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  Books   05 Jun 2022  Book Review | G.N. Saibaba’s testimony of agony and hope

Book Review | G.N. Saibaba’s testimony of agony and hope

Published : Jun 5, 2022, 10:46 am IST
Updated : Jun 5, 2022, 12:34 pm IST

This book is not a legal scrutiny of the unfair verdict

Cover image of the book 'Why Do You Fear My Way So Much? Poems and Letters from Prison' by G.N. Saibaba. (Twitter)
 Cover image of the book 'Why Do You Fear My Way So Much? Poems and Letters from Prison' by G.N. Saibaba. (Twitter)

This book by G.N. Saibaba is a challenge to any reviewer. It can be read as a factual document, detailing the sufferings of a disabled person convicted for life. It is evident that the judicial system has been unfair to Saibaba. It is a case of a miscarriage of justice, and it happens time and again with many people, for ideological reasons as in his case, and for non-ideological reasons in the case of many others. This book is not a legal scrutiny of the unfair verdict. It is more a genuine outpouring of thoughts, ideas, and feelings of Saibaba, which he shares with his wife Vasantha, who is his childhood sweetheart. He is 90 per cent disabled, and his health and faculties atrophied because of prison life. He is confined to a cell in Nagpur, which he describes as “anda cell”.  The case of Saibaba needs a separate scrutiny because it just exposes how the judiciary fails to deliver justice, and that it is bound to be unjust. It is a critique that needs to be made. This book is not about Saibaba though there are short pieces on him by Vasantha and writer Meena Kandasamy. It is about Saibaba’s own feelings, thoughts, and ideas. And the challenge becomes greater because the reviewer must make a fair assessment. There is a need to resist ideological affinity, sympathy for his physical condition. It would be a folly to show empathy and compassion. The challenge is to understand and state the human condition as recorded by Saibaba.

And you find the voice of Saibaba in his poems. In “A Terrible Void”, he writes: “A void occupies my mind/and chews the sinews of my life”. And in “A Sparrow in My Cell”, he has this line: “A night train/whistled at a faraway station/like a ghost of a fallen civilisation.”  And in “A Solitary Day in My Cell”, he says: “The future looks/like faint light/from a dying star/in a distant galaxy.” From within the cell of a prison and from within a ruined body, Saibaba’s mind soars, and he shows that the mind of man can break the iron bars of the prison cell. Poetry does not provide him the solace, nor does it take away his mental agony. He feels wronged, and this is no self-pity. He tells himself and others that he has done no wrong and asking people to stand up for their rights is not illegal. Again, you may not agree with him, but you know that he is saying something from the depths of his heart, and there is something genuine and authentic in that voice.

The letters he has written to Vasantha and friends carry the clarity of a man who refuses to give in to despair, but who does not slip into the delirium of the imagination to escape reality. In a letter written to Anjum, a fictional character in Arundhati Roy’s novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, he unflinchingly writes about the ironies of his prison life: “The prison authorities allow me to write letters either in Hindi or in English. I don’t know how to write in Hindi, though I manage to read in the language. I am not allowed to write in my mother tongue as there is no one in this prison staff to censor my letters in Telugu. Therefore, I am not fortunate enough to write to my love in Telugu. She can appreciate my letters only if I write to her in my mother tongue. She also wants to write letters to me in our language, but again they are not allowed.” The ironies stare at you from these plain sentences. Prison life stands exposed.

But it is again in his poems, that Saibaba’s mind shines brightly. In “My Heart is Coloured with the Colour of Love”, he writes, “Kabir says,/I’ve shed all the inherited/dogmas and frailties, and/my heart is coloured with/the colour of love.”

It seems that moments of extreme suffering and despair have a religious intensity to them, and the mind emerges with a steely resolve to love life. And this spirit is reflected in “Don’t Shut the Windows of Our Dreams”, where he writes, “Don’t shut the windows of your dreams/I am coming to see you like a whirlwind.”

The Saibaba we read in this book is in many ways a person apart from the person who in prison and who has acute health problems, almost wasting him away. But Saibaba the writer finds his way out these shackles as it were, and speaks in rich tones of hope that promises ecstasy.

Why Do You Fear My Way So Much? Poems and Letters from Prison
By G.N. Saibaba
Speaking Tiger
pp.  214; Rs. 450

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