“I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.” – Brother Rohith Vemula
A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends – (Job 6:14, Old Testament, The Bible)
I am trying to recuperate from the spiral of grief enforced on the students by the academia, a harrowing period for scholars from non-elite backgrounds within the knowledge field. A sense of grief has been overtaking me, aggravated by the urgency of trying to make meaning out of Rohith’s decision to end his intercourse with the world i.e. death.
A fellow scholar advised me at the beginning of my M.Phil course, “Try to finish your course”. I was taken aback by his in-your-face statement, yet it proved to be pragmatic down the line. No, it is not the readings and the assignments but the indifference of the learned and progressive students that puts the ‘others’ in a irredeemable trauma, coupled with the mechanical routine that leaves one drained of her/his senses; an emotional-spiritual depletion to say. Although grief remains a universal fact, attempting to articulate a grief that is not shared can be hazardous. In Rohith brother’s context, it is the universal that I wish to touch upon because I cannot claim to know the particulars in his case.
Even though certain contexts of lived experiences overlap with Brother Rohith, I do not claim the specificity of his lived contexts by subsuming them under a claim of proximate identity. I am trying to find a language to articulate the void – the void of absence. The absence of Rohith leaves us “emotionally naked”, as described by Douglas H Grisham in his introduction to A Grief Observed by C.S.Lewis – a book about his loss. It is this loss that leaves us vulnerable to immediate quick-fix reactions, than a collective soul-searching that could heal the community in emancipatory ways. This is not an academic treatment – pain and suffering must not be treated as academic artifacts, although that has become the norm. To parade our pain for earning scholarly brownie points is an integral part the oppressors’ scholarship. This piece is my way of mourning Rohith brother’s absence.
The accumulated despair finds a vent through language – a repressed language; of the visuals, slogans and half-mute FB-updates where the nostalgia for his presence deposits itself heavily. On the other extreme, if not through language it happens through an absence and loss of language towards the suicide, when language as an intercourse no longer seems tenable. The terror of all social intercourse with loved ones closes around, and finds the gloom surrounding when the suicide alone remains a fact to live with.
Rohith, Senthil and many others were driven to death because of the insurmountable burdens of the identity they carried due to their subject positions within the academic spaces; burdens forced by a “regime of normalized domination”, a term Sherman Jackson employs to refer to the oppressive white culture in the context of Black suffering. Some of us are bearers of what Sherman refers as “social-political suffering”. But the outbreak of angst and grief upon Brother Rohith’s suicide was induced by a ‘totalitarian knowledge field’ that is at every turn a violent marauder of the commoner’s socio-political aspirations*. The suicide was a culmination of acts committed by the personal-institutional nexus, a murder committed through conscious choices of persons who internalized a murderous rationale around such inequalities, with an institution acting as the enabler of a murder. The institution itself made a choice to kill a human extraordinaire through its personal interlocutors.
Grief, for me, is not only a personal and collective remembering but also a traumatized community’s symbol against oppression in the public sphere; a resistive remembrance when the ‘totalitarian academia’ forces normality and demands a trend of forgetfulness and passivity from prospective Rohiths. It is this academic totalitarianism that also produces “Dalit Literatures” and a fetish for Dalit Studies; paper after paper written about Dalit bodies with scant regard for one’s harsh lived experiences. Writings and papers that arise from a skewed and flawed conscience. On the other hand, the travesty of caste that is irrational yet developing its own ‘reason’ through its scandalous, rarefied apologists, forces even more despair on the subalterns within the academia. The subaltern struggles and oscillates between these multiple despairs, which itself consumes his/her time and space and disallows her/him from making meaningful scholarship in the totalitarian space of academics. This scandal of academified caste is yet to devour its full quota of more Rohiths and Senthils. This ritual of grief results because of conscious choices made by the normalized dominating structure, at times enabled by the collusion of the subalterns in the enterprise of a Brahmanical and neo-Brahmanical academic gaze. A caste-phallic structure that refuses to feel the humane in the knowledge spaces.
My sense of Grief was also contextualized through a reading of A Grief Observed where C.S. Lewis mourns his beloved’s demise. Yes, we have lost our beloved, our beloved brother with all of his love, his warmth and anger. The Lewisian melancholy was Rohith’s predicament – “I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief” (Lewis 10). This is the quintessential experience of the ‘depressed class’* scholars within the academic slaughterhouses. Lewis’ travail is ours as well – “Only the locked door, the iron curtain, the vacuum, absolute zero”(Lewis 8), “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” (Lewis 11). It would not be so much the absence but the contemplation of Rohith’s presence, projections of Rohith who lives in the visuals, the slogans, the profile pictures, the #hashtags and so on that reflects our fraternal grief. A self-inflicting nostalgia for Rohith’s ‘resurrection’, borrowing Rohith’s Christian allusion to it in one of his FB posts.
If there is anything that kept me grounded in a ‘secular’ space, it is fraternity, not a rhetorical solidarity, but loved ones whom I could hold as my brothers and sisters. While I look back at my usage of these terms, I continue to be baffled and enriched by their lived solidarity amidst ‘their’ own pains of tackling a murderous site that leaves all of us vulnerable to suicides and multiple inner deaths. This is why I will miss Rohith. A Rohith who helped design a site where Dickens, Thongam Bipin, Muhsina and Mubashir would live and discourse together, being appreciative of their differences and divergences. Oh, how fatally I miss this person of immense humane virtues!
Whenever I was to meet a Tamil Muslim or North-eastern friends, within the university campus and the hostels, “Bro” was the relational term that connected me with their life-world. It is neither a trend nor an obsession for ‘modernity’ but rather my reality of suffering, sorrow and momentary bouts of joy that continue to construct my worldview. To move towards a fraternal bond that seeks to alleviate itself through the use of language; the joy and pain depositing their residues into language-as-a-person. Rohith’s predicament which we share is also of exile, the exile of leaving ‘home’ to a place where there is a loss of language, a linguistic paralysis where the ghastly ‘reason’ of caste has pervaded and structurally sanitized the possibility and emergence of fraternity in the campus.
To aggravate the baggage of identities, Tamil was a thorn stuck into my person, as a relational language/mother tongue, whereas Delhi is nothing but a Diaspora filled with the caste-periyarists un/seen around campuses in Delhi gossiping about non-existent egalitarian virtues in their personal chitchats. Tamil as a language and Tamil as an identity were often at odds with my existence in the campus. These incapacitated states of mind were compounded with the inability to use Christianness as an existential category to wade through the virile elitism of the academia. As a Christian Sceptic, it has often forced me to anguish; the anguish of receiving smug religious answers and moments of stoic silence. The institutionalized Christianity as it exists is a Christ-free cult that has killed the ethic of Justice that was supposed to be second nature for Christians in the academia. I often felt Christians cannot claim minority victim-hood unless there is a living solidarity on their part with issues that plague the university campus. The torturous inadequacy of a Church to settle into, as a place to rest the burdens of my identity, aggravates the position of casteness. A North-eastern church in Delhi was the one which came closer to offering a space of ultimate belonging and hope where I remained ‘my’ ‘own’ self. It is the obstinacy not to belong and the constant inadequacy of belonging that pushes me towards assimilation with the Christian spaces, which keeps pricking my conscience. If I could find a Rohith in Delhi, I would be more enriched but now I have the choice and inescapable responsibility to be one like him.
This is where Rohiths matter, not as advocates of an identity-based belonging – though his lived experience informed his positive, fraternal politics – but as those who helped raise shelters of belonging for the oppressed within the ghettos of academia. I am still coming to terms with the terror left by the absence of Rohith, a humane scholar more than anything else. I miss you Rohith, I just miss you badly and heavily. I am mourning your loss Rohith, as I have lost a person who was involved in building bridges between the voice-suppressed and someone who was immersed in the endeavour of a ‘humane knowledge’, knowledge that appreciates the lived sufferings of the despised. Why would you forsake us like this Rohith, why?
I hold it that he was advocating for an identity politics that treats suffering not as a dry, impersonal fact but a realm that reflects human belonging. What his loss has rendered to us, violently, in the personal and the political realm is the presence of Rohith along with his anger and his affection for the universal and the particular – erased from the public consciousness, and by this I mean the physical presence as a being with whom we will no longer be able to converse and be enriched. When I happened to see Rohith’s photo with a cat, I felt the indomitable violence of loneliness and the resultant muteness of language that can only be shared with an animal being. This happens whenever I see Babasaheb’s family portrait with a dog beside wherein I could sense the universality of our emotions that transcends the human by encompassing the animal world as part of our human intercourse. These are also moments when I celebrate my Buddhist roots, grounded in a world that embraces the ethos around and celebrates the richness of life. The monstrous condition of oppressive culture that forces itself on us with its entire Hobbesian might-is-right rule and the resultant alienation is mitigated and enriched through the conversation with the animal world. I am sure Rohith was edified by many pet friends.
Douglas Grisham is right in his use of ’emotional paralysis’ and ’emotionally naked’ as characteristic of certain human contexts of belonging. Perhaps it is truer of our present lives; we are left emotionally naked and paralyzed through the demise of certain persons in such oppressive contexts. In the quest for justice, our bereavement itself is a tool and a method. I am sure there was a void that preceded the presence of Rohith amidst the ASA family and was filled by the arrival of Rohith. Now we are no longer part of the emotional and the personal of that; we lose the warmth of the personal and its significant role in our ability towards knowledge-making and towards a grounded humane knowledge. Our psyche and our emotional spheres continue to be hammered with the loss of such loved ones and dispossessed of their warmth. It will be the inability to laugh, have enriching conversations with chai together amidst the trauma of our modern busy selves that will haunt me. I fear the incontinence of affections; the affections that will hang on to our psyche and will be adamant to leave our presence. A state that leaves us bereft of the liveliness of his presence.
It is this distress of longing: a longing that is attached to the fear of being exiled from one’s locations of affection, warmth and shared sorrows. There is an obvious fortitude even amidst suffering on the part of the Oppressed, the ‘structurally oppressed’ and the ‘personally oppressed’. In Rohith, we saw both the structural and the personal monsters weighing down on this human extraordinaire, who wished more than anything else, to be humane first and everything next. Thus I have shared the Lewisian fear of the loss of memory: The agony of the loss of the loved ones is the fear of losing the significance of our emotional world when the loved one is no more present in our conversations and hangouts. I keep learning that if there is anything that marks our momentary lives, it is the quest for the eternity of our loved ones to fill the void of our spatial contexts that is otherwise bombarded with meaningless social intercourse.
* By Politics, I mean a positive fraternal culture, the model found in HCU that moves towards Fraternal bonding as a reality than Politics having connotations of power.
* I am using Babasaheb’s usage of the term ‘depressed class’ but to refer to a doubleness: the identity position of the scholars and depression as a mental state.
* References: C.S.Lewis, A Grief Observed, Harper Collins: 1961 edition.
Thanks to Karventh Bro and Sriram Bro for offering me contexts of belonging to think through this piece. I am deeply at a loss of language to express our togetherness that breaches past the prescribed limits of our lived experiences. I owe much to both of you for being humane enough, nothing more and nothing less.
Trevor Jeyaraj has completed his M. Phil. in English Literature from the University of Delhi. He daydreams that one day the world of humans would be like the one of the Mynas, Squirrels, Pigeons and Dogs that hang out together in the Arts Faculty, DU.