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'Death of Imagination': Meena Kandasamy on Penguin Censoring Varavara Rao's Book

Meena Kandasamy, an editor of Varavara Rao's book, says climate of fear among publishers is real in India.

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'Death of Imagination': Meena Kandasamy on Penguin Censoring Varavara Rao's Book
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Penguin Random House (PRH), a leading publisher in India, has prescribed removal of several words including 'Hindutva,' 'Sangh Parivar,' and 'Ayodhya,' from Telugu poet Varavara Rao's book – Varavara Rao: The Revolutionary Poet.

Poet, novelist, and translator Meena Kandasamy, who is one of the editors of the book, speaks to The Quint in an interview about the legal vetting. She says, "For me, as an editor it is devastating. As a writer, it is even more heartbreaking because what happens to Varavara Rao today will happen to all of us tomorrow."

The Quint accessed a copy of the edited draft of the book and reported on 3 June that the legal team of the publisher has flagged references to 'saffronisation,' 'UAPA', and 'Naxalbari'.

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The suggested changes in the draft reflected Penguin's fear of being slapped with sedition and defamation cases. Varavara Rao who was incarcerated in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case is currently out on medical bail.

The publisher has also attempted to define the word 'revolution' for Varavara Rao as, "transformation to an egalitarian society through peaceful means and dialogue" even as the writer has not defined the word in this work. The Quint had reached out to the publisher but has not got a reply from PRH.

Here is an edited excerpt from our interview with Meena Kandasamy:

You are a writer who has translated and published several works. Varavara Rao is a prolific poet whose work has been published in Telugu and other languages including English. Why did you want a translated collection of his poems to be published by a reputed publisher like Penguin Random House?

Two years ago, a senior commissioning editor at Penguin Random House seemed keen on this project, and asked us to submit a proposal. I wrote this book proposal, invited Venugopal Rao (a writer, translator, and Varavara Rao’s nephew) on board and we submitted it.

I learnt from Venugopal that Varavara Rao had always wanted an anthology of his life’s work to be published by Penguin, and that he had (prior to his imprisonment) even picked out the particular poems which best represented his oeuvre. PRH is one of India’s biggest publishing houses, and all of us have a working relationship with it. I have at least two books forthcoming with them, so I don’t think the choice of Penguin was anything peculiar.

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The poetry collection is being edited at a critical time as poet Varavara Rao was incarcerated for long, in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case, and is now out on bail. He is an 83-year-old whose health condition had deteriorated in prison. What does the publication of this collection of poem mean to him now, at the sunset of his life?

I would like to clarify that these suggestions are from the legal teams weighing in. The edits were already finished by February 2021, and we have spent more than a year waiting out for the legal opinion to come out.

I think his poetry means the world to him. Varavara Rao does not accept awards and honours. He does not believe in that kind of thing. He wants his work to reach everyone, and I think given his ill-health and his old age, this is one of his most cherished dreams. It is terrifying that we now inhabit a climate of political repression where poetry is so severely under assault. I don’t want to single out Penguin here, I think the fear of malicious litigation, false cases, arbitrary arrests is very, very, very real.

Is there a climate of fear among publishers in the country where they feel sedition, defamation, or criminal cases can be filed against them for publishing uncensored political content?

I think the atmosphere of fear is real – people are getting arrested over tweets. In such a climate, there is genuine fear. However, what needs to also be considered is that Penguin is not a small independent organisation operating out of two rooms and a single computer.

They have the resources to stand up for what they believe in, they have the resources to fight malicious litigation should it arise.

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Now with Penguin Random House suggesting that several words, stanzas and even poems be dropped from the collection, is it possible to maintain the integrity of his work?

Varavara Rao is no stranger to Penguin Random House. They have previously published Captive Imagination, his letters from prison. On their website, this is how they describe him: “Varavara Rao is a well-known Telugu poet and an ideologue of Maoist politics. He is one of the founders of VIRASAM “Revolutionary Writers Association” the first of its kind in India, directly inspired by the Naxalbari and Srikakulam adivasi peasant struggles.” The fact that his poetry uses words like 'revolution' and 'Naxalbari' are a given, they are an open secret.

The question that we must ruminate is – what caused such a shift in the perspective of a mainstream publisher? Varavara Rao was palatable, they were happy advertising him as a Maoist ideologue on their websites. They were happy to carry an author-bio which said that he founded Virasam, inspired by the Naxalbari struggle. This shift is not linked to poetry, poetic sensibility. It is not linked to who is in charge at Penguin. It is not linked to a specific editor or specific legal expert.

It is the result of the threats to freedom of expression which we are facing in India at the current moment. Nobody wants to say or print the wrong thing because all of us know that the prison awaits.

Now that the book seems to be highly censored, would you want to tell Varavara Rao that his poems have been censored?

I cannot say. This is for Venugopal to answer. For me, as an editor it is devastating. As a writer, it is even more heartbreaking because what happens to Varavara Rao today will happen to all of us tomorrow. The worse is that under such a climate of fear, it is not only publishers who will work towards self-censorship but individual writers and artists will second guess themselves. It is a death of imagination and a death of freedom.

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Each writer has their own ideas and styles. An edit is expected to enhance the writer's work. What had you expected the publisher to do when they decided to publish Varavara Rao's poetry, which is highly political in nature? What would have been the best editing practice?

Every poem goes through numerous drafts – and first of all, on the poet’s table. These revisions happen until the time it reaches the publisher, and of course, editors suggest changes too. I think this is often because of poetic sensibility, because one word might work better than the next, some words may be struck out because the poem is garrulous or repetitive.

I definitely believe that all great literature comes out not only because the writers and poets are giving it their all, but because editors do a lot of work behind the scenes in sharpening the work. I’m saying all this because no one throws a fit if changes are made to a poem – but these changes cannot undermine or dilute the message of the poem.

Varavara Rao's bail conditions do not allow him to make media statements. So, does the censorship also mean a disservice to his work so far, especially at a time when he is weak?

The Bhima Koregaon-Elgar Parishad conspiracy case is a case of pure political vendetta to silence voices of dissent in the country. At a moment like this we would expect the literary community to stand behind him, and to support his freedom and lend their voice against his wrongful incarceration. Instead of that, publishers seem to be operating under a pandemic of fear.

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This may not be the end of the world. Would you want another publisher to attempt publishing Varavara Rao's poems? Is that an option?

I would personally prefer that this book is published and it sees the light of day. However, this is not a decision that I can take single-handedly. Venugopal and Varavara Rao have to weigh in.

(This is an interview and the views expressed are that of the interviewee's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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