A day without toil 
A night without love
A waiting on the shores of history...

Of the four days of life for which we have begged, two are lost in hope and the rest in waiting, said Bahadur Shah Zafar. In life outside, there is action to separate the hope from the waiting. Action could, of course, lead you to more hope and more waiting. But, lost in activity, time seems to slip through your fingers, your toes, from before your very eyes. Life in prison is not like that.

You are no longer a part of social practice, of history in the making. You are but a spectator, a witness to the present, a symbol of the past. Time reminds you of this every moment.

This morning we rose early, at half past five. It was a rare opportunity today– to watch the live telecast of the opening ceremony of the Seoul Olympics. (It was also rare for me to spend some time with the detainees).

At 5.30, white letters appear on a blue screen: 05.31…32…33. Below that an announcement goes on and off, declaring that the next transmission would be at 05.45. To confess the truth, what I like most about television, with which I have made acquaintance in jail, is the sight of the electronic seconds flashing on the blue screen at the beginning of each transmission.

As the seconds flash past they bring to mind the beauty of birds flying across the morning sky. I wonder whether you have ever counted seconds. A second is but the blinking of an eyelid; outside prison has anyone ever counted seconds thus, for even five minutes?

Except in love, there is no such waiting in one’s life, save in prison. The difference is this – in love, waiting is intense, a longing filled with sweet desire. In prison, waiting is a habit turning slowly into addiction. Often, one begins to wait for the petty and the inconsequential.

Even in normal life, it is hardly worth one’s while to look forward to each day. Prisoners who have turned regulars – who know that they will be back again, and yet again – what do they look forward to? Unlocking…chai…ablutions…khichri…rounds…and the locking or unlocking according to each one’s needs…labour (for convicts)...chai...ginthi...batni...locking.

This is the prisoners’ routine every day, from sunrise to sunset.

And during sleepless nights, the pain hidden behind words is not extinguished like the beedi that goes out when you speak. And regardless of the sympathy or the sharing of joy and sorrow, the prison remains pitch-dark and empty of love.

But even outside prison, what does this system offer people that can give them knowledge, wisdom and happiness? Writing about cinema, Premchand remarked that during the All India Congress Committee session in Bombay all the cinema halls remained empty. (Those were the days of Mohandas Gandhi. In these days of Rajiv Gandhi, the same political party celebrated its centenary in the same city. Perhaps people did not need to go to the cinema this time around with Amitabh Bachchan decorating the Congress dais.)

Where there is no possibility of an activity that would impassion the youth or the aged, that would allow the mind to expand and grow, in such a society isn’t it naive to expect that someone should spare a thought for the needs of convicts, the unemployed, the women imprisoned in their own homes?

In the prisons of Andhra Pradesh, political prisoners wait in the same manner as the regulars wait. They wait to return again and again to prison, and in between, to be in police custody. What is the liberty they wait for? In the present situation even this privilege of waiting for liberty is reserved for a fortunate few. The political prisoner has to choose between visible imprisonment in jail and the invisible freedom of going missing. Replying to the prosecutor’s counter-affidavit filed in the Warangal Court, I said that I was asking for bail because these three years in jail had taught me that freedom was more valuable than life.

My daily routine may not be like that of the other prisoners. It may be different even from the routine of the other political prisoners in the jail. Technically, mine is not solitary confinement. But these thousand nights I have been alone. During the day there are few with whom I can speak. Birds, trees, plants and the sky keep me company. The papers arrive. Friends send me books every week. I have no work to do except read.

And yet my unconscious self is filled with echoing chimes, the pulse of this waiting…I have nothing to wait for really, between the unlocking and the locking of my cell door, save the day’s papers. I wait for the water to come. I wait for the time to go to court. For the bell that announces the batni. For the rounds to finish so that my papers can arrive. If they don’t, it is time for the ginthi. And so there is always something or the other to wait for.

Waiting for the news on the radio. And if the radio in our block refuses to cooperate will I be able to hear the news on the Circle radio? Fear that the Circle radio might be tuned to some other programme. Waiting for the Indian Express that comes in the evening.

However, every afternoon, whether I wait or not, Vividh Bharati comes on the Circle radio. The music is low and it does not disturb my study. It is the old-fashioned lot like me that puts in the song requests. They always play old, familiar, bearable tunes. When Chaudhvin ka chand ho ya aaftaab ho plays on the radio, I could somehow reconcile it with the late afternoon. But I was caught off my guard by Aadha hai chandrama raat aadhi, which left me wondering for a minute where I was, what time of day or night it was! (On our way to my village after our marriage we had halted in a meadow midway between her village and mine on just such a night. As we had not yet learned to speak to each other, we were too tongue-tied to say “Reh na jaaye teri meri baat aadhi…”.

Chalam once declared that a certain writer’s Telugu rendering of Gitanjali had spoilt his taste for chicken curry. I too, have grown accustomed to these untimely tunes. But to the best of my knowledge, the Telugu radio plays the song Entha haayi ee reyi nindeno enni naallakee brathuku pandeno only on full moon nights. Then, waiting for that song in my solitary cell, I greet the moon from the window. Such an experience will not come your way unless you wait for the song. As for the dark nights, alas! That star in the corner, Angaraka or whatever it is called, watches me as I pace in my cell tirelessly through the night.

Singing in solitary glory in that remote corner of the dark sky
More beloved than the others
What are you called, my pretty star?
Whatever your name
There is on earth a signal
Far more precious
That lights my path.

waiting for the hearings in court...

Those visits, allowed once a week, last half an hour within the range of listening ears and under watchful eyes.

When the day comes
From noon onwards
The big hand of the clock
Rises on its toes
For a fleeting moment
And listens
For the footsteps of time
In my heart beat.
Neither one nor two,
Not a sound and its echo
But a call and a response,
Maybe the signals of two hearts
From long parched silences.
We stretch out cupped palms
To cool springs.
Words touch the heat
Of anguished lips
To evaporate instantly without a trace.
It is but our selves
Our familiar selves and yet,
The moment the heart unknots itself
Silence bursts forth.

My visitor and I are trapped in the maze-like interview,

Unable to speak to each other
Unable to gaze at each other
Strangers amidst a crowd of foes
Like milk boiling over suddenly
Before our eyes
Into the fire, 
A sudden smell warns us that time is up. 
Startled from our preoccupation 
We wake realising 
That this is but the sound 
Of our waiting 
Buried in despair.

In prison they strike each hour of the day. At night they even strike each quarter of the hour and proclaim: Sab theek hai! Wave dissolving into wave, the silence of the prison becomes a disturbed lake.

But these strokes are relentless on the waiting mind that knows no sleep – like the nails hammering Jesus to the cross. Then I begin to feel surely that Ngugi wrote his Prison Diary for my sake. And I begin to understand how precious is the freedom Mandela has been waiting for, for twenty-six years. I recall Sahu’s literary endeavour in the Warangal jail over the last five years. Then I think of the Jodhpur detainees whose waiting knows neither beginning nor end. Bengal prisoners from afar and the revolutionary leader Ravoof in the next cell blaze in my mind like undertrial Mandelas.

In November 1974, in this very jail, I saw Bhoomaiah and Kishta Goud. They had been waiting for the last two years. For what? For execution?

For revolution.
Fixing their lives
To the noose...

In that way, they twice climbed up to the gallows and down again, and spent their time waiting till 1 December 1975. For a civilised code of law composed in a cultured society, condemning a person to a solitary cell, to wait for years on end to be hanged to death, is inhuman. Only those who have experienced it can comprehend that the waiting itself is punishment while one waits in prison for freedom.

Excerpted with permission from Captive Imagination: Letters from Prison, Varavara Rao, translated from Telugu by Vasant Kannabiran, K Balagopal, MT Khan, K Jitendra Babu, N Venugopal and Jaganmohana Chari, foreword by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Penguin Viking.