How hunger shaped the greatest iconoclast academician of our times

A caricature of M Kunhaman. Art: Manorama

This happened at least a quarter of a century ago, when M Kunhaman was teaching economics at the University of Kerala, Kariyavattom in Thiruvananthapuram.

One day, he was found slumped on his desk in his room in the Economics Department, nearly unconscious.
He was rushed to the hospital and doctors soon found out that it was hunger that felled him. Kerala's most nonconformist academician had not taken food for nearly three days.

Three days ago, his daughter had told him about a student who went hungry for a day because her mother was taken into police custody. This was Kunhaman's way of showing solidarity. This was not done on purpose; the act was not a choice but instinct.

Hunger was Kunhaman's learning. It was also hunger that provoked this economist's eternal rebellion with the world. "I have no respect for anyone in this world," he had famously declared.

This was not arrogance but a Dalit's way of getting back at the world. Kunhaman had often told his students of an incident that happened when he was 14. Hunger was a festering wound he perpetually carried.

One day he felt so hungry that he, swallowing the incipient sense of pride that had started to well up inside him, went to the feudal lord's house and asked for food. No one laughed at him. They dug a pit for him in the backyard and dumped a small quantity of gruel (kanji) in the pit. But before he could dip his hands on the gruel now mixed in mud, the feudal lord unleashed a ferocious dog. It pounced on the 14-year-old, tore him and licked up the entire gruel, mud and stones and thorns and all.

M Kunhaman. File photo: Manorama

Kunhaman was bleeding but he felt a strange fraternal bond with the dog. "Two hungry dogs," is how he described the memory. He felt sad for the dog. "The beast was also suffering my fate. Poor thing," he said.

His childhood was a cruel irony. He was always around food but could only have it like a stray dog. Kunhaman belonged to the lowest of low Pana caste. It was his community's job to collect banana leaves for feasts organised during weddings and funerals in upper caste houses. It was also their job to remove the waste.

There were innumerable instances when he had gone to remove waste from the homes of his classmates. He was also aware that his mates had often seen him greedily devouring the leftovers that stuck on the banana leaves abandoned after the meal.

And if he had gone to school, it was not to study. It was only to eat. In lower primary classes, children were given 'upma'. There was no mid-day meals for upper primary students. "However, on certain occasions they would provide lunch. These were days when rich families in our area sponsor food," Kunhaman said.

So even though he was half naked and without a slate or a book, Kunhaman used to go to school, daily, hoping it would be a special day for a rich family in the neighborhood. "I didn't have a book with me but I always carried a plate," Kunhaman used to say.

A youthful Kunhaman poses. File photo: Manorama

And in days where there was no lunch, which was most days, his elder brother would bring him mango slices. He will have them with water and it would be his only meal for the day.

Not everyone was itching to let loose their dogs of hatred on him. Some did take note of the brilliance of the perennially starved boy. One of them was the school cook Kunhaman lovingly calls 'Lakshmiettathi'. She had the habit of reserving a handful of LP school 'upma' for the proud curly-haired boy. When Kunhaman secured first rank for MA, the first Dalit to achieve the feat after K R Narayanan in Kerala, Lakshmiettathi had this to tell him: "It was my 'upma' that gave you the brains to study." This is how Kunhaman liked to wind up the Lakshmiettathi episode. "How can I ever dispute her claim."

His iconoclasm also stems from his life outside the margins. "Don't do hard work," he kept telling his students. He said his father had toiled at least 13 hours a day for a feudal. "But was he ever able to read a word," Kunhaman said. "It is the black people who had worked the hardest in the world. What progress did they make," he asked. "In India, it is the Dalits who had worked the hardest. And in all these years what is the progress they made," he said. "So don't do hard work. Instead do productive and creative work."

He said Dalits should find time to think and read. "I don't want to work hard like my father. I want time to think and read. If we don't have the time to think how are we supposed to throw up people with exalted thoughts," he said.

Unlike his poor servile father Ayyappan, Kunhaman asked for more time. When he was denied, he snatched it. He then used it to think and write and teach. Now, if anyone wants to understand the meaning of dignity, there is no greater reference than Kunhaman's life work.

(The noted economist and Dalit activist was found dead at his residence in Thiruvananthapuram at the age of 74.)

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.