A Country Without Rohith Vemula

“I always was rushing,” Rohith Vemula wrote, “Desperate to start a life.” But the beginning could never take place, it was fatally elusive.

Last year, on January 17, Rohith Vemula took his own life. He left behind a suicide note whose life is, however, as fresh as ever — still read and interpreted with the passion and attention it deserves. “I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body”, he wrote in the note. Even if we dismiss all the saints’ and philosophers’ theories of the soul as an entity, we are still left with the amorphous idea that Fernando Pessoa called “a hidden orchestra” and Sylvia Plath a “dark thing”. In his novel, Blindness, José Saramago wrote: “Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.” That something in Rohith, that something which he was, that something he recognised as his soul, was his value. It was this value that he found “reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing.”

At this point, Rohith spoke of himself in the third-person, as a generic self, where you can feel the aggravation of his alienations. The something of the soul is speculative and full of possibilities. But the body reduced to an identity and that identity in turn reduced to a vote and a number turns you only into a “thing”. A thing is the opposite of an evocative and unspecified something. To exist as a thing is to be torn from possibilities. “I have become a monster,” wrote Rohith in his note, a monster of what was tearing him apart  — his refusal to live like a thing when his soul was full of speculative matters. The “glorious thing made up of stardust” that he felt within himself, the something that lived in his soul, was not treated gloriously. He felt neglected as a “mind” everywhere, “in streets, in politics and in dying and living”. The instrumentality of life merged with the instrumentality of politics, and Rohith was aghast at the total death of possibilities in the world.

It all started at birth. “My birth is my fatal accident,” the note read, “I can never recover from my childhood loneliness.” He mentioned being an “unappreciated child”. Was he unappreciated at home? Or was it in the classroom, in the world at large? There is a history of neglect and victimisation in our education system, and it is a history of classist bias and casteist ridicule. I remember the father of a boy in my school who had requested me to tell the teacher to allow his son to sit in the front row in class. I took the boy, whose clothes weren’t neat or sparkling, who was dark complexioned, to the teacher. He refused to let the poor man’s son sit in front, telling me it was neither mine nor the father’s business.

This incident is a tip of the iceberg of prejudice and victimisation that children from poor homes go through in our social world. Some boys and girls are made to feel something is unalterably wrong about them, and are forced to grapple with the bizarre logic of this sickness. Rohith faced this sickness even in the university, where he was hounded by the politics of Hindutva and caste. It is evident from the note that Rohith bore the hurt of that sickness for too long. “I can never recover,” he wrote, pointing to the suffocating fever of loneliness that engulfed him since childhood. Rohith bore his radical estrangement with the world for quite long. It is that fever which made him desperate. “I always was rushing,” he wrote, “Desperate to start a life.” But the beginning could never take place, it was fatally elusive.

In his Blue Octavo Notebooks, Kafka had written, “One of the first signs of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die. This life appears unbearable, another unattainable. One is no longer ashamed of wanting to die”. In Rohith’s case it wasn’t just existential anguish but the instrumentality of relations, of that unnamable something in him being reduced to an integer that made life, and the world, meaningless. Can a man exist if reduced to a vote, a number, a thing? Such a question is not the beginning of understanding but worse. It is the beginning of a despairing clarity that can seize someone who refuses to shy away from the absurdity of the question that confronts him. To be reduced to an identity, a number and a thing is no less than reducing the possibilities of a man’s soul to an absurd thing, to nothing. Rohith’s question was too pure, and his incorruptible honesty vis-à-vis the question he asked himself led him to end his life. Rohith did not bear the gravity of this question within the world of thought, or of language, alone. He could not separate the question from his life, and it brought him no consolation. If life brings no consolation, one may begin to wonder about that other possibility: death.

“The thought of suicide is a great consolation,” Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, “by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” The dark night of his childhood merely got extended to his adulthood, to nights of artifice: “Our love is constructed. Our beliefs coloured. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.” There is a philosophical issue at hand here. Rohith was disturbed by the conflict between truth and artifice. Is getting hurt in love a matter of truth or artifice? In Rohith’s understanding, hurt is born of that conflict.

You hear the voice of that extended dark night with a chill when you read the opening words of his note In which he greets the reader, “Good morning”. It must surely be a rare letter in history where a “good morning” meant goodbye. “At last” the note read, “this is the only letter I am getting to write.” It was a gesture of both opening and closing, of desire, of conversation, of a silence too long and heavy to survive its own obliteration.  The first letter to the world was meant to be the last. The world learnt of itself too late to hear more of Rohith, for Rohith was no more. “I am not hurt at this moment,” he wrote, “I am not sad. I am just empty.” He felt empty of all ties, of all feelings. But he also felt that something within his soul which was irreducible to the nothing he was made to feel here, in this country.

“From the shadows to the stars” he wrote. He believed he would travel to the stars after death, where perhaps the gap between his soul and his body would be mended. It is a belief of pure wonder – and it is incredible for a young man who suffered from an inconsolable fever of alienation and victimisation to hold such a strong sense of wonder in his heart, in his soul. Living in the “shadows” of untouchability, the shadow of a stigma, a notion that turned the birth of a Dalit into a “fatal accident”, reducing him in life, death and politics, Rohith imagined death to be a world that Hindu society denied him: where everyone is nothing but “star dust”.

If a society, through its educational, social and political structures, practices a discriminatory mindset based on graded inequality — to the extent it suffocates a university student to imagine the recovery of his equality only in death — the absurd logic of that society needs to be overthrown. In this country without Rohith Vemula, the shadow of his death exists, a shadow that demands the abolition of the prejudice and discrimination that made him take his life and end his possibilities, which were an intense part of the possibilities of this country. After Rohith Vemula, the complete annihilation of caste is the only future of those possibilities.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. He has recently contributed to Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, edited by K. Satchidanandan (Penguin, 2016). He is currently adjunct professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.