Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd And The Loneliness Of A Bahujan Academic

Vijeta Kumar

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...

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