Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd And The Loneliness Of A Bahujan Academic

There are many moments in Ilaiah’s memoir, ‘From a Shepherd Boy to an Intellectual’, that speak to anyone looking to sustain a life of reading and writing.

Vijeta Kumar

Apr 19, 2019, 10:54 PM EDT

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.