When I Discovered My Name Sounded “International”

I started searching for the source of Isaiah Berlin’s name. In one of the book introductions I read that he was named after a famous Israeli Prophet called Isaiah, who lived 7 centuries before Christ. Isaiah, a prophet?

In those heady Marxist-Maoist days, Ambedkar was not known as thinker even to us. At best he was known as the writer of the Indian constitution, which we dismissed as “bourgeoisie” and did not appreciative very much. He was not even on our reading list and not a single book of his was known to us. We were more familiar with the European Renaissance and Reformation than our own palms. Though I was reading all about the world the sense of shame of a worthless name—that too a very, very local name, while living in a university kept haunting me. But as Marxist students, we were such universalists that we knew more about the family and personal lives of Marx and Mao than our own. Their names appeared to be more culturally respectable than that of any Indian upper caste or Hindu name. While we were bitter critics of European imperialism and colonialism we had more respect for their culture, character and civilization. Their names appeared civilizationally far superior to that of the Hindu Gandhi and Nehru.

Suddenly one day when I was searching for some Marxist book in the huge cellar racks of the Osmania University library I came across a book by Isaiah Berlin. The spelling of his first name was exactly like that of mine except that there was an “s” instead of an “l”. (Isaiah—Ilaiah). For a minute I misread the name as Ilaiah Berlin, immediately realizing my mistake. I just picked it up. I looked at the spelling of the name quite carefully. His second name was also familiar to me as I read a lot about the city of Berlin. I read a lot about the fall of Berlin at the end of the Second World War and the building of a Berlin Wall after the war. In fact, I knew more about Berlin than about Delhi or Hyderabad. I tried to read the introduction to Isaiah Berlin’s book quite carefully. It said that Isaiah Berlin was one of the greatest living philosophers and historians of the world. He was not from Germany but was from the UK (from a Russian Jewish background). I looked at the racks again to find out whether there were any other books that he wrote. There were more than a dozen books written by him. I looked at the name once again. I felt as if I was Isaiah, not Ilaiah. I wrote my name in full in the form that his name figured in my note book – Ilaiah Kancha, not just Ilaiah K. It sounded new. I thought the name Ilaiah Kancha sounded like the name of a world famous historian, philosopher, thinker with whom no Indian thinker would match – Isaiah Berlin. I jumped up and down amidst the book racks—a useless name like mine is very much like that of a world famous historian and philosopher … Waa-re-waa!

I wanted to find out whether there was any historian, philosopher like that with the name of Shastry or Sharma or Reddy or Rao, Patel or Chaudhary, Chatterjee or Banerjee. I began to search in the history and philosophy racks. Somewhere I found a book by Neelakhanta Shastry. But there was no book authored by a Reddy or Rao in the racks of history. I opened the book of Neelakhanta Shastry. It was just an explanatory story book of the history of kings and their wars. Why were Reddys and Raos, who were so powerful in my
university and in the state unable to write a book as Isaiah whose name was exactly like that of mine? Were only their only names impressive but not their brains? I relished these thoughts.

Then I began to consider what could have been the source of a name like mine in Britain that ruled this country and even a global empire for so long. As I said earlier, I hated Britain for its colonial character but I admired it for its brains. Though such a small country, how could it rule the whole world? Because of brain power!. Why did Indians not develop such brains? Is it because Isaiahs wrote books there and Ilaiahs were never allowed to read books here?

I started searching for the source of Isaiah Berlin’s name. In one of the book introductions I read that he was named after a famous Israeli Prophet called Isaiah, who lived 7 centuries before Christ. Isaiah, a prophet? Most surprising! In my country people who have similar names are treated as stupid, dirty donkeys! It aroused a curiosity within me. How come a name like mine which is humiliated and looked down in India, is as similar to that of a great prophet of ancient Israel and also that of a great historian of modern Britain? When I learned that the name Isaiah was a Biblical name that drove me to read the Bible.

When I took up a copy of the Bible and looked at the contents I noticed there were six books whose titles were the names that sounded like mine. Nehemiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Obadiah, Zephaniah, Zechariah. The Bible talks about them in detail. They were all prophetic persons, chosen by God to perform divine and great tasks. Then I found a number of books on Isaiah that agreed that he was one of the greatest prophets before Jesus Christ. In fact, he was the one who predicted the coming of Jesus to change the world. I was pleasantly surprised to know that a hated name like mine in India is a prophet’s name in Israel. Names reflect the cultural condition of a region. The cultural conditions of any given region reflect the production conditions of that geographical location. The names are also indicative of the historical heritages of a given region and also of its people. I knew that my parents were shepherds. They were also agriculturists. The deities that were the source of our names were deeply linked to animal and agricultural economy. My parent’s low social status was constructed around their occupational and cultural life. I was curious to know about the background of Isaiah who became a famous prophet.

A famous writer called Ruth who worked on the relationship between agrarian production and the Bible wrote, “Israelite agriculture included the farming of the land and the rearing of animals. In the days of the patriarchs, live stock farming was the major activity; but as the Israelites settled in the land, the role of animals became less important. Herds and flocks were kept basically for their wealth and for food, although meat was much less important than it is in modern Western society. Most families also owned work animals, the ox being the most valuable and the donkey the most common. Neither horses nor camels were used much in agriculture. Horses were kept mostly for military use and camels for trading purposes.” (Agriculture in the Bible).

We can see the similarities between India and Israel – how both of them depended on oxen for cultivation and horses for war. Of course, beef was also used in both countries for food. But sheep, goat, chicken, fish were used for food in both countries quite extensively. The present, medieval and ancient Indian agriculture gives us enough evidence of heavy dependence on bullock power for agrarian production and heavy dependence on the horse for travel and war. The Israel of Isaiah’s period was totally dependent on agriculture, just as my parents were dependent on it during my time.

The Bible has references for all those animals and birds that we can see in India even today. In the region where I was born and brought up – Telangana—the Kakatiya kings and the Golconda rulers used horses for war. But the farmers of all castes and communities used oxen for tilling the land. The agrarian economy of this region had huge similarities with that of the Israelite agrarian economy of ancient times. Similar names of people must have come from similar economic conditions. As we all know that culture is a byproduct of geo-economic conditions. The culture of cultivating similar animals, producing more or less similar agrarian products gives rise to a similar consciousness among the people. This does not mean minor dissimilarities do not exist.

The buffalo is an animal that gives most of the milk that India consumes. Because the white cow-loving Aryans hated this black animal, they likely killed a number of them in ancient times as the white Americans did in the modern times. The Dravidians, on the other hand, loved the buffalo as it was jet black like
themselves. They nurtured it historically. Though there is a reference to the buffalo in the Bible (Gen. 41:18) it was referred to as a riverside animal, not as domesticated dairy animal as we have in India. Does that mean the Israelites were unable to domesticate an animal like the water buffalo, which the Indian Dravidians could easily domesticate and train? Does that mean the ancient Dravidians were more advanced in their knowledge and techniques of domesticating animals than the ancient Israelites? Why did India fall backward when compared to Israel which went on to influence the whole world in spiritual and cultural terms? Why did the Israelites produce world class prophets, philosophers and thinkers and India could not do so?

Published in the January 2013 issue of the Forward Press magazine


Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of the Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) community’s literature, culture, society and culture. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +919968527911, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

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