Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd: Unusual Autobiography of a Shudra Intellectual

From A Shepherd Boy To An Intellectual—My Memoirs

The just-released autobiography of Prof. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a unique project of substance as it comprises the discourse of production and intellectuality. A discourse of this kind was/is nowhere figured in any autobiography written by notable Indian scholar or politician.  In India, the autobiographies like ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’ of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘My Search of Truth’ of Survepalli Radhakrishnan and ‘The Autobiography of Unknown Indian’ of Nirad C. Chaudhuri are more popular and played a considerable role in building up their image at national and international levels.

Mahatma Gandhi was a Baniya leader who led Indian freedom struggle and considered as ‘ Father of the Nation’ while Radhakrishnan is a Brahmin educationalist and known as ‘the teacher of India’. The  National Teacher’s Day is celebrated on his birthday i.e. September 5th.  And, Nirad C. Chaudhuri is a Kayastha writer whose autobiography established him as a well-known author.

Amongst them, Gandhi mentioned his caste background and the other two never disclosed their caste background, though they lived in caste cultural systems from birth to death. Gandhi envisioned for the removal of untouchability but he was not for the annihilation of caste. He believed that caste system evolved by the sanctions of the Hindu Shastras, therefore, thought that caste system should not be annihilated.  Ambedkar worked for annihilation of both the social evils.

Radhakrishnan and Nirad Chaudhuri remained skeptical and silent about their caste in their autobiographies wherein they were supposed to reveal the fact of life as truth. Caste is culture builder and hide that background in one’s life is a crime.

The personalities who worked throughout life for the annihilation of caste like Mahatma Phule, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, E.V. Periyar Ramaswami and Narayana Guru did not leave their own life stories.  Dhananjay Keer, a sympathetic Brahmin from Maharashtra gave the life accounts of Jyotiba Phule and Dr. Ambedkar too.  These two biographies have drawn substantial attention over a period of time.  If Phule and Ambedkar wrote their own memoirs, they would have told us something different from what we are told by Dhananjay Keer. This historical background of Shudra non-writing motivated Ilaiah Shepherd to write his own account of life.

Of late, many writers hailing from Dalit background are writing their own memoirs in English but the writers belong to Other Backward Classes (OBC) orShudra category have not been doing that.  However, this is the first memoirs of a Shudra intellectualwritten in English. This life narrative reveal the truth upside down from the point of view of Gandhian truth and also the historical brahminical truth.  Being Un-Hindu Indian Ilaiah Shepherd forecasted Post-Hindu India (in his book Post-Hindu India)  he generated a debate and controversy among Hindutva forces. He made production central in the ideological discourse. Ilaiah Shepherd’s memoirs has plentiful contextual relevant life narratives that would have transformative implications.

This From  A Shepherd Boy To An Intellectual—My Memoirs consists of 10 chapters with unique titles. The titles are highly polemical and loaded with meaning. The first chapter titled ‘Is Ilaiah an Unworthy Name?’ starts with a description of bitter experiences for holding local  spiritual name to an individual during one’s course of everyday life while studying in the modern educational institutions.  The names that end with ‘iah’ like Ilaiah, Mallaiah, Yellaiah and so on still continue to be humiliated  in Hindu social order.

Although Ilaiah Shepherd was a student of English literature at his under graduate studies he was much exposed to the famous saying of Shakespeare’s ‘What’s in a name?’, but the name he had was a source of humiliation in caste hierarchal Indian society. The  indignity that went with his name perplexed him like anything.

Like his contemporary Shudra low caste students, he too wanted to change his name through Official Gazette to overcome the manipulated culture of indignity and humiliation.However, he did not do so as an accidental discovery of Isaiah Berlin’s books and philosophy changed him. He thought that if Isaiah Berlin could become world famous writer and thinkers Ilaiah Kancha  too could attempt that path, thought he.

In fact, ‘Ilaiah’ is a geo-tagging theophoric name that came from ‘Iloni Mallanna’ who is local deity of cattle herders.  The God Iloni Mallanna, Komuravelli Mallanna, Katta Mallaiah are not worthy enough in mainstream Hinduism as the Gods involve in cattle rearing and production were.  In order to overcome the humiliation, the lower-castes forced to adopt brahminical culture in the light of sanskritization but Ilaiah Shepherd focused more on individualized reading and writing, instead of imitating the culture of parasites.

Ilaiah Shepherd realized when he was reading the religious scriptures like Vedas, Bible, Quran and so on that no Vedic text possesses any similar name like ‘Ilaiah’ whereas Bible has several similar names that end with ‘iah’— Isaiah, Jeremiah, Nehemiah,  Zephaniah etc and those are most well-known and scared names of prophets.  This observation facilitated him with a comparative religious perspective.

In searching for a Marxist book at Osmania University library Ilaiah Shepherd unexpectedly found a book of Isaiah Berlin – ‘Two Concept of Liberty (1958)’.  He first misread the spelling Isaiah as Ilaiah.

Then he started writing his full name as ‘Ilaiah Kancha’ to get free from the manacles of cultural inferiority and individual suicidal tendencies. Eventually, ‘Ilaiah’ as a humiliated name offered him an adventurous opportunity to challenge the others who are powerful, deceitful with multiple weapons of destruction, selfishness and crookedness at their command in all regards.

Throughout the history the agrarian or productive deities have become small cultural deities and the war mongering invader deities have been projected as great cultural Gods.

With the writing of this autobiography Ilaiah Shepherd changed the name ‘Ilaiah’ as a property of pride and self-respect for the  dalitbahujans.  It also develops a sense of avoidance of having a heroic-violent name like Narasimha, Parusharama, Vamana and so on.

On May 15 and 16, the Brahmin Associations in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana burnt several effigies of Ilaiah Shepherd, gave condemnation statements and issued false statements of half truths about him in Telugu news papers. Men, claiming to be Brahmins, made threatening calls that they will do to him what Parashurama of their ancestry had done to the kshatriyas with his powerful axe.

A case was also filed against him at Saroor Nagar Police Station of Hyderabad under IPC sections 295A, 153A and 298 on May 26, 2016.  The Brahmin campaign against Ilaiah spread to wider networks of Brahmin Associations who wanted to retain their superstitious superior status intact.  Then, Ilaiah Shepherd realized that the Brahmins adopted Sanskrit names like Sharma, Shastry, Chaturvedi, Upadhyay and so on. With those Sanskritic names, they established pan Indian connectivity. But the Dalit-Bahujans were left to live without having any dignified names – be it their first, second or last names. They have no pan Indian identity and hence no connectivity between one region and the other, largely because their occupations are known by different linguistic terms.

The productive castes/classes needs to begin by adopting names in a language that allow them to connect with each other and thus enjoy social respectability they have been denied. The only way left for the Dalit-Bahujans in the globalised world is English to triumph over Sanskrit. Though not many among them are well educated in English language, they must adopt and own English as their language – in all aspects, from their names to addressing God in their prayers. Let their prayers be to a God of equality, as against the Brahmin gods of inequality.  In this context, author changing his name from Kancha Ilaiah to Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd by releasing a rebellious poem on the process of his name change at Sundaraiah Vignana Kendram (SVK) in Hyderabad is a significant step in his life. The poem reads:                                        

O Brahmins of Bharath and the World
You want to crucify me
Knowing that I can’t resurrect,
As I am not Jesus Christ.
But, I will follow that Star,
As I am an Indian shepherd.
I will not destroy your temples
But, I will destroy all our shackles,
As I follow only the God of Equality.
Good, you tell all lies about me
You abuse me as Iligadu
I do not abuse the abuser,
But, lay down my life for the abused.
I turn my inside out
I am now Ilaiah Shepherd
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd.

With this a new legacy has been launched by Ilaiah Shepherd, thereby, farming communities can become Mr and Mrs Tiller, Dalits can have names like Mr and Ms Cobbler, Tanner, Shoemaker. Thus pot makers can have names like Potter, Iron and gold smiths can become Smith. Thus the marginalized communities could have English names – from Washerman to Fisherman. This would certainly change their status.

The chapter entitled ‘Eating the Brains and Learning the Unknown’ is about his childhood’s formulations.  It starts with his own family and social status which is not that low even in the social order of the village. .

The concept of Hinduism is completely alien to them as they hardly know they were/are Hindus and what they know is only caste system of the village.  This he examined in his modern classic Why I am Not a Hindu.

However, Ilaiah closely identified with his community rather than Hinduism.  Religion never played an imperative role in the Hindu sense what is vital is the productive relations of the caste system which is closely interlinked with village economy.  The negation of identity of Hindu is clearly questioned in the title  the ‘Why I am not a Hindu?   The Ilaiah here not only expresses his own anguish about an identity which he is not meant for it or supposes to exist in Hinduism.  This is the reason why the social context of an ideology of Ilaiah Shepherd is a watermark on social critique of Hindu caste system and Brahminism which institutionalized the unequal structure of hierarchy where its interest lies.

As if he was a fiction writer he narrates his childhood experiences and common play and how they used to go together to the fields and still there is unwritten code of caste which allows Shudra themselves intermingling in the course of production and day-to-day life.  The children themselves call each other on the basis of their respective castes and join happily play as it happens in the childhood experiences of people. But the Brahmin and Baniya children had no life sharing system. The festival Shudras and Brahmins differ in all respects.

Though Ilaiah shepherd’s family performed Saddula Bhatkmma and Dasarafestivals that was/is entirely different in terms of core understanding, celebration, feasting, clothing, and so on.  On the day of Dasara, Ilaiah’s one of his caste leaders told him “My grandson, eat this goat brain your brain will grow. You are going to school…. where brain…. Brain but not body is important.  Eat lot of brain so that your brain will grow”.  This was a Kuruma old man’s onslaught his grandfather’s anger against Mahaboob Reddy – cruel landlord, who forcibly took half of the herd in the name of tax.

There was an understanding among Golla-Kurumas, as if a child eats more brains his/her brain will grow immensely and that grown brain can attack the exploitation being run by the highly manipulative Telangana feudal lords.  The shepherd community nurtured the habit of eating brains in Ilaiah Shepherd’s understanding  not for the physical growth but necessarily for the intellectual growth. This sort of primary socialization enabled the author to learn the unknown by eating brains.

The sudden arrival of Rajalingam, a school teacher to Ilaiah Shepherd’s house on a fine morning surprised him as had a longish face and curly black haired with rubber slippers and white fancy attire.  Ilaiah witnessed addressing her mother’s name by adding polite word called garu and requesting her to admit Ilaiah into school.

Ilaiah’s mother, Kattamma, paid much attention to teacher’s talk and resisted the appeal by emphasizing that education does not go well with their family as her elder son Mallaiah had suddenly demised after sending him to a private tutor.  She also recalled what her mother-in-law said that “Saraswathi would kill the Shudra children” if they go to school.  Ilaiah’s family was in a notion that of Saraswathi allows only the children of Brahmin and Baniya but she becomes a devil when it comes to Shudra children.

This shows that the consciousness regarding education and Goddess of education drastically differs from productive and non-productive communities.  However, eventually Ilaiah Shepherd admitted into school without accurate date of birth but the school teacher has given an official birth date i.e. 5th October, 1952 which coincides with international teacher’s day.  The village teacher—Rajalingam– might not have visualized that his student becomes a world notable teacher and birth day given him will be celebrated as ‘Indian English Day’. On 5th October now Indian English Day is being celebrated.

The Ilaiah as child used to enjoy the ecstasy of the fun of play, travelling on bullock cart, swimming in deep waters, washing cattle and sheep in summer, singing songs on the bull fight.  He had to suffer the drudgery of the damned place called school as there no challenge of nature amidst the four walls.

He says that the school brought multidimensional new avatar of bush shirt, knicker and English haircut. In fact, this paved a way of divergence from the normal lifestyle of shepherd boys, particularly from that of his kith and kinship.  Ilaiah as a student in the class faced many problems related to names, new words, culture, numbers and those that  were entirely different from his own life experience.

His grandmother was constantly opposing reading books because he his brother Kattaiah might lose eye sight as they were reading books under the light ignited with castor oil. He also believed that Saraswathi  would kills them for reading and writing. Ilaiah narration how he was terrified of death makes us feel we ourselves under the spell of Saraswathi.

After finishing of Ilaiah’s primary education in single teacher school in his village, he joined upper primary school at Gudur, a bigger village 7 kms away from his own village.  English as a subject is usually taught from 6th class and it became favourite subject because of its easily writable letters and easier formation of sentences than Telugu.  A shepherd boy hailing from a remote village could not have got admission in any urban English convent school, as his parents are illiterate from the very first generation to his generation. He fell in love with English and what this love did to him is a story of this book.  However, Ilaiah has freed from Saraswati by loving and learning English which Goddess Saraswathi does not understand in prayer form.

‘The Song of Death and Rebellion against the Priest’ is a very painful chapter among of all.  His mother popularly known as Kancha Kattamma was like a patriarchal head of the caste while his father was just a figurehead. Her sudden death the Kuruma culture dealing with death makes a painful reading.

The book moves through other chapters narrating his pain and learning and writing. He tells the shepherd world and scholarly world engage with one another. This book raises it own controversy as deals with several living persons.

The Sage/Samya (Select) brought out the book in a good readable font but there are number of proof mistakes which need to be fixed in the second edition.  Every first generation educated young person must read this book as it becomes guide for research and human relations in the universities.

Dr. Bheenaveni Ram Shepherd, Chairman, BoS in Sociology, Osmania University, Hyderabad.

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