Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd on his new memoir, the importance of Dalits sharing their own stories, and ‘productive castes’

By Yogesh Maitreya, Mar 29, 2019 10:51:41 IST

  • His autobiography, From a Shepherd Boy to an Intellectual: My Memoirs, provides the reader with a blueprint of his arguments and how they came into being.
  • ‘The autobiography of a person from a caste/community in India becomes an autobiography of the caste/community itself,’ says Ilaiah.
  • ‘The Indian educated society does not know the cultural differences between Dalit-bahujans/Shudras and Brahmin-Banias.’
If one has to talk about a breakthrough in non-fictional narratives on caste-system after Dr Ambedkar, then it must be agreed that Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is an exceptional writer in that domain. His Why I Am Not a Hindu? fell on the literary world like a nuclear weapon. It changed the way Dalit bahujans perceived themselves. His autobiography From a Shepherd Boy to an Intellectual: My Memoirs, published by SAGE Samya Select in 2019, provides the reader with a blueprint of his arguments and how they came into being. In a conversation with Firstpost, Shepherd discusses the two books and the themes and subjects explored in them. Here are the edited excerpts from the same —

Q. In the preface of the book, you have indicated the significance of the link between Dalitbahujan intellectuals and their stories written by ‘themselves’. How important do you think it is for Dalitbahujan intellectuals to tell their stories by themselves, especially when in the recent time we have witnessed appropriation of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste by Arundhati Roy?

It is very important to tell the story by the Dalitbahujan and by the larger Shudra writers in their own words because nobody has written even their biographies in an authentic way. There is a huge gap between Brahmin/Bania intellectual knowledge and perception and the Dalitbahujan and Shudra knowledge and perception of what to write and what not to write. Since the caste system separated the life experience of productive communities and non-productive communities, a writer’s life shapes up his/her knowledge base.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd on his new memoir, the importance of Dalits sharing their own stories, and ‘productive castes

Kancha Ilaiah. Image courtesy: Facebook page/KanchaIlaiah

The autobiography of a person from a caste/community in India becomes an autobiography of the caste/community itself. An autobiography alone captures the cultural nuances, what they eat, how they lead a life within the family as wife and husband, children and so on. The Indian educated society does not know the cultural differences between Dalit-bahujans/Shudras and Brahmin-Banias. It is not just the sensitivity of the writer alone that matters. It is a question of knowing the life of the different community itself. Arundhati Roy wrote a commentary on Ambedkar’s theoretical book — Annihilation of Caste. Since that is not a biography, there is no appropriation involved there. I do not know why Ambedkar did not write his autobiography. If he were to write one, Gandhi’s autobiography and Nehru’s autobiography would not have dominated the literary market. His life story would have been more fascinating.

Q. In the book, you have mentioned ‘If the OBCs, move away from Hinduism, like Dalits are doing now in many areas, the very structure of Indian society will change.’ So do you think that conversion of OBCs to other religions would bring change in the social psyche, especially in the context of atrocities against Dalits?

Religion is a very important component of community and individual life. As I said in Why I am Not a Hindu the Shudras of India (including the OBCs) have no properly organised religious life with a book to read, interpret, based on their experience. Only Brahmins have that right in Hinduism. The Banias and Kshatriyas go with Brahmins because they too have non-productive good life. Hence Hinduism is a very good religion for them. But to Dalits and Shudras, Hinduism never gave the right to priesthood and the right to interpret the scripture. Dalits understood this and they are going into Buddhism and Christianity. There they are getting spiritual rights and interpretative rights. This definitely changes their life over a period of time. But the Shudras are not challenging the Brahminism the way Dalits challenged it. This stagnated the Shudra/OBC life for centuries.

Q. You have mentioned shaping up your methodology in a fresh and creative way by using your ‘experience’ as a framework. Can you briefly tell us what made you realise that for a Dalitbahujan his own experiences, which are essentially different from Brahmanical academicians, be the framework of research or to understand the subject in the discourse of the nation?

The Dalitbahujan/Shudra writing brings out their experience with productive fields, water bodies, animal grazing, fighting with nature on an everyday basis and so on. The Brahmin-Bania life experience does not have that. When the methodology of writing shifts to ‘Experience as Framework’ a world view that never been written so far will come into reality. You can see in this autobiography of mine, how I lived a totally animal-friendly life in the fields with cattle in my childhood. The cattle’s sexual life, their problems with deliveries, how the young ones are cared and nurtured for is part of the Dalitbahujan/Shudra life. No Brahmin/Bania child knows anything about that life.

When you read the last chapter of the book ‘What I ate, how I wrote and how I lived’, it tells the story of different food culture, the story of cooking methods of different meats, fish and so on. Since my family was not cooking beef at home, I learnt eating beef at the Vellore Medical College Hospital, when my brother got operated in 1979. I then realised that the Shudras have lost or missed a great source of protein, beef, which is a cheap food item. The Brahmin-Bania life mostly revolves around vegetarianism. Their children naturally think that Indian food culture is only vegetarian. As of now, 60 percent of the food consumed in India is meatarian.

The way RSS/BJP adopted the Brahmin/Bania food culture as Indian nationalist food culture will result only in starving of the nation. Even then the Brahmin/Bania intellectuals go with it because they think that that is Indian nationalist food culture. Normally in writing of autobiography, the Brahmin/ Bania methodology is that they praise the vegetarian food as divine and pure food. But in all Shudra/Dalitbahujan families, meat food is considered to be pure and ‘ritually correct’. Unless we reject the Brahminic methodology of writing, we cannot write our autobiography with self-respect. Before my autobiography came out, Shudras/Dalitbahujans were ashamed of talking about their food culture as great and universal. The Brahmin/Bania/Jain food culture is not only non-universal, it is isolationist too. From Harappa days (the first city of the world) to present, meat, fish and beef were main food items of Indians. Since Jainism started as a vegetarian religion, much later the Brahmin/Banias adopted that food culture and called it pure food. That is ridiculous. Universally in all religions, all food items, including meat and fruit, are treated as pure. The Shudras/Dalitbahujans have that universal food culture. That is where my methodology of ‘Experience as Framework’ changed the social science and literary discourse in India.

Q. You seemed to have differentiated between ‘productive castes’ and ‘non-productive castes’. Could you briefly tell us, citing an example, that who are these ‘unproductive castes’ and are they or are they not capable of producing what is understood as ‘knowledge’?

In India, all Shudra (including all OBC), Dalits, Adivasis who are involved in agrarian and artisanal tasks are productive castes. They are known as Matti Manushulu (people of soil) in Telugu. The Brahmins, Banias and Kshatriyas are non-productive castes. The productive caste lives a life of ‘Labour as Life’ the non-productive castes live a life of ‘Leisure as Life’. The tasks they are claiming are reading and writing, business or so-called running of the state could also be done by the productive castes. But the work of productive castes they refuse to do. This is what exactly Subramanian Swamy said, “I am Brahmin I cannot take up Chowkidar job.” But if you ask him to take up the land tilling job, he will say the same. He is right; they do not want to do any productive work but share the wealth with authority. That is the caste system. They think that God has given them that life.

Q. You have mentioned the philosophical connection between the consumption of food and the way the writer writes. Can you elaborate this in brief, especially in the context of literature produced by beef consuming population, and the population which stigmatise it?

As I said above, it is the childhood food culture that shapes our future food philosophy. Why all Shudras/Dalitbahujan are basically meat, fish eaters and all Brahmins/Banias/Jains are vegetarians (particularly in South India and Western India)? From childhood onwards, their children are fed with only that food. It gradually becomes their food philosophy. It is this philosophy of food that characterised vegetarianism as spiritually valid pure food among the Brahmin/Bania forces. But the Shudra/Dalitbahujan ritual philosophy is such that it accepts meat, fish and vegetables as spiritually pure and valid. This system of differentiated food philosophy has been there on caste lines in India. This makes inter-caste marriages also difficult. It makes cooking systems different. If at a very fundamental level of food culture we differ so much, then how can we say we all belong to the same religion. Any religion should have common food and bed culture. This is the key point I made in my autobiography.

Those who insult my food history that has been existed from the days of Harappa civilisation cannot claim we belong one religion and one nation. My nation, its productive culture, it’s civilisational systems came 1,500 years before the Rigvedaevolved. That is the reason why the Shudra/Dalitbahujan culture and civilisation are authentic Indian culture and civilisation. Brahminism has no authentic Indian civilisational roots.

From Shepherd Boy to an Intellectual — My Memoirs established that point very authentically.