In March, sessions court in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra sentenced a Delhi University English literature professor, GN Saibaba, to life imprisonment. His crime was having alleged connections with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).
Saibaba has been diagnosed with permanent post-polio paralysis of the legs; he is almost entirely dependent on others to perform basic functions. Yet is confined in in Nagpur Central Jail’s notorious Anda Cell (soliatry confinement). In an earlier letter to his wife, Vasantha Kumari, he wrote, “Already I am shivering with continuous fever. I do not have a blanket. I do not have a sweater/jacket. As temperature goes down excruciating pain continuously in my legs and left hand increases. I am living here like an animal taking its last breaths.”
Here, Professor G. N. Saibaba writes to Anjum, a central character in Arundhati Roy’s new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
31 August 2017
How are you? I hope you are doing well along with the entire Ministry in Jannat Guest House. I hope you still remember me six months after my disappearance from Delhi. I know it is easy to forget people who go to prisons or the otherworldly worlds. Life outside on the earth has to go on.
I have been thinking of writing to you for the last two months. I couldn’t really figure out for myself clearly what all I should write to you. But as days and months ship by in my solitary cell, I find that no one is interested any longer in reading my letters and respond to me. I would have written to you as one of my best friends but indications from your latest life show that you are getting busier and busier with your team ever growing. I suddenly felt that you are the only person who would really take my letters seriously and do something concretely for my freedom. When this thought dawned on me, I have no doubt that I should write to you. Hence this letter.
Then another problem rolled on like a boulder in front of my eyes. I what language should I write to you? I know it is ridiculous to write to you in English. But what can I do? I don’t know the language you know well. One of the biggest blunders I committed in my life is not to learn Urdu. I tried to learn Urdu when I was in this very anda cell as an under-trail prisoner in two spells in 2014-16. I seriously tried to correct my mistake in life. But I could not really become proficient in the language to write a letter on my own (with bail orders that pushed me out and in again into the cell playing with my 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 our mother tongue. She also wants to write letters to me in our language, but again they are not allowed. We use auntie tongue or uncle tongue. Finally, I decided to write to write to you as well in our great legacy of colonial auntie’s tongue. I hope Zainab or Tilo the ustaniji orDr.Azad Bharatiya will read this letter for you and interpret it in Urdu without missing a single word of mine.
I sincerely feel awkward to write to you about my deteriorating health condition. You must have already come to know about my failing health and serious ailments totalling 20 now. Earlier the High Court of Mumbai counted them as 19 when I was granted bail on medical grounds. The count was accurate at that time. But in the last 2 years I acquired one more ailment called sleep apnoea. The doctors in Hyderabad who discovered this new ailment on my body advised me to insert my nose into a machine that pumps air into my throat opening it all the time. I tried that in a Hyderabad hospital, but totally failed to sleep throughout night. I won’t go into all the earlier 19 ailments there, because Vasantha must have sent a whatsapp message and FB post to Saddam Hussain. Vasantha and Muralidharan had already submitted a detailed report on my health condition to the NHRC and it was later circulated. I know you don’t like to use whatsapp or FB but I am sure Saddam must have shown you these details on his smartphone. Zainab must have translated every detail in Urdu for you. These days I am so conscious of my severe ailments that I tend to write about them elaborately to any one whom I choose to write letters. I sound for myself these days very much like my maternal grandmother’s younger sister. She used to talk about her health issues for 5 to 6 hours to any visitor in our childhood. We used to run away from her. But she survived well into her 90s though she started complaining about certainly more than 19 or 20 ailments for over five decades. I hope I inherit her qualities and ultimately acquire the legacy. Though my ailments of very very severe nature sound ridiculous when I go complaining about them, but they are real. Believe me.
Now you have been living in a graveyard, I am in a cell called andaa cell in a prison far away from the ‘dignified’ society (the Duniya). Both of us are banished from the larger society. Ironically both of us love the larger society. However, there is this main difference in our conditions. You are absolutely free. But we are told all fundamental freedoms including the newly born right to privacy have reasonable restrictions legally ordain on them. However, you seem to enjoy unlimited freedoms without these restrictions. I am absolutely un free, totally living in a prison within a prison. There are no reasonably delimited freedoms ordained by law for me. I am treated as convicted terrorist under 5 sections of the famous UAPA. No. No. I forgot. I am not treated as one. I am really convicted as one.
You enjoy absolute freedoms and happiness that the rest of humanity lost centuries ago. You are the unique human being in the history of human society. That is the reason why I ask you to work for my freedom. Who else can be the befitting person to campaign for my release? I am also sure that you will definitely take up my cause. Before I end this letter here I have a special request to you. If you happen to meet our common friend Ms A.Roy, please do convey her my greetings. My friends in Hyderabad have been looking for her to launch a book I translated personally two years ago. Please inform her that she should find time to go there and release the book. I hope you will also go for the release of the book for the release of Dr.G.N.Saibaba.
Before I forget, my love to Miss Udaya Jebeen.
With lots of love
C 9556, Andaa cell,
P.S. – Convey my greetings to Tilo, Zainab, Saddam, Saeeda, Nimmo, Dr.Azad Bhartiya and all others at Jannat Guest House.
P.P.S. – Convey my greetings to Musa, if he is still alive.
P.P.P.S. – I hope to look for your early reply. You understand well how the people in prisons wait for letters. Even if you don’t reply, I will still write to you, please mind it.
Dear Dr. Saibaba,
I see you too are bewitched by this beautiful dream of Jannat. The place where words like solidarity, community, love, diversity, hope and happiness are slowly, gently given back the meaning that was stolen from them. Dr. Saibaba, for a long time you were name, an icon, a symbol of both courage, and the price one pay’s for it. I apologize, I lost the person in the icon.
Today, I saw your handwriting – neat, patient and something that will make the nuns in my convent swell with pride. Today, I found that we both share the love for a book – a story and the characters who inhabit and shape it. Today, I read a letter you wrote and it touched me in ways that the many protests and photographs and accounts of your body could not.
My grandmother would give you oils to massage besides a hearty meal or two, my grandfather, a dua or two, and my parents, a cocktail of antibiotics. What do I have to offer you? I have given a few multiple signatures with a great deal of cynicism and even greater sense of helplessness; I spoke about you to a bunch of students, they listened with even greater cynicism – is the world really so bad? – I can see in their eyes, dismissing me instantly. I thought about you, I forgot about you. I do not know if Duniya exists anywhere outside our imagination anymore, but it is still powerful enough to distract me from my own pain, let alone yours – so far away.
I am scared to ask you questions Dr. Saibaba. I am scared the answer will make me jump, dive into this madness of wanting to change the world – a mere months after I have retreated briefly – nursing a broken heart and clinging out to the courage that Anjum, Tilo, Saddam Hussain and Musa have so generously shared with me, knowing that sometimes it is ok to step back, to think. Think, we must; but you make it difficult – you, cold in solitary confinement, kept company by our mutual friends, negotiating with an uncooperative body.
What words can I offer you Dr. Saibaba? I cringe with embarrassment when I read what I have written, but I don’t know if I have anything else. Can I share borrowed wor(l)ds? Can I send you books Dr. Saibaba? Can we share worlds other than Jannat and Duniya?
I want to end in an absolute. Come back home. We’ll bring you back home. Don’t give up. I promise. Short, crisp, true.
I’m sorry, but I don’t know if I can.