In Dalit Student's Notes, an Intimate Portrait of Life, Loss and Longing on the Margins

Amid the blame-games that will likely begin in the wake of Rajini's death, his writing should remind us of what we are most at danger of forgetting.

The following is not intended to constitute any sort of speculation on the suicide of Rajini Krish, an MPhil student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, who passed away on March 13, 2017. What follows is a reflection on some of his writings and references he’s made.

Rajini Krish, a.k.a. Muthukrishanan, the son of Alamelu and Jeeva, has published multiple notes on Facebook. Each one is so detailed, so personal and intimate, that it is difficult to read them and then think of him as a stranger.

Rajini, as he liked to be referred on Facebook at least, lived in Kitchipalayam in Salem district, Tamil Nadu, before he came to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for an MPhil. There are many rumours going around JNU about why he committed suicide. They are irrelevant to this article, which is about two things: some of his publicly visible notes, and his frequent reference to the Tamil film Kabali (2016).

Watching Kabali was not ever going to be about fine acting. The scripts of Tamil cinema don’t usually require it. Instead, being a Pa Ranjith film, it was about identity politics. Rajinikanth, who stars in Kabali, uses the word ‘magilchi’ (or magizhchi, Tamil for ‘pleasure’, as in the courtesy, “My pleasure”) as a concluding comment; Rajini Krish has ended some of his Facebook posts with the word as well. He also posted a video in which he recreates one of Rajinikanth’s dialogues from the film – delivered when the actor gets out of prison and announces to his rivals that he is back.

Kabali’s more iconic sequences include Rajinikanth fighting for the rights of Tamil workers in 1980s Malaysia, his rise to power within the Tamil community, and his eventual subversion by his rivals. The dichotomy of good and bad in the film is too sharp to merit much discussion, but the way it portrays Kabali’s rise is filled with symbolism. In one of the more powerful moments, Kabali’s wife Kumudhavalli (Radhika Apte) tells him that if he is to be taken seriously by his arch-rivals – all of them affiliated with the locally dominant landlords and wearing suits and blazers – he has to dress like them.

Kabali agrees. In a later scene, he walks up to the antagonists, slowing to make sure they notice his new clothes, and then walks away. In a few other scenes, the film revisits the sentiments inherent in this transformation – as well as the threat/risk of violence.

Near the middle of Kabali, when one of its central conflicts is established, the antagonists throw Kumudhavalli to the ground and beat her as their henchmen surround Kabali. One man mocks his audacity in dressing like his ‘overlords’, and demands that he take his jacket (or what in Tamil Nadu is usually called a ‘coat’) off. Kumudha screams at Kabali to keep his coat on. This is about much more than style: with the coat on, Kabali defies the social position he is relegated to by his upper-class rivals. It is a sign to the world that he will continue to defy it – and them.

The politics of what we eat

To Kabali, the coat was a supreme and supremely convenient symbol, one that he could push in people’s faces without even trying. We can’t claim to know if Rajini, the JNU student, was inspired by any of this. This is only to recall the symbols and narrative that Kabali – a film Rajini was surely affected by – used to speak about the fight for equality.

While the coat was an affirmative reminder to Kabali to fight for equality, Rajini used smelly meat to remind the world about the persistence of day-to-day discrimination. In 2003, after a showing of the film Pithamagan, Rajini was carrying home some unpleasant-smelling beef (maana) from the local market, in a characteristic black bag. He recalls on Facebook:

With that 5kg Maana parcel, Jeeva’s son [referring to himself] reached Salem Old bus stand clock house … Suddenly one of his school friend Ramana came near to him, Ramana supposed to get down in the 4 Roads bus stop. Jeeva’s son thought, he can talk to Ramana till 4 Roads, but when the moment Ramana seen the Black carry bag, he started to look for some other bus, he did not even give face to him. Jeeva’s son entered inside the 6 A sathiram route bus.

Middle of the bus right side window seat. … An officer entered inside the bus after looking at the Black Maana cover, the officer did not sit with Jeeva’s son though there was a place and no other vacancy in the bus. … From the Park a couple came into the bus, they were searching for seat to sit with their 3 year old kid. Jeeva’s son want to stand from 4 Roads to Sathiram Bus stop since there is nobody to talk with him, so for them he [stood] up and gave place, but both of them did not sit after seeing the Black carry bag, now the Maana smell broadcasted throughout the bus, nobody sat on the seat till 4 Roads.

After 4 Roads Jeeva’s son foot boarded with other passenger’s From 4 Roads to Thammannnan Chetty road, other passenger’s angry on him just for the Maana bag, now the smell is very clear, some crushed him on the foot. Jeeva’s son walked through the Sathiram to Lee bazar road. Jeeva’s son intent to walk right side, to see the people’s reaction. Many people turned aside, and crossed opposite side, after seeing the Maana carry bag. In those days there was no equality for Maana, but nowadays there is no maana , that is to say there is no equality.

As Rajini travelled home from the market with his black bag, his friend wouldn’t talk to him, people wouldn’t walk by him, and his co-passengers would physically hurt him to express their contempt. Unlike Kabali, for whom the donning of a coat was an uplifting act of magizhchi, Rajini was shunned – the way he said he was by JNU’s administration – and put down for carrying around his food.

The recognition of politics around what we eat isn’t new – neither to Rajini Krish nor to any of us. Indians are frequently assaulted by right-wing vigilantes on the suspicion that they are transporting or eating beef; the ruling party treats the perpetrators with indulgence. Rajini makes a reference to this in a post published on his blog last year:

Dear anti-nationals, let me tell you, one day this nation’s leader is going to sell all. Just for a selfie and for a standing ovation from the outsiders. Hundreds and hundreds of Dappa Raos are going to kill thousands of Rohiths and they are going to say, “He/She was a gifted student”. All the intellectuals from the marginalised communities will get arrested just for mocking fictional characters. At the same time, all the leading national institutes will be headed by people who cannot even clear the 10th standard exam. These people condemn dissenters as anti-nationals and seditious. They are going to kill many Rohiths, like us, just for eating beef, for being rational, for being intellectually productive for the country. But we are the real sons of this land and after we are all killed, there will be no nation.

His grandmother

In another of his Facebook notes, Rajini recalls the time he spent with his grandmother Sellammal before moving to New Delhi, and how she taught him about living with self-respect. According to Rajini, Sellammal was a housekeeper (aaya) at the English-medium Jai Matriculation School, a short woman who took pride in living tall, with independence. When he asked her why she was making a living cleaning ‘somebody [else’s] kid’s ass’, she replied, as he writes, “Paiya [boy], don’t talk too much like a big man, We old people have some reasons to work here, and I don’t want to disturb my sons. That’s why I [sit] in silence, always in my room, though my sons are nearby.”

He continues, writing about the day he told Sellammal he was going to Delhi to study in JNU (quotation marks added for clarity):

Aaya tomorrow I am going to Delhi, one exam aaya, if I pass I can study there in JNU, fees are very less. “What?! Delhi, Oyi! What study in Delhi? You can’t study here? From here to Delhi ! And then going to study there!? Just go, paiya, and please look after your home condition!” It’s ok, aaya. Home! What is in home? Always here, being same, living same. Let me go and study, I will be coming very soon, ok. Take care. Do you like to give some money? I am quite short of train fare. “Paiya, you come in the evening.”

Evening she gave Rs 40/ to her grandson. Long time her grandson did not meet Sellammal. In 2015, two day’s before her grandson’s JNU interview, Jeeva called his son and said: “Paiya, Sellammal aaya passed away.” Appa, sorry appa, after long time I got interview chance in this great university. Delhi to Salem, Salem to Delhi, think about it Appa. One of my professor gave me Rs 2000 for train fare, now how can I come there, appa? “It’s ok, paiya, you study. Study well and come, no problem.”

Recently Sellammal’s grandson went to Tajmahal. The whole time he was thinking about Sellammal, her symbol of love, [comparable] to nothing in the world. I am always happy about Sellammal. What I [am a] little sad about [the] Tajmahal is, first time in my life, I paid Rs 10 tax for being an adult. Who is feeding me? Who made me adult? Who is getting adult tax? This [is] how they built Taj Mahal? Sellammal aaya, like you I just smile, and watch all [this] nonsense. Rest in peace. Love you, aaya.

Amid the blame-games that will likely begin in the wake of Rajini’s death, these stories remind us what we are most at danger of forgetting, as we did after the suicide of Rohith Vemula in January 2016. That this was the mind and such was the spirit of a perceptive young man, Rajini Krish.

Note: This article was corrected on March 15 to state that maana is beef, not dry fish.