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.