Having been born into a poor family from one of the remote villages, I faced acute hunger and untouchability in my childhood. Whatever I write about my childhood, inevitably it is about hunger and untouchability. I can’t narrate artistically.
By then, Lal Bahadur canal of Nagarjuna sagar was yet to be dug. My village used to be reeled under severe draught. Mādigas of my village used to work in the fields of farmers as annual field-labourers. My father, Lachaiah was one of such labourers. The villagers didn’t ever address him by his name. They used to address him ‘Lachchiga’ derogatively. Had he been born into a touchable caste, they would have perhaps addressed him Laxmaiah gāru adding a respectable epithet. He became Lachchi-gādu only because he was born into an untouchable caste. I am the last of the six children in my family. I am the only one to have learnt the alphabet in piecemeal. We don’t possess even a cent of land. Amma and ayya, mother and father used to work as labourers. The elder folk used to divide the upper caste houses, and allot them in turns for rendering caste-services to them. We used to work in their families during festivals and other celebrations too. We used to remove the carcass, and keep guard of the pyres if and when someone died in the upper castes. Mādigas had to remove shit manually from dry-lavatories. I didn’t use to understand their ethics of assigning menial work to us.
My folk used to spend their lives in agricultural work. What they ultimately used to get in turn was the leftover grains in the threshing ground. At the most, they used to dole out a few measures of grains by means of alms. However hard they might have worked, they used to be bestowed with the empty grains mixed in the soil. I never used to understand why they never fought for their share of heaps of grains.
My childhood was spent most dreadfully. There were days when I used to pick discarded betel leaves at the shacks, roast tubers, roast and pound millets, and eat them at the trenches. There were days when I used to gather grains by gleaning, bundle them in a shoulder-cloth, bury it in the ground, and have it cooked. Though semi-cooked, I used to eat it because of hunger. I used to gather raw-grams for eating. Half of my childhood was spent in gathering nuts and wild fruits. After the school hours, we used to assemble at the main junction of my village. We used to fish in the rivulet and trenches, and bring home sundry varieties of fishes. We used to eat this kind of stuff most of the days. There never used to be curds or curries available in my house. If at all anything, there used to be dry bullock meat and cucumber. We didn’t own a cent of land; affection among our folk used to be our sole asset. In fact the poor are capable of great love. If there is anything to speak about myself, it is but love and affection. Annayya, my elder brother was fixed for annual field-labour right from his childhood. He used to eat his food at the landlords. On many an occasion, he would eat his morning-food, and hand me the lunch in the school, skipping his own lunch. If I were to write about hunger that I underwent, the ink in my pen may not be sufficient to pen it. I feel like turning into ink the blood that dripped from my eyes, and write!
Several people didn’t allow us near them because we used to eat bullock meat. What’s wrong in eating the meat of the dead cattle as long as one does not kill human beings for one’s selfish needs? In this country, the fourfold varna system had eaten the people alive. There is nothing wrong in it.
Another incident worth remembering in my life is selling dry bones of the cattle. It used to be difficult to collect them. When an animal died, they used to throw it far away from the village. Our houses used to be away from the village too. The carcass of the animals used to be dreadful even to look at. Having been putrefied, they used to smell. When it rained, the carcass used to swell. It used to be very awful even to go near. In spite of the smell, the white-warms used to swarm on them. As though competing with them, some red worms used to pound the bones. Eagles and vultures used to prey on them like the capitalists who suck and turn into pulp the economy of this country. One didn’t know how, but the moment an animal died, they would arrive timely. They used to eat away the flesh of the animal with a lot of understanding among themselves. They are more disciplined in eating than the human beings. We used to be in need of the bones left out by the vultures and the dogs.
Due to prolonged draught in the villages, the people didn’t use to stay in the villages. They used to migrate en mass in search of work. The children and the aged used to be left out in the village. In the process of searching for livelihood, every village used to seem like parched crops. The locked doors used to mock at us. The children left behind used to be divided into groups for gathering bones. Having bound them into small bundles, we used to bring them home. At times they used to slip off the bicycle. It used to be very difficult to re-bundle them as the bones used to smell horrible stink. If the bundling was delayed, the villagers used to scold us. The kind of humiliation I used to undergo while bundling the bones in a hurried manner could only be understood by one’s own experience. The dry bones used to waft sever odor. I didn’t use to understand as to how the buyer of the bones would bear the odor for so long. He used to buy them visiting every village with gunny bags hanging either side of his bicycle. He used to eat his lunch at the trench in the outskirts. He would eat by the same hands that held the stinking bones. Gathering them the whole day, he used to sell them in the factory. One couldn’t afford to give up bone picking on the pretext of odor.
There used to be a lot of quarrels, shouting, curses and abuses in the process of gathering them. W used to beat each other at times. The bones used to turn into weapons at times wounding ourselves. The wounds, the blood that dripped and the humiliation we underwent were countless.
There used to be a factory of bones just beside our village; it’s no longer there now. It belonged to a Leftist leader. He was one among thousands of people who migrated to our village in search of livelihood. A poor man that he was in the beginning, he has now earned crores of rupees. Either because of his caste or his Party, he has emassed a lot of clout, expensive apartments and foreign cars too. There might be several of his kind in the Telangana region. Today they accuse us that our ignorance is as big as the sky. To be a millionaire being a Leftist seemed strange to me. Further he teaches the Leftist ideology himself being in possession of a lot of wealth. The bones that we collected, we used to sell in his factory. The bones couldn’t change our lives. But the same bones could turn him into a millionaire.
After a few years the villages of Telangana became barren. The cattle were pushed to the slaughterhouses instead of allowing them die of starvation. How long could the farmers feed them, themselves committing suicide by consuming pesticides that they had bought by mortgaging thaali, nuptial strings of their wives. Their cattle became a burden to them. They had sold out their cattle in terms of herds and Lorries holding back their tears. It became a curse to have been a farmer in this country. Having been a cursed community, they became helpless in selling them out. Not merely cattle. The unnatural death of human beings too was usual to us. The pylons raised in memory of the martyrs would stand a witness to the number of people who had died. Then there was a draught of bones in my village. Our gaze, that used to explore the bones of the dead animals, had turned to the graveyards. We had dared to dig the graves of human beings.
We had spent our nights more in the graveyard. The half-burnt logs in the pyres used to be afire at the winds. We used to get scared being reminded of the childhood tales of the peys; we used to get scared at the flames of pyres. But the fear was never a matter in the light of the hunger. We had dug graves in search of bones for money driven by hunger. We exhausted bones in so many graves, yet we didn’t stop searching for bones. Once, having noticed the difference in the shape of the bones, the buyer of the bones once suspected that they were human bones. Everybody came to know about it in the village, and made it a big issue. The vultures that were knocking away our wealth termed us thieves. They scolded us and thrashed us. They proposed to excommunicate us from the village. They suggested for the consecration of the village so as to purify the portent that had taken place. Since then I hear quite often rattling noise of bones.
But I didn’t really understand who the real thieves were.
The dress I used to wear was rather embarrassing since I had to go to the school in the ragged-dress. We used to make use of amma, mother’s old rags both for the bedding and bed sheets. Ever since my childhood I had been wearing torn rags. Baindla Veeraswami used to reside next door. He used to serve in the shrines of Muthyalamma, Mysamma and other deities. People from the neighbouring hamlets used to approach him for exorcising evil spirits. He used to utter some chanting, and make loud shouting. We were not allowed to speak to him. Once when I was roaming in the cemetery, he had flung aside the shroud of a dead body at the time of cremation. Everybody used to fear it. I saw Veeraswami bring it home. Once I mustered courage, and went to his house. I saw lemons and other paraphernalia of exorcising at his threshold. I got scared. Having mustered courage I asked him, ‘Peddayya! I want a piece of cloth; can you spare one?’
‘Why do you need it ra?’ he asked me.
‘I want to get a shirt stitched.’
I got a couple of shirts stitched out of the shroud he had given me. I wore the shirts for a long time. This incident made me bold in speaking on certain occasions. Ever since, I began thinking rationally. It made me a rationalist.