A young Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd once came across a book on Isaiah Berlin in the Osmania University library and picked it up because he thought the name was Ilaiah Berlin. He was surprised because he had never found names that sounded like his on the covers of books. In class, he was constantly made to feel like he was not as respectable as the other students because of his name. But that was going to change now.
“I looked at the name once again. I felt as if I were Isaiah, not Ilaiah.”
I like to imagine that this is the moment Kancha Ilaiah became a writer. When Gabriel Garcia Marquez read the first line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, he almost fell off the bed because he had no idea writers were allowed to write like that (“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”). Marquez says he became a writer that day—that first line was like a permission for him to start writing.
For Dalit and Bahujan people who have never thought of themselves as writers, a permission like that can rescue them in ways that aren’t easy to understand.
“That day in my notebook, I wrote my name in full in the form that Isaiah’s name figured: Ilaiah Kancha, not just Ilaiah K. It sounded new. 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.”
There are many such moments in Kancha Ilaiah’s memoir, From a Shepherd Boy to an Intellectual, that are powerful to anyone looking to sustain a life of reading and writing.
If finding Isaiah’s name released Ilaiah in some form, his mother was released from something similar when she decided that she was willing to risk Saraswathi’s wrath by sending both her sons to school.
′Getting free from Saraswathi’, easily the most exciting chapter in the book, narrates the story of how Ilaiah and his brother went to school despite their grandmother’s persistent warnings that Saraswathi, who didn’t like children of lower-castes going to school, would kill them. In hindsight, there is truth to this superstition because we very well know who killed Rohith Vemula.
“Saraswathi teaches the children of Bapanollu and Komatollu but she becomes a devil when it comes to our children. She will not allow our children to read and write. She will kill them. That is how my elder son died,” said Ilaiah’s mother.
Even so, there was nothing in the school that could hold his attention the way forests and fields did. “In the field-world, one does not focus one’s eyes on just one thing.” And that’s why, for some time in school, he could only stare at walls.
Staring at walls is possibly a situation that is as much an imposition of caste today as it was back then.
At a talk about Mahatma Phule recently in Bangalore, anti-caste activist Gowri recollected that as a science student, she had no idea how to follow what the teacher said in her “high-speed English”.
“I still don’t know what this Kinetic theory of gas means. I didn’t know how to ask and when I finally formed a question and asked, my classmates looked at me like I was crazy. After that I just shut up.”’
That is one kind of staring at a wall. Here is another:
A couple of months ago, I met a Dalit boy studying political science at a college in Bangalore who wanted to know how to ‘be’ in the classroom. He said that during lectures, all his attention is usually focused on forming a question for the lecturer, and framing it properly in English. Eventually, when he does ask it, he is so relieved and overwhelmed by the effort that he spends the rest of the time recovering from it. In the end, he hasn’t listened to the answer.
These are real problems for Dalit and Bahujan students on campuses today—this knowledge of how to just ‘be’ in spaces. After a point, there are things that even the most sympathetic teacher cannot give them—things like cultural capital, the courage to say ‘I don’t care what my classmates think of me’, and a way of simply surviving in an English-speaking classroom.
“These are real problems for Dalit and Bahujan students on campuses today—this knowledge of how to just ‘be’ in spaces”
Another serious problem, just as relevant today, is the disconnect they feel between what they have heard and watched while growing up and what is taught inside the classroom.
While learning the alphabet, Ilaiah was very puzzled when the teacher said ‘Rruu for Rrushi’. This was accompanied by a picture of a saint with “fully grown knotted hair on his head with a beard and legs folded under him”.
Ilaiah had never seen a saint before and found it bizarre that he had to remember a letter in honour of someone he had never seen. He was just as lost when poems and lessons on Krishna were taught. Culturally, there was no connection between what was being done in class and where he came from.
For Ilaiah, a way out of this came when he fell in love with the English language. This allowed him to break free of all kinds of Saraswathis, and he was able to begin enjoying school.
Plenty of struggle, and some humour
There is some repetition in the book. The fact that English was/is deliberately kept away from lower-caste children comes up multiple times, often in the same manner. That Brahmin and Savarna intellectuals who opposed English in government schools and fought valiantly for Telugu-medium schools continued to shamelessly send their own children to English-medium schools is mentioned one too many times.
But Ilaiah’s gratitude for being given the opportunity to learn, to read and write haunts him—and by extension the reader—through the book. Some of these repetitions arise from this gratitude, and the sense of injustice that others like him are still kept away from opportunities that can come from knowing English.
While it’s true that some of these repetitions could have been avoided with better editing, what they do is show us the kind of loneliness from which Ilaiah is writing.
Not being taken seriously as an intellectual and a writer is something that Ilaiah has struggled with all his life. Within academia in particular, this is not hard to see. Scholarly networks rarely make room for Dalit and Bahujan intellectuals. Today, because of the internet and web 2.0—thanks to things like conference alerts, which make it less necessary for humans to interact with each other—it is probably easier to access machine-operated networks. But what happens before and after that depends on what privileges one might or might not have.
But it is not hard to imagine what it must have been like for a Bahujan man to write research papers, send it to conferences, write, take classes—and still maintain an anti-caste stance. On more than one occasion, students have walked out of Ilaiah’s classes because they didn’t want to be taught by a ‘Dalit’—while it’s clear that these students had no idea what the difference between Dalit and Bahujan was, they knew enough caste to figure out who was worthy of teaching them and who wasn’t.
Some of the saddest people I know within academia today are upper-caste. For a long time, these were the only people I knew. And they were so upper-caste that they were convinced that to be an intellectual , one has to look a certain way, speak English a certain way and conduct themselves in a certain way. In short, I had neither the right credentials nor the right caste to be called an intellectual. This was in 2015. A part of me believed it then. It is 2019 now and I don’t believe it anymore. But they haven’t changed and that’s why they are sad.
“Some of the saddest people I know within academia today are upper-caste.”
As I write this, I am acutely aware, once again, of the loneliness faced by Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi people at their workplaces—if we can call it that—or wherever they are. Today, young Dalit and Bahujan people with some privileges are able to come to terms with their identities. Some are claiming it fiercely, and some are finding ways to negotiate with this. In a way, an attempt at a network of sorts is being made on social media to reach out, share and contribute.
But what this does is leave out a large chunk of older Dalit and Bahujan people who are being remembered lesser and lesser today. This could be the loneliness from which Ilaiah writes. Even so, the most rewarding thing about the book is that every time Ilaiah mentions his struggles, he also tells us how he overcame them. Much like Siddalingaiah in Ooru Keri, Ilaiah does not submit to victimhood, even if it is sometimes the only option left.
When I was growing up, my father often gave me pep talks on studies. He was always concerned that I was extremely bad at math and science. He’d sit me down and try to find out why I failed only in these subjects and passed with average marks in other subjects.
He didn’t think responses such as ‘not able to understand’, ‘very difficult’, ‘I like History and English more’ were rational because at the heart of his concern was the fear that I’d get left behind in class and that people like us don’t have the liberty to say ‘not interested.’ He kept telling me—’you should create an interest even if you are not interested. I didn’t know it then but what my father was and has been doing since then is making me self-reliant like him.
He rarely tells me stories of struggle in his past. Whatever little I know about that today is through my mother. What he did tell me, much like Kancha Ilaiah and Siddalingaiah did in their books, were stories of overcoming struggles.
Over WhatsApp one day, I asked my father what his student days in the engineering college were like. “The college which I’d joined was purely for merit students. I was only able to get a seat because I’m SC. When I joined, I found that everyone else had 80% and I only had 40%. I limped towards inferiority complex and after some days, I was engulfed in it. To come out of that complex, it took a lot of time and hard work but even then I was unable to reach their level and I finally came out as the last man in the race. I couldn’t do anything. I just had to accept the situation. If I resisted, it’d hurt more. I myself didn’t want any unnecessary advantage on the pretext of discrimination. I felt if I wrote proper answers, certainly it should fetch more marks. So I worked harder.”
I find this similar vein when Kancha Ilaiah says “Reading became a part of my suffering” and “my course was read, write and fight. I wrote this slogan on the walls of my brain”.
The vein is struggle and suffering yes, but also one of hard work—something that Babasaheb was able to show us in many ways.
“I have come to realize that excellence is achieved through devotion. My devotion does not mean retiring to a forest & meditating there. My idea of devotion implies extreme power of enduring suffering, and extreme power of working,” said Babasaheb Ambedkar.
“The most rewarding thing about the book is that every time Ilaiah mentions his struggles, he also tells us how he overcame them. Much like Siddalingaiah in 'Ooru Keri', Ilaiah does not submit to victimhood, even if it is sometimes the only option left.”
And when hard work is not rewarded, Ilaiah turns to humour. Humour can be a great weapon against Savarna bullying.
When he started teaching at Osmania University, a colleague remarked ‘What bad days have come, even Ilaiahs, Yellaiahs, Mallaiahs also think of becoming lecturers in a university’ to which Ilaiah replies, “When we have taught sheep, teaching human beings is not at all difficult”
The colleague, realising that Ilaiah’s English was much better than his, keeps quiet.
In a chapter titled ’Choosing between Two Lusts: Life or Knowledge?’, Ilaiah tells us about his reading life and how the more he read and wrote, the more independent he became and how companionship and love became unnecessary after a point.
‘But since I could not change my body, I started living with enormous respect for myself: body and brain. I knew that my body works and my brain thinks from within that body. How to make my body work and my brain think was within my control, as I believed in self-respect and self-control. My reading in English of any book that I could get and practice by myself speaking English became a ‘lustful’ act.’
In the last scene of Captain Marvel, Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers says, “I’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind my back. What happens when I’m finally set free?”
It brought to mind a scene from one of the earlier chapters in the book where Ilaiah writes about swimming to school. During the rainy season, they had to swim across a river to get to school. They had to carry food packets with one hand so those wouldn’t get wet, and swim with the other. They swam with only one hand to get to school, the way so many Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis fight and survive. You should imagine what happens if we start fighting with both our hands.