Book extract: From a Shepherd Boy to an Intellectual

Kancha Ilaiah Sheperd’s memoirs is riveting and takes us into truly uncharted territories that has been traversed by the versatile scholar. The book is unputdownable

Brahminic learning was practising letter and number writing, whereas our learning was practical and theoretical simultaneously. It was a school of life generation, combined with medicinal value. If Amartya Sen’s grandfather, Kshitimohan, had the title of Acharya my grandfather was known for teaching his son (my father was his only son and he had a daughter) midwifery of sheep and goat and had no respectable title. What I was learning was the base knowledge, which alone guaranteed the things for survival of human society. Writing of any human experience was/is important, but what is unwritten because of those who had the base work knowledge of the society do not know writing or they were not allowed to learn to write does not mean they can be treated as worthless people. They live without any titles that have values in the schools and colleges.

On one mid-June day when I was about seven the tilling of land and planting the seedling of the dry-rain fed crop was going on. In those days my family also started agricultural operations. It already had acquired some cultivable land. There were two ploughs tilling and they keep tilling one by one in a line. It used to be thrilling to watch the process. My adopted brother Komuraiah was driving the back plough and the front one being driven by a Dalit,Yakaiah, a wage labourer. My mother was seeding the furrow of the back plough; another woman was doing that for the front furrow. As the bullocks (one plough had only male buffaloes) were walking slowly and very systematically, my brother was holding the threads and a cudgel to discipline them as my mother was leaving the seeds one by one in the furrow.

As the plough was moving red-insects (arudra purugu) were coming out from the soil in hundreds. They were of a beautiful red colour and nice to look at and play with. I have not seen a single insect dying under the plough. I used to feel that ploughing was producing life, but not killing life. I asked my mother, ‘What will happen to the seed that she was dropping in a measured distance leaving a place one between the other?’ She said, ‘Adi molkethi chettai pillala peduthadi’ (it sprouts and becomes a shrub and produces its own children). It grows as a plant and within two months becomes a shrub then it would produce a cob in with hundreds of such seeds would be born.

She was seeding maize and I know how maize cobs would be on the maize plant. In my childhood, even before I went to school I knew the names of the varieties of crops. We used to pluck tender maize cobs and burn them on the fire and eat. It was so tasty; I used to love that. This love for sheep, its babies, love for tilling, seeing insects emerging from the furrow but not dying, listening to my mother that plants reproduce themselves, coincided with my later reading of Marxism, namely, production and reproduction.

This practical experience of mine went totally against the Sanskritic brahminic theory or Jain theory of tilling that says it kills insects, therefore, it is an act of sin. When I asked a Brahmin why Brahmins do not take to plough,his reply was we believe in non-violence. Tilling land kills several insects therefore we do not take to ploughing the land. This theory of non-violence of modern Brahminism is borrowed from the Jain philosophy which believed even if one inhales air without cloth to ones mouth insects get inside human body and die. My experience tells me the simple fact that tilling the land advanced production of food which would not have taken place without a Shudra philosophy out there about the positivity of tilling. Tilling is not killing but it is to regenerates life. According to Brahminism the Dalitbahujans are the main tillers of the land thereby killers of millions of insects, thus, sinners. But why do the non-sinners who do not want to till the land eat food produced out of that sin? It was in this process that I understood that not only animals but seeds and plants also have life. When I studied botany later I knew the essence of that subject in my childhood itself. As children being part of tilling and taking care of animals and birds we helped the process of regeneration of life…

In the college when my higher education began, books and book writers were the talking points. But back home whose herd was more productive and whose agriculture yielded more crop were the talking topics. But no book had anything to do with the kind of work the villagers were doing. The book and real life in the village had a disconnect. My consciousness began to split and move towards a feeling that book writers are far, far greater people and food producers were inferior and simple people. The idea of taking the IAS exam and learning English began to shift my wisdom base. Haragopal would repeatedly speak about the greatness of achieving the IAS, as he missed narrowly at the stage of the interview.

But Marx’s Communist Manifesto created a cultural crisis in me. Marx in his Manifesto was talking about workers of the world. I easily understood that my parents and other villagers were part of those workers of the world. In Haragopal’s talks such workers of India never figured. It is not that the teacher was teaching the manifesto. I began to think that because of this kind of higher education, maybe, I was getting out of the human culture that was nurtured in my village. Since Haragopal became some kind of a role model lecturer two things of him must have influenced me. One he was still un-married. Two, his fluent English, of course, with a somewhat confused thinking, and trying for a balance between right-wing and left-wing ideas. As I started reading Marx, somewhat seriously, he was appearing to me too liberal to be emulated. His influence on me ended there. Once I shifted to Hyderabad, Osmania, my world of intellectual interaction changed for more rigorous reading, deeper discussions with variety of minds.

However, I used to cite his example whenever my marriage question came up at home. As I said after my father’s death, maybe because I was understood to be a ‘Have Not’, the pressure had come down. My brother who was supporting me completed his school graduation was not forcing me at all.

Of course, the second major Brahmin intellectual intercourse in a real sense started with my classmate in M.A., Vinayak Kulkarni, a different kind of Brahmin altogether. He was too mature for his age. He was the only Brahmin who became de-caste-de-class with a commitment for revolution, in my view till date. Kulkarni went to work among Bombay slum dwellers and chawl workers. In the early 1980s I went to see his work there. I was shocked to see his life. He had no room to live in. He rented a night bed in a slum that stank. He had to sleep and get out. The toilet queue used to be long, sometimes taking an hour. It was almost impossible to sit in that toilet because of its narrowness and the smell. He used to tell me for the sake of revolution he was prepared to put up with such hardship. I thought it was not a rational choice but a beliefbased choice. He used to eat cheap food that constituted beef and other items. Somehow I did not approve my friend’s approach to revolution. He went to Dong Tribal areas from there. At the time of writing, he is still living and working for a revolution among tribals. He lived for the lust of revolution. I am the only classmate he is in touch with and occasionally we meet with warmth and eat rice with mutton curry cooked by my sister-in-law at my home.

Looking back now I feel he would have chosen a different course of life. But he never turned back. He was a misfit in his house. His parents never approved his thinking, his way of life. His mother and father died with a feeling that

he was not their son. Since he is more than sixty, or of my age, he may die an ignominious death in the Dong Tribal areas as one among them. When I last met him he said he was not disappointed with his present tribal life. He too never married. He did not want leadership roles, averse to acquiring name and popularity. Revolution for him was penance. I never liked a self-torturous course whether in revolutionary activity or spiritual activity. He may die as a failed Marxist with a first class M.A. political science degree that got burnt in a revolutionary utopia. But he is a great de-brahminized Brahmin of India.

My later serious interaction was with a team of Brahmin men in the civil liberties movement. This was a challenging time. We were all believed to have committed for people’s rights and of course in the background for a revolution, an agrarian revolution at that. Through writing and speaking we were supposed to propagate the human rights of people. The writing and speaking roles used to be considered theirs. The Shudra upper castes were also not competing with them. There was a fear of philosophy among the Shudra leaders and activists. There were a number of civil and human rights organizations in the country in the post-Emergency period. Most of them were a being run by the Brahmin intellectuals who had control over English.

I had not come across a single major Shudra intellectual working in the civil rights movement in the country in those days. Aakar Patel today, and the late Gauri Lankesh, were well-known journalists, both Shudras. The Shudra communities like Patels, Kammas, Lingayats, Marathas have a lot of wealth but their educational levels were very low in those days. Among the Patels of Gujarat, there were exceptions like I.G. Patel or among Nairs exceptions like Krishna Menon, who were very well educated. (The Gujarati Patels were influenced by Gujarati Baniyas and Kerala Nairs were influenced by Kerala Christians but the Shudra upper castes in other states were not so advanced in education, particularly English education. Those who were educated were mainly confined to regional language-based writing and activism. Not that exceptionally one or two writers who could write in English were not there. For example, Shashi Tharoor wrote several books without challenging Brahminism anywhere. Therefore his writing has no social impact. But by and large the Shudra intellectualism quite willingly got subordinated to Brahmin intellectualism. They never demanded the right to priesthood in the Hindu temples, while treating themselves as Hindus. Priesthood is a philosophical position. It is not the question that how much money does a Brahmin priest get while heading the temple. But the question is whether he controls the nerve centre of the civil society through that post or not? He does. It is from here that the Brahmin teacher derives his authority and superiority in the class room, in the school, college and university. It is from here a Brahmin politician derives his authority to run the administration. Gandhi knew this truth but kept silent about it as if it were untruth. But a person like Vallabhbhai Patel never understood that truth…

Mahatma Gandhi propagated regional language education for all children. But today we know in which language all his grandchildren and great grandchildren got educated and in which languages they are writing in.Rajmohan Gandhi lives in America, Gopalkrishna Gandhi,a retired IAS officer, former Governor, writes in the English language. Ramchandra Gandhi obtained his Ph.D. from Oxford University, naturally studied in the English language.

Arun Manilal Gandhi lived in America. The available information tells us that only Tushar Gandhi, his great grandson, studied in Gujarati-medium but is comfortable in English (as I was a co-panellist with him on English TV channels). I am not saying they should not study in English-medium schools or they should not settle down in America or Europe. But the system of education that Gandhi advocated was not accepted by his own family members. That is the truth. There is Gandhian propagated truth and there is a Gandhian practiced untruth.

The propagated truth is untruth in day-to-day real life practice of Gandhians. Why should the Shudra/OBC/Adivasis follow the Gandhian moral code of language of mother tongue?