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'Having Lived On Watery Gruel, School For The First Time Meant Three Meals'

Gaddar turned 13 in 1952

'Having Lived On Watery Gruel, School For The First Time Meant Three Meals'
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Thirteen was a turning point in my life. That year, a boy’s hostel opened in my village, Toopran, in Medak district. But in order to get the government to sanction it, the school needed at least four boys from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. I was an obvious choice, being one of the first two boys from among the 750 Dalit families in the village to join school. My father was an Ambedkarite, and although he was too busy in his social activities to look after the family, he insisted that all six of us go to school. He was a mason and lived in Aurangabad. It wasn’t easy because my mother, a farm hand, couldn’t earn enough to feed us all. So from the time I can remember, she roused me at daybreak. My job was to take a basket and walk down the village, collecting cowdung. Then I scrubbed my teeth with sand, bathed in the village tank, ran home, collected my books and ran to school. After school, I got to work again. On weekends and holidays, I went to work with her in the fields. But still I was probably the brightest boy in my school, thanks to my habit of doing sums in my head as I went about my chores.

When I was selected to join the hostel, my mother was overjoyed. "They’ll feed you there, so you can study better," she said. At home, our stomachs were always half-empty, living on watery gruel or jowar rotis. For the first time in my life, I was now guaranteed three meals a day. I’d still sneak out of the hostel every evening to help my mother, doing odd jobs around the house. But the work in the fields, planting rice and harvesting, I now did only during holidays. I also used to accompany her when she went to collect firewood with other women, walking some 14 or 15 km into the forest, and returning by dusk, singing folk songs that I still remember.

There were other changes I didn’t anticipate. Living in the hostel, I now had more time to participate in school events, whether it was sports, studies or singing and dancing. I soon became the school’s leading balladeer and my fame spread to neighbouring villages. It was all thanks to my headmaster, Sesha Reddy, and the hostel warden. They changed my life, these two teachers. When I first joined school, the untouchable stigma was very much there. When I gave my name—Vittalrao—in school, the teacher said: "Arrey! Why should a Scheduled Caste have Rao in his name!" He struck it out and I became Gummadi Vittal. But in the hostel, the stigma was gone. I didn’t understand then why these two teachers were so democratic with Dalits, encouraging us in sports, studies and helping us realise our talents. Much later, I found out they were Arya Samajis and freedom fighters. It was thanks to them that I began singing ballads. They taught me to recite the Gayatri Mantra, verses from the Quran, the bhajans of Kabir and Tukaram. And they let me set them to the tunes I’d heard my mother sing in the rice fields.

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