Friday, October 30, 2015

Narrating the Dilemmas: Tulsi Ram’s Autobiography

Abdul Rahman

(Book review of the two volumes of autobiography - 'Murdhahiya' and  'Manikarnika' by Tulsi Ram, | Rajkamal Prakashan | New Delhi)

The rise of post-modernism in politics had adverse effect on issues of revolutionary change. The questions of representation, empathy and domination etc have affected not only the unity of the oppressed. It has, to a larger extent, delegitimized the vanguards; the leadership. Hence, it is beyond any doubt that one of the most vital challenges faced by the left (Indian or otherwise) is the rise of identity politics. A large number of activists deserted the organised left politics in the 1990s citing widespread indifference to the issues of representation and social justice. In the Indian context the so called ‘failure to recognise the centrality of caste as a tool of oppression and exploitation’ and a kind of ‘obsession with the class contradiction’ are identified as ‘problems with the left parties and movements’. Over and above the ideological issues there is distrust prevalent among the marginalized groups (manufactured or otherwise) about ‘the personal credibility’ of some of the left leadership. The bitterness of the experiences within the organisation has created enmity among some of the erstwhile left activists leading to charges and allegations of caste bias against the leadership. This has been a general trend in last few decades and hence one should be forgiven for being surprised while reading Tulsi Ram’s autobiography. It is one of the rarest books in Hindi which chronicles the life and times of a left activist who was born in a Dalit family.  

Prof. Tulsi Ram was one of those activists who throughout his life remained a true leftist despite grievances with his party. Though, an autobiography is never complete so one cannot be conclusive about the author’s final opinions on his deeds and belongings, however, the first two parts of Prof. Tulsi Ram’s autobiography give us enough hints that notwithstanding his occasional ‘disappointments’ he was not yet disillusioned from the left politics. He often observes in these books about his “life long ‘blind faith’ in communism” coming to nought on such and such occasion returning again to his political roots in the left.

The two volumes of the autobiography are respectively called Murdahiya and Manikarnika. Both are published in Hindi in 2010 and 2014 respectively. These books, apart from being a rare reflection of a left activist are also rare as a political biography of a Dalit published in Hindi. Unlike most of the writings in Hindi, these two books have incited a lot of discussion and surprisingly, sales too.

These books provide rich description of lived experiences of Prof. Tulsi Ram of his childhood and his Banaras Hindu University days. These books are important not only because we are interested in the life of the narrator, they become more valuable because of the socio-economic context, the milieu in which the narrator has grown up. Prof. Tulsi Ram’s lived experiences as an individual might not make Murdhahiya and Manikarnika worth a read. But, the fact that these books are a narration of fight against the odds of caste, class and ideological isolation makes the life of this professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University a representative study of social and political in India. Interest in the books germinates due to the potentiality of a discourse: the dilemma of class and caste and between the modernist ‘emancipation’ and the post-modernist ‘representation’.

One can argue that the language of the books prevents them from reaching to a wider audience outside author’s own locale restricting the scope of the discourse. Perhaps it does as those who live in their cocoons/reveries, where there is no caste and no class or at least there are no discriminations on such basis, those who think that liberal world provides enough opportunities for all ‘meritorious’ to come up and fight against the odds if there are any, are not interested in vernacular. There is a reluctance to engage with what some of them call ‘propaganda’. For a reader from an affluent background all attempts to narrate humiliation are an act of ‘politics’ and he/she ‘hates’ it. Hence, the audience is limited and perhaps Dr. Tulsi Ram was conscious of the fact as despite being capable of writing in English he chose otherwise. It is difficult to establish now but the language, the style and the title of these books make us think about the targeted audience. 

Tulsi Ram was a Dalit who chose to be a Marxist. Both these identities play an important role in the narrative. He often reflects on his class and caste together perhaps to establish the fact of their being the same. He sometimes evokes Buddhism too as an alternative emancipatory ideology. Apart from nostalgia the books are testimonies of struggles, both internal and external; an individual has to necessarily go through if he is an Indian coming from a particular social background. There is no meritocracy no Weberians “protestant ethic”, no enlightenment values using which a Dalit can climb the ladder of upward mobility without being dragged back again and again by the society. The role played by class and race in preventing equality in Europe are played by the class and caste in India. The books argue that class consciousness would be incomplete without caste identity in India. They tell us this socio-political fact through the story of Tulsi Ram. The web of narratives recorded by the author hence provides the readers satisfaction of reading a fictionalised version of social reality.


The first book Murdahiya is all about Tulsi Ram’s village life. It’s a testimony of his experiences of pleasure and pains as a child at home, at village, and at the educational institutions. The pleasures of childhoods are beyond rational descriptions. One cannot say the same about the pains though. The abuses, the discriminations, the neglect and the migration all of these have rational explanations. In this book the caste hierarchy and economic structure of the village life provides as anthropological understanding. Lack of modernity in the post-colonial Indian villages is quite clearly portrayed by the author through his own life, not that the situation has much changed since. To know that how caste discrimination and violence; structural tools of a village community, are still prevalent in the 21st century India, one can open any day’s newspapers. It has been more than six decades since those liberal institutional mechanisms which were first adopted with much hope among others by Dr. Ambedkar. The rigidity of traditional social and economic institutions belies all those hopes today. However, Tulsi Ram’s murdahiya is a story of a time when that hope was new and fresh at least among the builders of the post-colonial institutions. The book is a testimony of the limited extent of that hope however.

Tusli Ram starts his story with the description of murdahiya which is a cremation ground of the village. This is a place which despite being scary shapes the consciousness of Tulsi and reminds him the social and cultural stigmas attached to his identity. The presence of superstition and servility among the dalits of his village and so called upper castes’ refusal to accept the freedom and rights provided to every citizen of the country post independence is clearly stated with daring in the book. The absence of any opportunity of social mobility makes socially deprived sections find solace in closed group competitions as depicted by the author through some of his family members becoming the ‘leaders’ of the community.

His lust for knowledge was so great that despite all odds Tulsi kept on climbing the ladder. Lack of female agency is quite visible throughout the narration. Tulsi’s mother, grand mother and other women have no say either in family matters or in their own personal enclosures. The narration negates a large number of scholarly façade about caste and social hierarchies in India starting from Homo Hieraricus to the so called post-colonial studies. The assumption that consciousness about caste was a result of colonial policies remained to be proved as Tusli’s experiences prove a longer and more hegemonic presence of Brahminism. The hegemony of Brahminism is fully established as per descriptions of imbibed and common sensical presence of social positions. Despite the presence of limit material resources, Tusli’s parents’ refusal to finance the education of their bright child shows the grip of tradition and ideology of the society. The victim has fallen in love with its oppressor and has no clue about its own self. It is consent without conscience. The one who is non-initiated in this ‘tradition’ is the rebel and therefore need to be punished in whatever way possible. The friendly and patronising upper caste men in Tulsi’s school, who help him and treat him as human, are some of those non-initiated. They come across as torch bearers of modernity. One should not mistake them as the representative examples of the so called “cooperative sense of living in the traditional Indian villages.” Such cooperative sense in Indian villages is myth propagated by some of the scholars of post-colonial school.

The descriptions of Murdahiya are the literary rich parts of the autobiography. Tusli’s friendship with the nut girl, presence of several religious hermits in the murdahiya portrayed as babas with magical powers, etc add to the charm as well as the melancholy of Tulsi’ childhood. 

Murdahiya provides a great contextual point about the effects of migration on the villages and ideology of social living in traditional India. The few urban enclaves in the 1950s, Calcutta or Bombay and other small industrial cities, were the first points of counter ideological currents. Tulsi hints his inspirations coming from people migrated to these urban locals. The hints of left politics in the form of land reforms and trade union activities finds its target in Tulsi who later on becomes one of the members of the communist party in his university days described in detail in the second book Manikarnika.

Manikarnika is more about politics and external experiences of the author. There is no family and no personal life in the book except perhaps in the end when he describes his adolescent attractions towards the other sex. The book is all about Banaras and Calcutta and the communist party and Naxalism. It’s a description of his student leadership days and his transitions towards Marxism and Buddhism. The latter just comes as reference points. Marx is more dominant than Buddha in the activist Tulsi’s life. The stories which he referrers while narrating some of the experiences through Buddhism are stories weaved later. His descriptions about the rise of RSS in BHU politics as a reflection of the rise of reactionary forces in India post 1967 elections and its effects on communal politics of the country is educating particularly in the present circumstances. Manikarnika is a political history of India post independent. The book talks about BHU politics in detail as well as some of the links of student’s politics with the world outside. The 1968 movements, Vietnam War and Cold War in general are contextualised in Tulsi’s life. The Naxal movement which was also his Ph.D topic at BHU, his jail visits and his forays in failed violent mission portray his ideological dilemmas. It was clear that by this time Tulsi’s understanding of politics was shaking his childhood infatuations and twin pulls of Buddhism and Marxism was making him conscious about the reality.

One of the central themes of Manikarnika is Tulsi’s painful experiences of Caste discrimination in Banaras. His caste deprived him stability as he had to change his accommodation “eight times in two years”. He had to change and hide his true caste identity for the sake of peaceful accommodation. This part of the book exposes the conservative and casteist belly of Indian cities where caste, class, religion or even food habits can be a source of deprivation. One cannot have true empathy of such experiences without going through the pain. The shameless rigidity with ignorance is one of the defining characteristics of Indian psyche and one’s pride in one’s caste is one of the main indicators of this. The burning and looting of Dalit houses, one such incidence is described in the book in detail, apart from showing political economic and casteist dominations also prove the near impossibility of reconciliation in society. The arrogance of the so called high castes is supported by social and political set ups which are ultimately backed by their control over the economic resources, their hierarchy.

The most controversial aspects of the book originate from Tulsi’s dilemmas. His attraction towards Naxalism becomes his first moral and political problem. Here Buddhism comes to his rescue. Identity politics is somewhat a generic issue with all the Dalit activists. Due to their lived experiences with biases and discriminations along with political apathy to their issues by the left for a very long time it becomes natural to feel cheated and isolated. Tulsi was no exception. He had to face such individuals within the party and had to suffer because of them. The suffering was not only personal as he could hardly convince his comrades to take up the caste issues more vigorously. The perennial denial of the importance of caste as one of the defining features of Indian social and economic milieu forces many Dalit activists to reconsider their commitments to organised left movements. Tusli Ram rightly points out the mass dissertation of the communist parties by the Dalits as a case in point.

The autobiography is incomplete not only because the greater part of his life which he spent in Delhi as a professor at Centre for Central Asian and Russian Studies is not penned due to his unfortunate death. It is incomplete also because reading both the volumes give us just a glimpse of first 26 years of Tulsi Ram’s life. In the Murdhahiya one could notice the loneliness of the author. This might have given him more time to reflect and spend on studies which was the only source of his and remains to be the same even today for several people like him, upward mobility. Nonetheless, both the books are one of the rarest contributions to world of literature and a great reference point for caste based living experience through a Marxists point of view. 

The author is Assistant Professor at I P College for Women, Delhi University. 


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