I finished my M.A. with a first class in 1976, one of many such grades in my class. At that time I had come under the influence of radical Marxism. Reading political philosophy has become my passion. This was largely due to the influence of a deeply Marxist classmate of mine, Vinayak Kulkarni, a Maharashtrian Brahmin, whose parents had settled down in Hyderabad because of his father’s Central Government job. Having been born in a highly sanskritized Hindu middle-class family, he turned to radical Marxism, then called Naxalism or Maoism. He was an avid reader of political philosophy, and a serious Marxist in outlook and practice. He hated his middle-class culture and decided to become a revolutionary, leaving his fairly good chance of becoming a lecturer in the same university. He wanted me to join him as a revolutionary, but I was reluctant. However, he convinced me to join one of the Maoist groups. He later went on to work among the Bombay slums, and as I write this story, he is living among the tribals of Gujarat, who are moving into Christianity in a substantial way. The Maoist revolution did not alter their life significantly but the Christian mission work made a significant difference to their lives.
I soon discovered to my chagrin that even among the Marxist-Maoist circles, there was none with a name like mine: an inferior name with no cultural heritage of reading books and writing. Several youths from Reddy and Rao landlord families also came into that movement, but there was no spiritual sympathy among them. Their caste culture was their protective valve. For us, social discrimination, indignity and historically built-in inferiority were non-negotiable even in that ‘noble movement’.
The influence of western thought was so overwhelming that we hardly had any Indian philosopher that we could quote or refer to in our discussions. From Plato to Mao, we had respect for only non-Indian thinkers. Of course, many a time M.K. Gandhi was one around whom our criticism would revolve. But we were admirers of Marxist thinkers and bitter critics of the Indian nationalists. I began to feel that there was no political, social or economic thought among Indian leaders and there was no single Indian academic thinker whom we could appreciate, who had a worthy enough thought.
In those heady Marxist-Maoist days, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was not known as a thinker even to us. Ambedkar’s life story was never part of any school textbook. Unlike Gandhi and Nehru, Tagore, and so on, Ambedkar’s was a deliberately undermined life before the Mandal movement. Among the communist circles at best, he was known as the writer of the Indian constitution, which we dismissed as ‘bourgeois’ and did not appreciate very much. In the organization structures, the Indian constitution was seen as a bourgeois constitution. Several times this question came up for discussion in Left forums that I was part of. Invariably the Indian Constitution was condemned as bourgeois, which should be replaced with a socialist constitution. He was not even on our reading list and not a single book of his was known to us. We were more familiar with the European Renaissance and Reformation than the lines on our own palms. Though I was reading all about the world, the sense of shame of a worthless name—a very, very local name that constantly gets humiliating reference but not reverence—while living in a university, kept haunting me. As students of Marxism, we knew more about the family and personal lives of Marx and Mao than that of our own. Their names appeared to be more culturally respectable than that of any Indian upper-caste or Hindu name. While we were bitter critics of European imperialism and colonialism, we had more respect for their culture, character and civilization. Their names appeared civilizationally far superior to that of Gautam Buddha, communist leader Puchalapalli Sundaraiyya, leave alone Ambedkar. There was hardly any discussion about the Islamic heritage. In my M.A. course I studied about the Nizam period but the communist organizations never discussed Indian Islamic culture so that they would handle it before and after the revolution. Quite unfortunately the communist leaders and activists do not seriously study the religious cultures of the world even today.
Suddenly one day when I was searching for a Marxist book in the huge cellar racks of the Osmania University library, I came across a book by Isaiah Berlin or a book on Isaiah Berlin. The spelling of his first name was exactly like that of mine except that there was a ‘s’ instead of a ‘l’ (Isaiah—Ilaiah). For a minute I misread the name as Ilaiah Berlin, immediately realizing my mistake. I just picked it up and looked at the spelling of the name quite carefully. His second name was also familiar to me as I read a lot about the city of Berlin. I read a lot about the fall of Berlin at the end of the Second World War and the building of a Berlin Wall after the war. In fact, I knew more about Berlin than about Delhi or Hyderabad. I tried to read the introduction to Isaiah Berlin’s book quite carefully. It said that Isaiah Berlin was one of the greatest living philosophers and historians of the world. He was not from Germany but was from the UK (born into a Jewish family of Latvia that moved first to Russia when he was a child and then to the UK; thus ‘Berlin’ was a made up name as many Jews have had to do in the West). I looked at the racks again to find out whether there were any other books that he wrote. And to my surprise, he was a globally renowned living thinker. His ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958) made him the most outstanding authority on liberty after John Stuart Mill. Born in 1909, he died in 1997, influencing the whole world with his philosophical and historical writings.
I looked at the name once again. I felt as if I were Isaiah, not Ilaiah. That day, in my notebook, I wrote my name in full in the form that his name figured: Ilaiah Kancha, not just Ilaiah K. It sounded new. I thought the name Ilaiah Kancha sounded like the name of a world famous historian, philosopher, thinker with whom no Indian thinker would match Isaiah Berlin in contemporary times. I jumped up and down amidst the book racks—a worthless name like mine is very much like that of a world famous historian and philosopher . . . Waa-re-waa!
Excerpted with permission from Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s From a Shepherd Boy to an Intellectual.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is retired Director, Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.