When Varavara Rao was arrested in 2018, many of the demands for his release focused on his identity as a poet. “What kind of country are we,” a concerned citizen said in dismay, “when we put poets behind bars?” This, perhaps, is an indication of the revolutionary power that poetry can have.
Hamraaz is an anonymous poet on Instagram who has amassed a community of 1,500 followers for their poems about instances of oppression at the hands of the government. With a bio that reads “Here is where I whisper poems about the dark times”, Hamraaz ends every post with a seemingly ominous request. They ask their followers to DM them their e-mail IDs for the project’s mailing list. “It’s an insurance policy if nothing else”, they write, “in case they shut this page down like they shut down my Facebook”.
Hamraaz, who has been writing poetry under this alias for nearly four years, told me there are only a “handful” of people in their life outside of this account who know that they run it. They mean to err on the side of caution. In a country where political expression is heavily policed, this caution makes sense. When I asked them how this project began, they traced it back to the abrogation of Article 370, a political event with devastating consequences for Kashmiri residents. They also recalled the Babri Masjid demolition verdict, where all 32 accused parties were acquitted of their crimes as a turning point.
They quote the famous Brechtian lines to me “In the dark times / Will there be singing? / There will be singing / Of the dark times.” Upon singing (pre-alias), however, Hamraaz found that as the state’s response to protests became more severe, they had begun to subtly censor themselves in their poetry. “That’s when I realised authoritarian regimes change us in ways we don’t even realise – how we talk to our neighbours, the kind of dreams we have, and what we allow ourselves to even imagine,” they said. “This whole effort is an argument for solidarity and love, but it’s also my way of getting around my self censor.”
As we talked about literary influences, Hamraaz recalled reading Magadh by Shrikant Verma and Prelude to a Riot by Annie Zaidi. “Both of those books left me feeling profoundly uneasy,” they said. There is curious intertextuality in Hamraaz’s work, paying heed to other poets and writers that do similar work as them. For example, one of my favourite poems by them is “I Fell Asleep Reading A Poem by Akhil Katyal”, where they write a poem for Natasha Narwal, who at the time of their writing of this poem was in jail. Here, in their titling of an already powerful piece, they create a network of poets, a lineage of dissenters against the evils of our time.
Similarly, in “How Is It That We Keep Forgetting?”, Hamraaz evokes Ilya Kaminsky, a Ukrainian-American poet in a poem that also refers to the imprisonment of Umar Khalid – creating a historically unbounded understanding of dissent and cultures of protest through this piece.
The cultures that Hamraaz’s poems contain are strongly rooted in the physical space of the city, bringing a sense of immediacy to the urgency of political expression and political freedom. By situating the reader within a familiar, seemingly mundane situation, Hamraaz places politics in the everyday – on a street in Delhi or a friend’s balcony. For example, they end “I Fell Asleep Reading a Poem by Akhil Katyal” with the lines,
“and there is Natasha Narwal,
sipping tea at a roadside dhaba.
I want to go down and ask her
about the food in Tihar Jail,
I want to go down and tell her
how much we have all missed her.”
Here Hamraaz evokes a closeness between the speaker’s hopes for the release of unjustly incarcerated academics, dissenters and leaders and the public spaces that they, in their imprisoned state, cannot occupy. When, months later, Natasha Narwal was let out of Tihar Jail, this poem was one of the first things I thought of.
In their poem “You’ll Join Us, I Know, My Friend”, Hamraaz places the incarcerated student leader Umar Khalid in a South Delhi warehouse, dancing to music. I find it particularly revolutionary that this poem reimagines the fate of incarcerated activists as an experience of joy while reiterating the work to be done in order to make this joy a reality. The poem ends with Khalid telling the speaker “soon we’ll be back in the streets / we’re winning, we have to win.” This sentiment, deploying the verb “have” to its fullest potential, resonates with the urgent need for action, and for hope within political activism.
Asked about the role location plays in their work, Hamraaz told me that “images and places can also do other less obvious work by evoking emotions, memories and connections to other stories”. And it is their focus on the archival of alternative narratives while documenting the insidious political theatre we live within that is so central to this project. It is what, in my view, binds together the project that Hamraaz has created.
“Though it all aims to get at larger truths and ideas, most of what I write is a kind of fiction,” said Hamraaz of the spatial, contextual narratives they create in their poems “When I read any poem, I don’t expect it to be literally true; a poem isn’t a newspaper article. I do expect it to be honest – except when it has good reason not to be – and to take me to a place that feels real, or at least interesting”.
And this is the magnetic quality of Hamraaz’s poetry, and of poetry as we know it; in embroiling its readers in the material world of emotion. It’s a reminder, in an increasingly bleak world, that poetry can still have the effect that its mythology reports.
We talked about the condition of an anonymous poem; while anonymity shields, it also has its demands. Hamraaz told me, “If I miss two or three weeks, invariably someone I’ve never met writes to ask if I’m okay. That’s lovely. But I also feel a kind of pressure to keep writing. Maybe that’s fair. After all, Umar Khalid is still in jail, along with many, many other political prisoners. Politicians are still winning elections based on divisive, hateful messages. Homes are being levelled by bulldozers. What to do?”
“Every poem seems like the last,” said Hamraaz when I ask them what the future of this project looks like. It seems grim, but rightly so. That art can – even in our darkest times – create political conscience in novel and meaningful ways (I’m thinking also, of the graphic narrative about Shaheen Bagh by Ita Mehrotra) helps me believe that there is still hope.
Hamraaz said, “In the end, only a mass movement in favour of love and solidarity and against all kinds of hierarchy can solve this.” And in the midst of political crises with violent consequences, what is also exhilarating is that we keep coming back to poetry. And when we’re lucky, even at our most hopeless, at our most bedraggled and enraged, poetry comes – like an enchantment, like a prayer – right back to us.