“You’ll fall for this charming man”

When #Caste Is Not a Rumour – The Online Diary of Rohith Vemula hit the virtual bookshelves two weeks ago, it was an overnight sensation, climbing to the top of publisher Juggernaut’s non-fiction range. The book collates the writings and thoughts of Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar who killed himself in January after months of hounding by authorities at the University of Hyderabad. Since then, Vemula has inspired a nationwide movement against caste discrimination with hundreds of articles focusing on his sharp, powerful and poetic suicide note. But author Nikhila Henry thinks what remained hidden was his prolific mind that was both intensely political and disarmingly charming.

“It would be a shame if his legacy was reduced to just one note. Rohith had lived a very exciting life and that was well documented. Hence the book,” she told Raiot in an interview. Excerpts:

How did you get involved in the project?

Juggernaut wanted to come out with a book on Rohith Vemula’s writing. But the writing was scattered and had to be compiled. I came into the picture because I knew Rohith in person both as a student leader and as a brilliant young mind. I was also involved in covering Rohith’s story right from the beginning.

What was your sense of Rohith from his work? As a thinker, writer, student? About his personal life?

He was dynamic and he worked, studied, wrote with passion that cannot find a match in many student leaders. He was a strong, self-made man who loved life.

While Rohith was soft spoken and meek in person, his writing reflected his true self. What you can hear as you read his writing is a roar that reverberated later across the country. He mostly poured out his thoughts without fear. There is an irreverence in his writing that does not shake at the sight power or pressure or force. That was Rohith Vemula’s grit.

He was a young man who could take on the world. And his passion was boundless. Also, that is why he became the face of young Dalit students and youth from across the country

Had he lived Rohith was capable of doing what Jignesh Mevani is doing in Gujarat

Did you face any challenges while collating his work? In terms of how to set his work, how to annotate, provide context?

Nikhila Henry Photo via thehindu.com
Nikhila Henry
Photo via thehindu.com

It was not that difficult since I knew him and was very much keyed into the student/youth politics and issues in Hyderabad. The only issue was whether I should stick to chronology while compiling a diary.

But I soon realised that Rohith’s story cannot be chronologically told as he was the most active towards the end of his life, during the last two years. His politics had developed, his thought and observations had become more clear.

So when I complied and edited all that I tried to do was to be true to Rohith’s essence. I gave importance to what he thought was important

I listened to his songs while compiling the book. The most important part was to travel with Rohith, not to led him as an editor to places and frameworks which he did not, but to walk with him and let him lead you to where he wants you to go.

The second most important part was to get his boyish charm and charisma to be a part of the narrative. Rohith wrote not just of politics and struggle. Like any young man, he wrote on romance, love, partying

So to make all of it part of his story was important

So want to know a little bit about that. Because for a lot of us, Rohith was an important part of our Dalitbahujan assertions but we knew little of his personal life. I often wondered if we had turned him into a non-flesh-and-blood hero. What was your sense about his writings around love and family?

He wrote very less about his family. He mentions his mother three times. But he opens a door to where he lived, his absent father and his friend, Sheikh Riyas. He calls his mom and Riyas, two lifebuoys of his life.

In retrospect, all this makes you want to know him more. And the same goes for his writing on romance. As he was young, I believe he was in and out of love. He was not moralistic and believed in expressing love. He wrote on all that is warm about romance even as he referred to himself as a hardcore romantic. You will smile to yourself when you read him write on alcohol and romance. You feel like spending a night atop some hill in a vast campus when you read him write of romance. Basically, you’ll fall for this charismatic young man. You can’t escape his charm.

[su_quote] She asked with her usual caring voice and intriguing eyes, ‘How are you??’ He swiftly looked down, smiled and said ‘Fine!’ as I saw her smile that can compete with the freshness of a paper flower. ‘Sorely broken but somehow surviving,’ he heard an anonymous echo; not sure if it had come from inside him or from a very distant place. Never mind, there is not much difference between the two. My conversations with the dew-eyed stranger in the mirror.[/su_quote]

This is part of his beautiful romance

While writing the book, what was the thing that struck you the most?

Oh his fight! His optimism till the end. He refused to budge/ to break down. He fought with gusto till the very end

“I am not inferior to anyone. And I have Ambedkar on my side.”

This is what he wrote after his suspension. You can see a young man who is ready to fight it out. The casteist system failed him completelyrohith

After his suspension he wrote this: “To all my friends, Ambedkarites and comrades, I am happy to say that I got suspended for a semester by University of Hyderabad because I am vocal against systems backed by ABVP and RSS. I am happier to say that I am not terrified or paralyzed. If you have time, please come and join us to support our resistance at Administrative Building (UoH) at 7:30 am.”

So you can imagine, that he was leading an anti-caste movement along with others. I believe, he prevailed not just lived.

I see that the response to the book has been amazing. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Yes. It has been. There are people who told me, it Is our book, That’s so nice. It shows his reach

And were there any apprehensions about it not being a physical book and on an app? Because of its reach?

Yes. I was a bit worried about that. But I knew that Rohith Vemula’s reach online is mammoth. So the family too wasn’t worried about it going online. The rights of the book rest with his family. Even royalties.

Rohith wanted to be a writer. I am glad that he is the author of this book



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Dhrubo Jyoti Written by:

I am a 26-year-old journalist who works and lives in New Delhi. I identify as a Dalit, genderqueer person and work on issues of caste, gender, sexuality.

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