In that crimson lap
Someone’s eyes have just opened
Penguin's commissioning editor Elizabeth Kuruvilla responded to The Quint's query about the delay in publication. She indicated that the pandemic could have delayed the publication of several titles, including that by Rao's.
"Varavara Rao's book is very much in our publication schedule. It is not the only book in our list whose publication has been delayed in the past pandemic year, as it is undergoing the same rigorous processes we follow for all the books we publish," she said.
Effort to Tone Down Rao’s Writing?
While the bulk of Rao’s poems run easily over a 100, Penguin had considered 65 of his poems for publication. Out of this, three alone were written after his arrest in the Bhima Koregaon case. As it turned cagey over publication, the publisher first dropped the poems which were written from Yerwada Central Prison, where Rao was stationed.
Of the remaining 62 poems, the publisher then wanted to drop around a dozen more to prevent legal complications. Rao’s poems too could be under the NIA’s scrutiny and hence implicate Penguin if the book comes out, the publisher fears, the source said.
However, the NIA’s charges against Rao do not touch upon his writing, so far. According to the NIA, Rao is accused of having links with the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The NIA reportedly claims that the Bhima Koregaon violence took place as per the “guidance” of Rao. The evidence for this, according to the NIA, is a letter where Rao’s name was mentioned. The NIA’s case has drawn widespread flak from several quarters, with activists claiming the evidence is fabricated.
In the poem titled Yes, He Too is a Man (1979), Rao wrote:
He was called a man when he was born
He was called a man when he grew up
But the day he joined the police to earn his bread
His name was lathi, van and rifle
Yes, He Too is a Man was also expected to be in the collection.
Do Penguin’s reservations indicate that the NIA could even consider Rao’s writing to strengthen the case against him?
Rao’s nephew and journalist N Venugopal and writer and poet Meena Kandasamy are the editors of the volume. While Kandasamy refused to comment, Venugopal said, “Publishers are still waiting. They have time to publish till October 2022 as per the contract.”
The Quint has learnt, however, that Penguin could further delay the publication.
The second legal opinion need not favour Rao, whose medical bail could expire shortly. “Penguin could be under pressure from the NIA. Also, there seems to be pressure on the publisher who had of late resorted to publishing books on Right-wing ideologues like Savarkar,” a writer, who had earlier published with Penguin, said.
Penguin Random House-India had recently published the second volume of Vikram Sampath’s book, Savarkar-A Contested Legacy.
Can Penguin Drop the Book?
When The Quint sought legal opinion on the matter, lawyers said that the publisher cannot drop the book violating the terms of contractual agreement. As per the contract, the book can be published within 24 months of signing the contract. The contract was signed in October 2020.
Meanwhile, Rao who is ailing has been wanting to get his work published in English, The Quint has gathered. The poet has suffered several illnesses during his incarceration, and has only been recuperating ever since he got medical bail in February 2021.
If Penguin does not publish his work, Rao can sue the publisher for not complying with the contractual agreement. “The publisher will then have to explain why they pulled out. Penguin will have to explain why their legal team objected to Rao’s writing which is not even under the purview of the NIA,” a legal expert said.
Rao's poems are protected by Article 19 (a) of the Constitution, which ensures freedom of expression. In his 1986 poem, Corpse of Bhetal he wrote:
Carrying the dead body from lock-up on my back
I began walking
‘I will let you know the episode of my death
Solve the riddle: was it a natural death or murder’
Said the corpse
If a dead body, that too from a lock-up speaks,
That must be a murder,
Will the collection, which includes this poem see the light?
Rao, who is expected to undergo a hernia surgery this month, is awaiting an affirmation from Penguin. If Penguin publishes the book, it would be the first such translated collection of his work in English.
Meanwhile, several litterateurs have taken up translations of Rao's poems, ever since his incarceration. Irish, Scottish and Wales PENs held a reading session of Rao's poems in October. A German translation of Rao's poems is also underway. In India, an online reading of Rao's poems was held in 2020. Actor Naseeruddin Shah was among those who read out his poems.