Vidrohi, or Rama Shankar Yadav, was a revolutionary poet who came disturbingly close to Antonio Gramsci’s definition of an ‘organic intellectual’. But Vidrohi’s organicity was embedded within the romantic sphere of student life. He was a PhD student who was denied his degree by the university because of his political activities in the early 80s, challenging the establishment. Since then, he stayed on in the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The act is difficult to explain, for staying on in a university campus after his life as a student came to an unceremonious end, was outside conventional reason. Even daily life would turn out to be difficult, for matters of sustenance were bound to become important. But for Vidrohi, everything turned out to be simple, even within its daily doses of difficulties, as there were enough students who knew him and loved him. They paid for his daily needs, and his needs were simple. What wasn’t simple however had to do with his uniquely performative minutes and hours when he chose a fairly dark corner to recite his poetry. He did not need an audience, for he spoke to history itself, to those dead as much as to those alive, to those who weren’t listening to him as much as the few who did. Vidrohi recited his poems from a stage made of stones, or cement, or mere earth. JNU was Vidrohi’s Delphi. In a poem he called himself a descendant of Spartacus and warned the Caesars of history, he would collect the slaves and storm Rome. There was a messianic spark in those lines that would have impressed Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht.
Once I asked him if he had read Albert Camus. He said no, but he had heard about him from others in discussions among students. He should have read him, he added. Then did a complete volte face by saying, he however had no use for someone like Camus. I asked him why, perturbed. With a hint of a smile that was part cynic and part ascetic, he said in Hindi, “[p]eople like Camus are a scared lot. My job is to seize fear from this world.” I was amazed by the historic clarity Vidrohi had — not only about his own role in history but about history itself. Vidrohi’s view of history is a universal narrative of exploitation. In his poetry, he collected images that destabilized the grand claims of civilisations. A lone neglected corpse was enough to pose an epic finger against Mohenjodaro or Rome alike. In his poems, those lone, neglected, exploited and massacred figures shone more brightly than the usual heroes of history’s grand narratives, the kings and their soldiers. Some of his poems were imbued with imageries of a Greek street play, or a street play of an ordinary street of an ordinary town or village in India. The political space his poems opened up could be anywhere, but he would quickly relate those spaces to other contextual events and stories, in other times and places, where people lived and suffered oppression. One slowly began to realise, hearing the poems that were too long and unending to be written down in square or rectangular shaped pages, this was perhaps the reason why Vidrohi never left JNU. For all that he had to say to the world was meant for those who were learning about history, and only they had to be told what history was about from without the pages of history. Vidrohi was no torn page; he was an oracle, and an oracle that lived impossibly within his times. Yet he made his life seem possible. Perhaps it was a logical mirror of his dream: of making revolution an ordinary possibility within the extraordinary impossibility that is the world. What Vidrohi fathomed of the vast continuities and discontinuities of our world, and his present, we are merely left to conjecture, in ways we interpret the stuff of his dreams, those that he never wrote down.
It was perhaps not merely his intuitive wisdom that made him stay on among students, with the hope that students alone might listen to him and not declare him useless. Perhaps he also loved students, and saw himself in their daily fears, bothers and failings. In that very specific — organic — sense, Vidrohi had chosen his death. And, death did not disappoint him. To dare ask a metaphysical question while talking about a fiercely materialist poet: will death be able to keep him? Watching Vidrohi’s face before his body was led to the pyre, I doubted it.
I am a farmer
I sow crops in the sky
Some say — You fool!
The sky can’t bind crops
I say to them — You babblers!
If god can take root on earth
The sky too can grow crops
And now, one of these will happen —
Either god will be uprooted from earth
Or crops will be embedded in the sky.
What is left to identify is blood
Testimonies become hollow
And my village —
My village has to give up the victory
Of coming ages
Because the documents say
This disputed land belongs to Janaki’s Ram.
Vidrohi died on December 8, 2015, after living on for 30 years in Jawaharlal Nehru University, sleeping in the open, and making the dhabas and rocks of the university his itinerant home, after been told by the administration, during his rustication, he was not allowed in the campus. Translations of Vidrohi’s poems are by the author of this obituary.