Sunday, February 25, 2024

Dear Hany, this is just to say


Professor Hany Babu MT

Taloja Central Jail
Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra

November 28, 2020

Dear Hany,

In the utterance of word, there hunches a mountain that I must climb—and just when I begin to plant my feet on the burly mountain-limb, it collapses into tiny mounds of alphabet I struggle to assemble.

This is just to say

that your face now comes to us condensed in news headlines,
our fingers stutter their way through an unceasing grid of faces
to find you—in the light that leaks beneath the doors,
like blood spurts over a lesion to ease its speech.

This is to say

that on most days, we are dragging hope by its shadow,
that the prison register is writing itself onto our limbs

fifty days*
five minutes**

warmth is merely a letter long,
and testimony sits a deceit apart.
human and inhuman, an identity card away,
while process is punishment prolonged.

fifty days
five minutes

courtrooms may concede a hearing,
but we listen
to the tree gathering patience in its rings,
yielding to your shy laughter
in the proper nexus of its roots.

[one hundred and twenty-three days]

This is just to say

that the inheritance of the dispossessed
is a vocabulary of warnings:
the baker’s morning prayer must not exceed a pinch of yeast—
otherwise the streets might rise.
the peasant’s tears must always reap the harvest to the full—
otherwise absence will be taken over by grass.
the worker’s compass must never needle the machine—
otherwise the clockwork heart may declare itself ungovernable.

And to say

that we are linguists:

that ours is the science of children fiddling with a jigsaw puzzle—
knowing the picture always through its pieces, and always putting it back together.

that our fingers are welded to scalpels, dissecting words and sounds
to impale all language which writes our undoing.

that we inhabit the chaos of phonemes, sovereign and unrestrained,
examining the grammar of history the world buries its shame in.

To say

(we dig)

They say

[The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967]

Section 13. Punishment for unlawful activities
Section 16. Punishment for terrorist act
Section 17. Punishment for raising funds for terrorist act
Section 18. Punishment for conspiracy, etc.
Section 20. Punishment for being member of terrorist gang or organisation
Section 38. Offence relating to membership of a terrorist organisation
Section 39. Offence relating to support given to a terrorist organisation
Section 40. Offence of raising fund for a terrorist organisation

We refuse to listen,
yet they say

[The Indian Penal Code]

Section 34. Acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention
Section 115. Abetment of offence punishable with death or imprisonment for life—if offence not committed
Section 120B. Punishment of criminal conspiracy
Section 121. Waging, or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war, against the Government of India
Section 121A. Conspiracy to commit offences punishable by section 121
Section 124A. Sedition

To them I say

Your Lordship, I turn this poem into a linguistics lesson:

a nation is nothing
but a chain of semiotic systems, a persistent hammering of sign-making
saturated with meanings
at once inconsistent and obligatory.


now, chew under your breath– n-a-t-i-o-n
nation, the sign
nation, the symptom
nation, the queasy beginnings of a disease


the sign nation is arbitrary;
there is no natural reason why a specific sound-form is linked to a specific meaning
(nation is spelled as its map)

the sign nation is relational;
can only make sense in relation to other signs in the same system
(nation perfects its myth in its enemies)

the sign nation is differential;
defines things by what they are not rather than by what they are
(nation seeks immortality in its anti-nationals)

And I continue to say

(we are digging)

And I say

this nation runs long like a dictionary
interleaved with the dark treacle of
lives consumed by its twice-born fiction,
lives that would chronicle sweat and stars,
lives that now lie motionless—to be examined by houseflies.

turn to the hangman to decipher the lexicon of the nation’s anthem.

This is just to say

that the nation’s demand for a national language is a euphemism
for its “collective conscience”;
and the nation growls with hunger for its language, so words fall
like vermin from brahma’s mouth.

language becomes the nation’s archive, a compendium of the empire.
language is the subterraneous history of change
recorded in its linguistic variations
which affirm life and all its longings,
which confirm a platitude of change and possibilities—
despite the tyrant’s writ.

This is to say

that all linguists rely on disruptions of language function,
on the white willow shock of aphasia,
to investigate language and its grove of bewilderment.

the present moment is a pestilence,
scraping with its beak the carcass of our society,
revealing the weight of its ancient rot.

sometimes, sickness can announce a multitude of arrivals.
sometimes, sickness is the finger writing on dust.

And to say

that on most days, we are dragging hope by its shadow,
that the nation is running out of its magnanimity
to allow its margins to be recognized
as human.

ours is a chaturvarna system of outrage
which needs, always, a body in struggle
to be persecuted or killed
to begin acknowledging
its right to life
its right to dignity
its right to be

smritis and shrutis: the honourable supreme cavort of India.

To say

(we have been digging)

And say

that a night longer than the ladder of stars mounting the sky
waits in its limitless field, puddling in its wait
of tiny seeds of light that burst into syllables and
learn to peck at its watchful loam.

that each one of us is a book, in a shovel of wait,
recited by the syllable of night.
and against all language diffused in a landscape of triumph,
our pages rake the dialect of refusal.

that together, we will be
a library
thumbing every silence,
arranged shoulder to shoulder,
guided by a catalogue of our blisters,
together, we will be
a library
in solidarity.

In the utterance of word, there hunches a mountain that I peel—watching it turn into a parable of dust and stone.

Yours sincerely,

Shivangi Mariam Raj

New Delhi

*fifty days: “He had no way to contact us. The letters that we sent took fifty days to reach him, so for fifty days he did not even get any intimation from us. And it was later, when he wrote some letters to us, that he mentioned how tough it was for him. He did not know what is happening to us and how we are managing in Delhi.” (Dr Jenny Rowena, Hany Babu’s wife)

**five minutes: “The phone calls are allowed only for five minutes. There is a lot of noise, so you cannot really hear anything… Why is the family also being made to suffer?” (Dr Jenny Rowena, Hany Babu’s wife)

Shivangi Mariam Raj is an academic publishing professional, translator, and independent researcher.

Shivangi Mariam Raj
Shivangi Mariam Raj
Shivangi Mariam Raj is an academic publishing professional, translator, and independent researcher.

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