Kanhaiya Kumar's From Bihar to Tihar is a politically correct letdown
Good writers are seldom gifted with oratory skills, and the best orators can't be curtailed by the singular dimension of the written word. JNU student union president, Kanhaiya Kumar falls in the latter category, which is primarily what makes his latest 264-page biography From Bihar to Tihar: My Political Journey, published by Juggernaut, a disappointing read.
Kanhaiya came alive to the nation when he was dragged away from New Delhi's prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University on the night of 12 Feburary, 2016, on grounds of sedition and criminal conspiracy. For 20 days and nights he was the topic of primetime news with the media capturing every bit of the unfolding horror of imprisoning a man whose only crime was that he stirred a movement to condemn the government's handling of the Rohith Vemula situation and the idea to revoke the UGC non-NET scholarships.
By the time Kanhaiya walked out of Tihar jail, he was a national political celebrity. His stirring speech, moments after being released and setting foot into JNU, was electrifying. Unfazed and boldly staring into the face of a mob full of paparazzi and fellow student supporters, his speech signalled fearlessness and a hair-raising call for revolution.
But if you're going to read From Bihar to Tihar to decode the enigma that Kanhaiya had become nationwide, you're in for disappointment. His story telling takes a predictably linear structure beginning with his early memories of Begusarai, his birthplace in Bihar. This is followed up by tales of being nurtured by his parents, living in rural poverty, the experiences of studying in private versus Government village schools, his journey to Patna to study college and finally to Delhi, JNU and everything we know since that Februrary night.
Education: the root of politics
There are two poignant portions from the book that reflect on education. As a primary school student, Kanhaiya discovers how irrelevant his school syllabus is to him. In English class he is taught the story of 'The real princess' who sleeps on seven soft mattresses but finds the bed lumpy because of a single pea amidst the layers.
Kanhaiya's own life is devoid of soft beds or peas. It is a life dimly illuminated in between power cuts, with no milk to make chai and using the fields to relieve himself instead of a pucca toilet.
"It was a world in which last night's dinner was the morning's breakfast - stale rice or stale roti. Where was this world in our schoolbooks? What was useful was not taught to us and what we were taught was not useful," he writes.
At Sunrise Public School, his first tryst with private education in his village, he's taunted for not wearing a muffler and owning only one set of the uniform. His merit means nothing. His Dalit school friend, who was bright at studies, had to quit school after his father died to support his family. Today he works at a cycle repair shop in his village.
It was all about who got the right opportunities and who had the resources to afford them, he reaffirms.
And this is where politics begins for Kanhaiya. With school and the realization of class divides; the longing for relevant education and the reality of the hurdles that stand in his way.
From wanting to be an AC repair man working in Dubai to wanting to become an IAS officer to dreaming of becoming an academic, Kanhaiya's dreams change with exposure to Begusarai, Patna and finally, Delhi.
A celebration of JNU
When Kanhaiya reaches JNU he finds his true home.
What kind of a university applies minds and not brute force to negotiate through a campus road accident?
"One look at the hostels and you could tell that this was not home just for those who were from the university. Anyone who needed a place to stay in Delhi and prepare for admission in JNU could find shelter here. I felt that I was in a university for the first time. This is how all centres of learning should be, I thought to myself," he writes.
"I quickly discovered that I could challenge any professor and disagree with him or her. Our discussions were always held on equal terms. And in our own language too."
It is fair to say that From Bihar to Tihar is as much a celebration of the institution of JNU as it is of Kanhaiya's dreams for a revolution.
"I learnt in JNU that it is not essential to be proficient in English to be in politics... If you come from a poor or deprived background and talk about it, your voice is more effective than that of someone who owns a car or wears fancy clothes. In JNU if someone is not really poor but indulges in politics for the poor, nobody will believe him," he writes.
And that really is how a poor Begusarai boy became an active member of the All India Student Federation (AISF) and swept all the student votes, becoming the student union president of one of India's most prestigious institutions in 2015.
Which brings us to language. I haven't read the Hindi version but the quality of translation while capturing the tone of Kanhaiya's Hindi into English might have taken some punch out of the book.
"Arre woh energy crowd se aati hai," he told my colleague, Durga Sengupta, in an interview when she asked him why he's so quiet. Unless, of course, Kanhaiya's quiet, righteous, politically correct tone is deliberate and careful post his taste of prison life.
Curiously, when you read Kanhaiya recounting his jail experience you end up wondering why he even wanted to get out. The guards brought him food, gave him clothes, installed a television, told him stories and cared for him. He enjoyed VIP treatment and his visiting friends topped up his prepaid card that he used to purchase items from Tihar jail. Tihar could pass for a community hostel through Kanhaiya's descriptions.
The India Today exclusive that revealed that Kanhaiya Kumar was beaten up for 3 hours in police custody until he wet his pants and was forced to say 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' finds no mention in the 378-page online memoir. He only briefly mentions being hit once from behind by some lawyers when he appeared in Patiala house. But the book is strangely sterilised of these harsh human rights violations and police inaction. He also admitted in an interview to Catch that much has been left unsaid in the book.
This could only mean two things. That the prison experience scarred him enough to silence a part of him. Two, that he is saving his energies for something bigger. We can only hope that Kanhaiya draws his strength and resolve from everything left unsaid in this book.