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Strange Fruit On Tamarind Trees

K.G. Satyamurthy, author Sujatha Gidla's uncle, was a young rebel in the '46-51 Telangana uprising. In this excerpt, Satya plunges right into the struggle.

Strange Fruit On Tamarind Trees
Illustration by Sajith Kumar
Strange Fruit On Tamarind Trees
Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family And The Making Of Modern India
By Sujatha Gidla
Farrar, Straus and Giroux | Pages: 320 | Rs: 3,145

By the time Satyam arrived in Telaprolu, the Communists who had built the library were nowhere to be seen. They had all gone underground. Satyam knew what had been going on in neighbouring Telangana. He’d heard that, as the Indian army advanced, the guerrillas took their rifles and fled into the jungles of Warangal to the north. Those who didn’t escape were captured or shot dead.

The army then occupied the area and carried out what the government called its “pacification programme.” This meant that whole villages were razed and Communist sympathisers there rounded up and sent off to concentration camps. Where roads had been dug up to aid the guerrillas, Indian soldiers buried peasants alive in the trenches and forced the survivors to build new roads over these mass graves. The Nehru government’s atrocities in Telangana were even worse than the Razakars’.

And they were not confined to Telangana. Many people from Andhra, especially Krishna and Gun­tur, had gone to fight alongside the peasants of Telangana.

The army razed whole villages, interned Communist sympathisers in camps. Where roads were dug up, Indian soldiers buried peasants alive.

The Nehru government dispatched a special bat­talion of the army, the dreaded Malabar Police, to Krishna district in order to root out Communists and their supporters. By the time Satyam arrived in Telaprolu, scores of Communists there had been arrested and one shot dead. The Communist lea-der in the village, Senagala Viswanatha Reddy, had gone into hiding. A senior cadre in nearby Buddha­varam, a Kamma man named Paparayudu, was shot dead shortly after Satyam arrived.

But Satyam knew in his heart that the Telangana fighters would soon be back to liberate Krishna district and the entire region.

How did he know? He’d read what had happened in neighbouring China, where a great leader named Mao Zedong had led his peasant army on what was called the Long March. They retreated only to ret­urn one day, stronger than ever, to complete the revolution and establish a Communist society.

The armed peasants of Telangana, too, must have made a tactical retreat to evade Nehru’s forces. Soon they would return. With that hope Satyam bided his time.

Then came the news that even without Com­munists to lead them the landless masses of Tel­angana, defying the army and the doras, were organising strikes and winning hikes in wages. Some of these struggles were even led by women.

This news inspired Satyam to try to raise the consciousness of the agricultural labourers in Telaprolu, the largest and most wretched section of whom were Madigas. But whenever he tried talking to them, they got nervous and made some excuse to leave the scene. The Madigas of Telaprolu remembered what had happened to one of their own a few years earlier, a man named Noble.

Noble was born to a poor, landless couple. Educated by missionaries, he became a schoolteacher. Everyone called him Noble Masteroo. When he learned that poor men and women in neighbouring Telangana were rising up against the landlords, this frail dark young man said farewell to his wife and five small children and went off to join the guerrillas.

The Malabar Police made an example of Noble, who was the only Madiga among the Communists of Telaprolu. He was taken to a deserted area where they tortured him for days. Then they tied him to a tree and shot him dead.

His illiterate wife was left with no income. She and her five children were penniless.

As a Mala, Satyam, could not simply walk uninvited into the Madiga goodem—the colony for unt­ouchables of the Madiga caste—and talk to the people there. That would be taken as suspicious or threatening.

So every evening when he set out on the road leading to the Madiga goodem, he always stopped along the way in the low-caste colony at a tea stall owned by Ramachandra Rao.

Illustration by Sajith Kumar

Ramachandra Rao liked talking politics with the low-caste men who gathered at his tea stall. He was a Congressman, a firm anti-Communist. But he wasn’t a Gandhian. Like Satyam, he had been a great admirer of Subhas Chandra Bose, the leader whose portrait Satyam had tacked to the blackboard in his high school, the one who led a militant faction in the Congress in opposition to Gandhi. That year, when Rao organised a memorial meeting for Bose, he decided to ask Satyam to speak. He was so impressed by what he heard that he invited Satyam to give political classes to his customers. On one occasion, Satyam said to him, “Listen, I am a Communist and you are an anti-Communist. How can there be friendship between us?” Rama­chandra Rao laughed and told him, “You are the kind of Communist I like.”

Among the customers at the tea stall were a couple of Madiga youths who ventured out of their colony to spend time there, Sulaiman and Rama Rao. As Sulaiman was not in the habit of wearing a shirt, everyone knew of his rem­arkably thick growth of chest hair. He never knew anger and was never seen without a smile. Rama Rao’s manner was so familiar that no one who came across him ever stayed a stranger with him for long. He always put castor oil in his wavy hair and combed it back neatly. Satyam befriended these two men and through them was finally welcomed into the Madiga goodem.

They introduced him to another Madiga, a thief named Subba Rao. Subba Rao was only a small-time thief, but he had the air of a big-time bandit. He wore his thick mop of hair in the style of a current cinema hero. When he was amused, he laughed like a villain, but mostly he affected a faint, sensual smile like a movie star surrounded by adoring fans. He had two wives. His first wife got up early in the morning to pluck tamarind leaves, putting them into a bamboo basket. She spent the rest of the day going from hut to hut in the two untouchable colonies of the village to sell the leaves for pinches of rice. A hard day’s work yielded enough for four servings. When she got home, she cooked the rice and made a curry with tamarind leaves and carrion beef—the same meal day after day for years, but Subba Rao never tired of it. After eating with his first wife, he took what was left over to share with his second wife, with whom he spent the night, waking up the next morning entwined with her long after his first wife had left for the tamarind grove.

Subba Rao took to calling Satyam “Comrade Noble,” and Rama Rao’s wife would say sadly, “Here is another Noble getting ready to be shot.”

One day, the police grabbed Subba Rao and locked him up for a theft somewhere far away. The Madigas were illiterate and utterly without resources. They couldn’t think of raising bail or hiring a lawyer. When Satyam got in touch with civil liberties activists in Vijayawada and had Subba Rao released, Sat­yam came to be seen as a hero, a magician who knew how to get people out of the hands of the police. The Madiga labourers began to regard him as a leader.

(Excerpted from Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Sujatha Gidla. All rights reserved.)

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