A Very Short Sketch of Comrade Iyer, a Marxist
He was actually a Brahmin, but
Popularly known in party circles as Comrade Iyer, Balasubramaniam Iyer, or “Balls” as he was affectionately called by close friends and family, was the second son of Vishwanathan Iyer (critically acclaimed director known for his path breaking movies) and Mythili Iyer (classical dancer). When little Balls was eight, the year was 1992, the Iyer family moved into a posh bungalow in Alwarpet, Chennai, the year when Hindu nationalists demolished an old unused mosque called Babri Masjid in the state of Uttar Pradesh triggering riots across the country, an event on which Mr. Iyer senior would make what is now called in Chennai circles ‘an intellectual film’ three years later which would win a few national awards following which your average Chennai film lover would refer to Vishwanathan Iyer as “Iyer Sir” alone because of Iyer Sir’s ability to churn out movies that were placed on par, according to influential journalists like M. Vishnu of the Mount Road Daily, with those of a Scorcese, a Kurosawa, a Satyajit Ray. Vishnu’s review of Iyer Sir’s Roses (1998), a movie about the life of a Madras Regiment soldier posted in Kashmir, proudly concluded that the movie “put the Tamil in the Indian and the Indian in the Tamil.”
Mythili, originally Mythili Seshadri before she became Mrs. Iyer, was a product of Kalakshetra, South India’s world renowned school of Bharatanatyam, a classical dance that has been associated with the urban culture of the socially refined. Prior to the 20th century, it was called dasi aatam, the dance of prostitutes, but that is a different story. Before she met Iyer Sir, Mythili performed at national and international concerts, hosted TV shows, won several awards and acted in a couple of films. It is important to let the readers know here that unlike her father Mr. Seshadri, a conservative Brahmin who frowned upon inter-caste marriages, who suffered a fatal heart-attack in November 2004 when he heard the news that police had arrested the Sankaracharya of Kanchipuram in a murder case, Mythili was of a liberal orientation who did not attach a value to caste and it was just a matter of coincidence that Iyer Sir whom she fell in love with was of the same caste. After she married Iyer Sir she was content to be a happy socialite actively involved in charity. Disabled children, orphans, old age homes, you name it. So, it was into such a family of cosmopolitan high culture and liberal thoughts that Balls, our Comrade Iyer, the future central committee member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), was born.
One thing which struck Balls when he was five was that both his paternal and maternal grandparents, not to mention many of his male relatives, wore a white thread diagonally across their torso. But his father did not have one. “It’s the sacred thread. It means that we are Brahmins, the learned caste,” Iyer Sir told him. “But I don’t believe in this ritual, this caste symbol. So I don’t wear it.” Little Balls asked in all innocence “Can I get to have one?” Iyer Sir laughed. “You don’t need it. It does not matter. It is an old custom.”
By the time he was 15, when he was a student at Krishnamurthi Foundation and was dating Aparna Ramani, Balls was well versed with the classics of world literature. He was familiar with the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita (which he would later, when he was 32, defend as the first dialectical materialist text of the Indian philosophical tradition), works of Homer, the comedies of Shakespeare, the novels of Dickens, Twain, Sterne, Keats, Byron and Shelley. For his 18th birthday, M. Vishnu, who was by now a good family friend of the Iyers, gifted Balls the Communist Manifesto and Motorcycle Diaries. Balls did not sleep that night, and on the next day, was twice-born as a communist. As Comrade Iyer.
Thereafter, he could see oppression everywhere in Chennai. A gigantic Malar hospital in Adyar, one of the most expensive healthcare facilities in the city, overlooked a settlement of the poor on the banks of the dirty backwaters of the Cooum river where malaria and dysentery was rampant. The Marina beach, probably Chennai’s most well known public place, was home to several large slums that figured in the news only when the Tsunami hit them. While working class neighbourhoods were congested and suffered from lousy sanitation facilities, posh localities were emerging, dispossessing the poor of their lands, to provide better services for a creamy layer. In contrast, look at Calcutta, Havana, Beijing, Hanoi…
Comrade Iyer could also not be blind to caste violence in the state of Tamil Nadu. His heart bled for the Dalits, who, he felt, were cheated and oppressed by the successive Dravidian regimes. The DMK, which came into power on the wave of student agitations of the 1960s, Annadurai, Karunanidhi, MGR, the AIADMK, Jayalalitha all contributed to the strengthening of the non-Brahmin castes at the expense of the Dalits. Whereas, in the West Bengal of Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, there was no caste at all! To what sublime heights did the philosophy of Marxism take the people of Bengal and in what squalid wretchedness did Tamil Nadu still suffer! “The problem you see,” Vishnu uncle explained one day at his office “is that the Dravidian movement was ideologically flawed from the start. Periyar, for instance, had no knowledge of political economy. Therefore, the Dravidian movement failed.” A very intelligent friend of the author, however, has a different and more elaborate explanation. To state it shortly, Periyar had no knowledge of phenomenological ontology, therefore the Dravidian movement failed.
In 2008, Comrade Iyer cleared the entrance test for the prestigious Modern History M.A. course at Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU as it is commonly known in Indian academia, the strongest red bastion of India and the nurturing ground for revolutionary conquistadors, and was lodged in Kaveri hostel, which was a five minute walk from Ganga Dhaba, the informal hub of thinker-activists who would breathe Gramsci, speak Althusser and drink to Guevara, and there would be all types of leftists there, those who believe in parliamentary democracy, those who call the parliament a pigsty, those who take a middle-path because Comrade Lenin said so in ‘Left-wing communism: An Infantile Disorder’, those who say that India is semi-feudal semi-colonial and begs for a protracted people’s war, those who angrily reject this thesis and point out that Indian nationalism was and is a bulwark against imperialist expansionism, those who reject both because the day was not far off when the workers of the world will come together to wage the glorious permanent revolution…
Comrade Iyer, much like his roommate Debabrata Ghosh, was convinced that the CPI-M alone represented the best interests of the country and the controversies around alleged police brutalities in Singur and Nandigram were just conspiracies floated by ultra-left and ultra-right groups to discredit the noble work that the CPI-M had done for the people for Bengal, and his passionate commitment to gender justice apart, sheer logic compelled him to reason, in Lacanian fashion, that the rape of Tapasi Malik by CPI-M cadres could not have happened, because had it happened, the perpetrators could not have been CPI-M cadres, and thus, with all sincerity, even as he slogged his behind off for the rigorous papers in his course, he joined the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), his cherished party’s students’ wing.
These were the happiest days for Comrade Iyer, in the company of those Indians who shared his beliefs, in the 1500 acre big JNU campus, probably the only place in New Delhi where a woman wearing shorts and a t-shirt could walk alone without fear at 2am, the discussions on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution over endless cups of tea, enjoying the weekly dinner at Mughal Durbar, where Comrade Iyer would be the only person going vegan, of course, not owing to some caste prejudice as he did enjoy his occasional peg of Absolut Vodka, but rather as a matter of taste.
Being a true internationalist, Comrade Iyer organized meetings, protests and rallies both in and out of campus for the cause of the world oppressed. The sanctions on Cuba. The Iraq war. And when the Gaza War happened, where about 1200 Palestinians were killed, which occurred roughly in the same period when about 100000 plus Tamils were killed by the Sri Lankan military, Comrade Iyer organized a series of demonstrations in front of the Israeli and American embassies notwithstanding the cold, rain, storms and hail for the cause of Palestine because, as I said before, he was a true internationalist above parochial Tamil sentiments and besides, Comrade Iyer intuitively knew that Hamas was progressive and revolutionary but LTTE was patriarchal and fascist, which is actually interesting because his elder brother, Natarajan Iyer, a foreign policy analyst with the LDTV, condemned the LTTE because it was uberleftist. Anyway, it is not productive here to talk any more about the elder sibling because he had never had any influence whatsoever on Comrade Iyer. Yes, while the elder Iyer was into Gayatri Mantra, the younger Iyer was into Grundrisse.
However, not everything was smooth for Comrade Iyer and if he could identify the proverbial fly in the ointment it would be K. Raja, thin, dark, with horn-rimmed glasses, MPhil student at the Department of Sociology, an intransigent pro-LTTE activist, a Periyarite, who became notorious in the campus for burning an image of the Hindu god Rama in October 2008, who wore one shirt for 6 days and a pant for a month, single, from Tirunelveli, president of the JNU Tamil Students’ Union, a three member organization that acted as though it was the representative of all the Tamils in New Delhi. “If Dravidian movement failed because of Kilvenmani, then parliamentary Marxism died with the Morichjhapi massacre,” Raja pompously proclaimed at a SFI public meeting on caste politics in Tamil Nadu.
Comrade Iyer, the archetypal argumentative Indian, believed in convincing individuals through dialogue but Raja was incorrigible. He knew that Raja was a non-Brahmin, probably a Pillai, or a Nadar, and when he asked Raja in the course of a casual conversation what his caste was, the fellow snapped.
“That is none of anyone’s business.”
“I am actually a Brahmin, but I am also a communist. So caste does not matter to me. If it does not matter to you, why can’t you state it?”
“And besides, though you guys have hidden your caste titles, you cannot elude the fact it is only the non-Brahmin castes of Tamil Nadu who oppress the Dalits.”
To which the crazy chap replied, “Well, then I suppose the class enemy of the proletarian is not the capitalist system but the police constable who pushes him around.”
The heated argument continued and Comrade Iyer was firm in his position that it was Marx who mattered more to Tamil Nadu than Periyar. When the irascible Raja accused him of being a Brahminical casteist, Comrade Iyer angrily retorted that Rupini Nair, his Malayalee girlfriend, a feminist and a passionate SFI member (who was later to become his wife), was a proper non-Brahmin. Raja was wrong, as were his ideological forefathers who resorted to unrefined Brahmin bashing to flee from pressing questions of class privilege. Though Raja himself was from a family of agricultural labourers, his reasoning as such was bourgeois and Comrade Iyer would never entertain a debate with him again.
By the time he reached his final semester, Comrade Iyer had gained a goatee, lost a few pounds and his virginity, learned to roll a joint properly, impressed most of the faculty at the History department with his presentations that were proof of his eclectic knowledge, made a name for himself as someone who had a flair for sophistication, and was advised by Prof. Ambika Venkataraman, a party sympathizer, to apply to the Department of History at Oxford where one Prof. Vinay Shastri, an expert in South Asian postcolonial studies, would be an excellent supervisor for his line of research interest.
Needless to say, given Comrade Iyer’s background – his academic background I mean – and the powerful recommendations he got from lecturers at JNU, walking into Oxford, with a scholarship, was a breeze for Comrade Iyer.
And the erstwhile colonized was now at the heart of the Empire, he thought. Ha. Skype calls with Rupini once in three days and not once did he contemplate breaking up. In Chennai, Iyer Sir got his ninth national award for his movie Heart, a touching family drama about a love story of a Telugu guy and a Manipuri girl. It was a beautiful tale much like that of Comrade Iyer who got married to the one true love of his life when he returned home for summer vacations. But Rupini did not change her surname to Iyer but to Balasubramaniam.
At Oxford, Comrade Iyer submitted his dissertation on ‘Parallel voices: Dalit narratives and the Dravidian movement’ which, of course, was a completely non-partisan account of how the Dravidian movement, in the guise of fighting Brahminism, was only interested in constructing a non-Brahmin hegemony caring little about the liberation of Dalits and how Dalits found their own autonomous voice of subalternity by constructing their particularities through lived experiences. Comrade Iyer who had transcended caste long ago could always be objective in whatever intellectual project he undertook and he later got a job as the associate editor of Political and Economic Monthly.
And even though his thesis did not mention Marx even once, his rise in the ranks of the party was meteoric, for the party, which had completely discarded caste, laid great emphasis on promoting persons of merit.