‘You don’t understand
It is the secret called Poetry
that is the most dangerous
About my being’
– Revolutionary Telegu poet Varavara Rao, 81, battling COVID-19 after being jailed by the Modi govt on what analysts believe are trumped-up charges. Harsha Prabhu takes up the story.
It was a sunset to die for.
Even as I bathed in its crimson afterglow on Arambol beach in Goa, breathing in lungfuls of ozone-laced, briny air, muttering my Ommanipadmehums, I found myself sucked into the vortex of thoughts about death and dying.
And there was a whole lot of death around. Both personal and civilisational.
The death of relationships; the death of friends and relatives near and far; the death of thousands from sickness, wars, hunger; the slow death from social and economic exploitation.
Add to this deadly brew corporate fascism, involving a frontal assault on human rights and democracies everywhere. Our whistleblowers, poets and prophets are in jail, while criminals and conmen rule the roost.
To top it all off, there’s a climate emergency and the ongoing mass deaths from species extinction. Looks like we’ve gone and ordered a Supersize Deathburger – and would you like a pandemic with it? No wonder people everywhere are afraid.
Some are afraid to breathe because of a virus; others can’t breathe due to the jackboot of fascism pressing down on their necks.
No wonder people are sick: fear and angst are the greatest threats to the body’s immune system. This civilisational pandemic is infecting our dreams.
Dreams of being attacked by bugs and flying insects; wearing or not wearing masks in public places; people coughing on us or we on them; of claustrophobic lockdowns in prison-like isolation; and, for frontline health workers, nightmares of failing to revive people on ventilators in ICUs, according to a recent Harvard study.
Indeed, the world itself feels like a nightmare we are all trying to wake up from. Fake news abounds; cognitive dissonance and confusion are paramount.
How to make sense of it all? “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will,” said Romain Rolland, that great synthesiser of West and East, who received an ‘electric shock’ when he read Swami Vivekananda for the first time.
The Marxist philosopher-activist Antônio Gramsci, writing from Mussolini’s jails, compressed this dictum to ‘pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.’ As a way of responding to fascism in the 1930’s and as an inspiration for what he saw as the necessary and inevitable socialist revolution to come. That revolution is still a long time coming.
Instead, we are living in a dystopia darker than the darkest Orwellian night, that matches anything served by J G Ballard, that master of post-apocalyptic fiction.
Yet we who believe in freedom and basic human rights for all are compelled to walk the fine edge of this tightrope between pessimism and optimism.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we are impelled to believe, in the words of Arundhati Roy, that “another world is (still) possible.” What is the third force, beyond intellect and will? Beyond death itself? It must be love.
But to get to love we will have to pass through the gates of hell.
Willingly or, more often, unwillingly, we go to meet our maker, the mad molecule of the final mystery – death.
Naked we go into the netherworld. Even Inanna, the Goddess of Heaven, was stripped of all her vestments to appear naked in front of the Anunnaki, the lords of the underworld, in the old Sumerian myth.
The myths are clear; once we embark, the helpers appear.
In folk and fairy tales, these could be animals or wise women and men. A talking dog (Lenape Native American tribe), a talking wolf (Prince Ivan), a wooden doll (Vasilisa the Beautiful), a fairy godmother (Cinderella), or a puss in boots. Or a God, like Krishna in Bhagwat Gita. Or real, historical people. Virgil leads Dante through the dark wood of purgatory, before Beatrice takes over at the gate to Paradise.
Sometimes these helpers appear in our dreams.
Says Joseph Campbell: ‘One has only to know and trust, and the ageless guardians will appear…and continuing to follow courageously as the consequences unfold, the hero finds all the forces of the unconscious at his side. Mother Nature herself supports the mighty task.’
As some trenchant observers of the scene – including Charles Eisenstein and Arundhati Roy – have pointed out, the virus is a mirror, who’s image is our own face, warts and all; a portal through which we must pass if we are to endure.
Our return was prophesied; but only if we seek to re-integrate the hideous face in the mirror as our own.
Thus we shall not shirk from embracing death. For, out of this dying, and the composting of our detritus, including our old belief-systems, something new and even beautiful might rise.
LOVE & REVOLUTION
It was Che Guevara who said: ‘The true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love.”
Like Black Lives Matter and the mothers on the barricades in Portland, USA.
Like Extinction Rebellion everywhere.
Like Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage), the feminist collective, some of whom are languishing without bail in Modi’s jails, along with students, Muslims and human rights activists and academics – including Anand Teltumbde, the brilliant Dalit intellectual – for supporting a pro-democracy movement in India.
Like Goencho Ekvott, a coalition of 23 citizen’s groups from Goa, that have banded together to protect Goa’s environment – and challenge the government’s plans to expand rail infrastructure in Goa.
(What’s the additional rail for? To facilitate the movement of coal from Adani’s coal mine in Australia. Shipped from a coal port at the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef. In an act of symmetrical vandalism, the Modi government has infrastructure plans for the World Heritage-listed Western Ghats, one of eight biodiversity hotspots in the world).
Like the Knitting Nanas, radical grandmothers peacefully protesting against the fossil folly of coal seam gas and coal in Australia.
Like the next wave rising even as you read these words.
The words of Varavara Rao:
The real secret is
My poetry came to life
Drinking the breastmilk of social movements.
From the hands you tied
As an uninterrupted string of grief and rage,
As a sight that blazes tears,
poetry keeps streaming through the red veins of my language.’
Even death has no dominion over the radical poet’s love song for the people.
Affirming the power of love – and compassion – in a time of a pandemic of fear and fascism in all its avatars might itself be a revolutionary act.
From the bars of our own lockdown – and armed with compassion – we may begin to see the year-long lockdown in Kashmir through different eyes. Or the lockout of Palestinians from their country since 1948. Or the dispossession of aboriginal people everywhere from their lands for a thousand years or more.
As the Dalai Lama says: ‘Compassion is the radicalism of our time.’
Since we’re talking love, death and revolution, I’d like to end this piece with a quote from a poet from Byron Bay, in the ‘rainbow region’ of north eastern New South Wales.
This region and its people seeded the sustainability movement in Australia, powered by a radical, non-violent ‘heart politics.’
While cynics may have initially dismissed this rag-tag bunch of hippies as the peace, love and brown rice mob, whose weapons were songs and rainbow flags, governments and corporations were forced to take them seriously, for the movement led to far-reaching changes on the ground, both environmental and political.
These include the campaign to prevent the logging of pristine rainforests in New South Wales in 1979; the Franklin Dam agitation in Tasmania in 1980; several anti-nuclear campaigns across Australia; and the successful Bentley Blockade and Lock the Gate against coal seam gas in 2014 in Lismore. The movement also saw the election of Greens Party councillors and Greens mayors in the region. Its focus has now shifted to the Stop Adani campaign across the border in Queensland.
In other words, the dirty hippies were right all along! This virus of love – and the power of community to unite to effect lasting change – is equally contagious, and offers us a silver lifeline of hope in these dark times.
Surrender, you are surrounded
there is no way out but in
Into the centre of this crazy lovesong
that has no beginning and knows no end.
– from Lovesong, Gina Lacosta
Pic: Arambol sunset ©Harsha Prabhu
I’m indebted to Lalita Ramdas for the information about Varavara Rao. The translations of Rao’s poem are by Rohit.
A letter signed by global academics calling for the release of Varavara Rao and other political prisoners in India is here:
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.