A Non-Obituary – Life and Times of an Insaan: Bobby Kunhu

Guest post by BOBBY KUNHU

“To be mortal is the most basic human experience, and yet man has never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. Man doesn’t know how to be mortal. And when he dies, he doesn’t even know how to be dead.” – Milan Kundera, Immortality
Insaan was a person who deliberately and desperately sought to mortalise himself in a world obsessed with immortality. He was very clear that he did not want to leave any footprints of his life when he died, no children, no money, no property, no awards, no monuments, no records, no pictures – except for those inevitable because of State restrictions that could trouble people who handled his death – like death certificate. He was working hard since his retirement towards his death fighting his way through the bureaucracy for anonymity in death! Then why am I writing about him disregarding his long cherished wish? Firstly his life was too important not to be chronicled; secondly whenever we joked that we would make a saint of him after he died he responded that he did not believe in an afterlife and what people did after he died was not his concern and finally, this is my way of grieving the loss of someone who was dear to me and whose relationship with me is not at all definable!
Insaan was not new to obituaries. In fact it was an obituary that brought him into my life. The story dates back to 1982, when Advocate P. M. Padhmanaban was visiting his relatives in Bombay. My grandfather, M. Rasheed had asked him to look up Insaan, his political co-traveler and fellow trade unionist from whom he had not heard in a while. On enquiries Padhmanabhan was informed that Insaan had succumbed to a long bout of jaundice and was no more. Dutifully he passed on the information to my grandfather, who wrote a long obituary in the Sunday edition of the Malayalam newspaper Mathrubhumi. The following Sunday as my grandfather was sitting with his cup of tea and perusing his morning newspapers at the Verandah of his Calicut house, Insaan walked in with a copy of the newspaper that carried his obituary!

It was true that he had suffered a long bout of jaundice – but he had not died, he had shifted to his native village in Kannur district. But, for a man who jealously guarded his solitude and was completely used to doing all his chores by himself, he was unhappy. For, in the traditional set up of his ancestral village gender roles were strictly defined and he was not allowed to be himself – which for him meant that he had to do his own cooking, washing, cleaning and everything else. He told my grandfather that he was looking for a place to reclaim his solitude and lead his life by himself and asked him if he knew of any such place. My grandfather wrote to my father asking him whether Insaan could be accommodated in the compound of the tile factory that my father used to run at that point of time in Salem – my father agreed and Insaan came into my life when I was hardly 10 years old.
Physically diminutive at 5 feet and 40 Kgs with a sinewy physique – Insaan could have been mistaken for a teenager if only he had more hair and it was dyed black when he arrived at Salem. He led an ascetic and sedentary life. Waking up at 5, he would do his yoga, followed by preparing breakfast, which was always some form of Upma. That would be followed by his daily chores including cleaning his quarters, washing clothes and a little bit of gardening. Lunch was always a frugal affair of boiled rice and vegetables – with hardly any spices. In the evening, he would offer free tuitions to the children in the village. He would offer the children tea and biscuits as an inducement to come and attend his classes. His stint at moblising in Dharavi had equipped him with Tamil reading and writing skills.  Well, the man knew to read, write and speak English, Malayalam, Marathi, Hindi and Tamil. He took his retirement seriously, for him he had not retired from his working life, but he had retired from all activities that was associated with his work including his union and acquaintances. He had retired and wanted the world to let him be – as a retired person. In that sense, he had no curiosity in knowing what was going on around the world, at the same time he was also not averse to getting information – but never pursued it actively. He never subscribed to any newspapers. But, would gobble up newspapers for the month when he came to the city once in a month for his bank transactions and visited us for the entire day. A couple of years later, we gifted him with my two-in-one cassette player – which he used to tune into All India Radio news. Much later, in 1998 my parents gifted him with a small television set that they had bought when visiting me in Delhi. He would only watch Doordarshan news, rest of the time the television was for the consumption of anyone who was interested.  He was also not keen to have visitors, unless they had work with him. He even discouraged his relatives from visiting him. The only person whose visits he looked forward to was my grandfathers.
There was one impact that he had on our family with his moving in with us. Most people in Salem had no clue about our religious identity by birth. This had to do with the fact that we never wore it on our sleeves, our names and moreover both my father and I are atheists. None of my certificates carry my religious identity (this is yet another story that I will narrate elsewhere). However after Insaan moved in with us, his name and his sartorial sense which was impeccable khadi (handspun) white veshti (wrap around), half sleeved kurta (collarless shirt) and a white skullcap and the fact that he was living with us – led to the presumption that he was a relative, led to wide spread speculation that we were Muslims!
His battles started very soon after he moved into Salem. Insaan had to preserve his money, for at that point of time, he was living at a monthly income of INR 150. So, one of the first things he attempted was to try and get an LPG connection for himself. To get an LPG connection in Salem, one needs a ration card and that was a point of time that agents of the state refused to recognize single person families for the purpose of ration card, though there was no written rule saying that. It would have been easier to entrust the job to an agent, but he would have none of it. He applied for the ration card himself. He would go from the Tehsil office to the collector’s weekly public meeting regularly with a new petition each time – and demand for information on what law stopped the administration from giving a single person a ration card. Finally his persistence paid off he got his ration card and as a consequence his LPG connection.
His next battle was with the administration of the then newly established Government Mohan Kumaramangalam Medical College at Salem (1986). Thirty years before he died, he wanted to be officially registered with the Government Medical college that his body would be taken by the college in case of his demise. Donating corpses for medical purposes had still not come of age in Salem particularly and the administration of the Medical College had no clue as to what to be done in this case of what they saw as a cantankerous demand. But, his persistent badgering paid off, the Medical college was forced to create a protocol for accepting post mortem donations of bodies and organs. Soon body donations started getting popularity and many others would benefit from this protocol that was triggered by one man’s thirst for complete mortality in Insaan’s lifetime itself. But as fate would have it, this Medical college did not have the fortune of receiving either his body or organs – we will discuss that later.
For the villagers in Pazhayur Sathiram, the village he settled down in, the man was a mystique. No one knew what to make of him. Always impeccably dressed in khadi (handspun) white veshti (warp around), half sleeved kurta (collarless shirt) and a white skullcap, speaking Tamil without an accent, but, reserved aloof and non-interfering in their day-to-day lives – he was looked up as a semi-saint. But he was also very vocal about his lack of faith in God and contemptuous about superstitious practices in the village. He was a puzzle that no one was keen to solve and at the same time he was part of all their lives. There was a side to his life that he rarely showed people – the life he led before moving to Salem, the life he led in Bombay. The life he led before Bombay. He found no reason to share it with anyone, unless someone asked him. He was not trying to hide any skeletons – it was just part of his quest for mortality – erasing from personal and public memory his contributions. The result is that there is no single person alive who can reconstruct his entire life – or even parts of it. Not his relatives, nor friends. With a little bit of arrogance and lot of pride, I must admit that I am the only person who can do it and why I undertake this personally painful and pleasant exercise.
Insaan was the youngest of three children born to an Indian Railways employee in the 1920s. Hailing from Kodiyeri, in Thalassery of Kannur District, he lost his mother at a very young age and grew up between Mangalore and Kannur depending on his father’s posting. He matriculated from Kannur, by which time his sister Lakshmi was married to Krishnan, a restaurateur from Matunga, Bombay. After matriculation, he finished his higher in typing.
Even as he was in school, he got into active politics. Initially it was Gandhian politics that attracted him. Later he got acquainted to M. Rasheed during the Quit India Movement in August 1942. Insaan was one of the leaders from his part of Malabar. M. Rasheed drew him towards Marxist politics and hugely influenced him with his critique of Stalinism and admiration for Trotsky. They forged a friendship that lasted 74 years till Insaan’s death.
Insaan needed to find a livelihood. In those days, Bombay was the window to the world and Malayalees flocked to Bombay in search of livelihood. It was also the pit stop before they ventured into the wider world, be it Karachi, West Asia or South East Asia. Many had already made this trip and returned prosperous. So, it was also a well tested route. His brother in law took him to Bombay to help negotiate a livelihood. Already influenced by Gandhian and Marxist politics, he was not interested in getting involved with his brother-in-law’s business and looked for a “job”. The first time around he was unsuccessful and soon returned back to Kannur. However, his father, brother and the larger family were unhappy with his political activities and forcibly shipped him back to Bombay. This time he was luckier. He started with a string of minor temporary jobs until he finally landed in the historic Kamani group of Industries at their Kurla unit in Bombay as a typist where he remained till his retirement.
At the Kamani group of industries, he was one of the people that mobilized the workers to form a union. Ramji Hansraj Kamani – the founder of the group – being a Gandhian and a benevolent philanthropist – provided a conducive environment for the formation of the union. In 1948 two landmark and pioneering achievements were garnered for the workers – on 23rd March canteen and medical facilities were started in the Kurla unit and on 22nd April provident fund and gratuity schemes were inaugurated. As an ardent Trotskyite and democrat, he is credited to have ensured that the Kamani Trade Union did not affiliate itself with any of the umbrella trade unions floated by political parties. But this does not mean that he was aloof from the general trade union scenario in Bombay. He was very active and spent a lot of his time with like-minded fellow travelers like S. B. Kolpe and building solidarity with like-minded trade unions such as the Bombay Dock Workers Union.
Insaan had an insight of the deep disconnect within the existing leftist and congress trade unions and the workers – at the time of the formation of the State of Maharashtra – largely textile workers. So when Shiv Sena loomed in the horizon with their ethnic agenda of Marathi Nationalism – at that point aimed at “South Indians” – he was wary and warned his Trade Union co-travelers of things to come and disastrous consequences of making convenient opportunistic alliances with the Sena and its union Bharatiya Kamgar Sena founded just two years after the Shiv Sena in 1968. While he managed to steer the Kamani Workers Union away from the sectarian politics of the Sena – his influence did not extend to the larger trade union movement of Bombay. But he was vocally and vehemently critical of the opportunistic politics of the Congress and the organized left that facilitated the growth of Shiv Sena in Bombay. Today his fears are vindicated!
His politics extended beyond workers issues. And he practiced the politics that he believed in. During the enumeration for the 1981 census, the woman official asked Insaan for his religion, he said that he had no religion and given his name by birth – Balakrishnan – she enumerated him as Hindu despite his protests. Peeved, he advertised in the gazette and changed his name to Insaan. After which he always introduced himself as Insaan to everyone he met. It was Balakrishnan who arrived at Bombay and it was Insaan that left Bombay.
When he retired from his job at Kamani, he also retired from all the sundry activities associated with that job, including trade unionism. To him retirement had to be complete and only workers could represent themselves – and he decided that he had no role and space there. For him his unionism was part of his work and nothing special, he did not yearn for any recognition or record on that count – rather he detested any recognition on that count. It is also paradoxical that the Kamani Group of Industries started collapsing shortly after his retirement and interestingly the only profit making surviving unit of the group Kamani Tubes Ltd. is owned and run by a first generation Dalit woman entrepreneur Kalpana Saroj!
Shortly after he moved to Salem, my father sold his factory and bought a farm, Insaan moved into that farm, settling into a more rigorous agricultural life with his own kitchen garden. His relationship with me was special. He had come into my life as I was entering adolescence – but unlike other elders I had so far encountered in my family and my parents’ friends circle, he gave me no sense of our age difference – he treated me as an equal and I was comfortable with him – asking him any question about anything. As a teenager with raging hormones, studying in an all-boys school with all the problems related with a typical male adolescence – I could not imagine a man who had led his entire life without desiring sex at any point. I could not contain my curiosity and blurted out the question to him once. He answered that it was not because he had no desire that he remained celibate – but it was his shyness and lack of confidence around women. With an impish smile he continued as nonchalantly that once to rid him of his shyness some friends took him to a brothel – but the madam threw him out on the presumption that he was under-age because of his boyish looks.
He was very particular that he could not be photographed – the pictures that we have of him were taken either furtively or when he was unwell and gave consent to be photographed. Given his obsession with mortality, my mother would tease him saying that he obviously wouldn’t know what happens to him once he is dead and given his reputation in the village as a mystique – we would build a mausoleum over his grave and make it a temple after Sri Sri Balananda. He would give us a toothless laugh – and brush the tease aside.
In the last six years, he was getting increasingly physically unwell needing personal care very often. But he had to fall completely ill for us to be able to get him to acquiesce to shift to our home. However the moment he could start walking and operating on his own, he would insist on returning to his life of solitude. In the last one year, he became very weak and unfortunately because my grandparents had also moved in with us – it was becoming difficult for us to do justice giving all three of them care. His nephews and niece came to our rescue and he shifted with his nephew at Nettur in Tellicherry. In the third week of May he fell ill with acute pneumonia and was admitted to the co-operative hospital in Telicherry – where he peacefully breathed his last on the 20th of May. His body was carried away to the Pariyaram Medical College in Kannur. And all that remains is this non-obituary.
(Insaan’s life was reconstructed based on my recollections of what he said to me over the years and inputs from my grandfather, M. Rashid, Insaan’s comrade and co-traveler, Thankappan from the New Trade Union Initiatives and Geetha, Insaan’s niece who is a special educator for mentally challenged children in Bombay)

One thought on “A Non-Obituary – Life and Times of an Insaan: Bobby Kunhu”

  1. Nissan has done what few ‘ Insaan’ can do. But Insaan’ has reminded what ‘insaan’ should do in life. Long live the spirit of INSAAN …!


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