“Saraswathi would kill our children if they are sent to school”: From the memoirs of Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

The author in his study, working on Why I Am Not a Hindu, which was published in 1996. Courtesy Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd
30 December, 2018

From a Shepherd Boy to an Intellectual, a recently published memoir by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, describes the author’s path to becoming a social scientist and activist amid India’s caste-ridden society. Shepherd was born into a Shudra family in the village of Papaiahpet, in what is now Telangana and was earlier part of the princely state of Hyderabad. He and his brother were the first in the family to gain literacy and a formal education, and to move away from their traditional occupation of shepherding. Shepherd went on to publish numerous deep and damning examinations of caste, including Why I Am Not a Hindu and Buffalo Nationalism, that have led to threats and attacks against him throughout his career. (Read Shepherd’s writing for The Caravan here.) In this passage, he describes his, and his family’s, first encounter with the Indian school system.

Suddenly, one morning, Rajalingam came to my house when my mother was sprinkling buffalo and cow dung water. He had worn trousers and a bush shirt, with rubber slippers on his feet. What attracted me most were his clean white feet. His longish face with curly black hair made me think that he was an unusual man from an unknown world. He was entirely different from the men I had seen so far. What he wore itself was fancy dress in my village. With his red, long and roundish face and jet-black hair, very well combed, he looked like a different animal in the village. As he came home, my mother hurriedly left her work and put out a cot and spread a bed sheet on it, while he was just standing in a corner politely.

That could have been in May or early June of 1960. My mother requested him to sit. For the first time in her life she heard someone address her politely as Kattamma garu, telling her, “You must send your two sons to the school.” My mother heard him attentively. She was in a red-blue sari and black blouse. I was standing at a far distance, listening to their conversation carefully. My mother first resisted his appeal. She said, “Ayya, education does not go well with my family. My elder son, Mallaiah, died after we sent him to a private master. I do not want these two beggars to die. As my attha [mother-in-law] says, Saraswathi would kill our children if they are sent to school.” He tried to convince her that those are superstitious beliefs. Saraswathi would bless them and give them education, he said, with his own understanding of Saraswathi. My mother would not budge. She said, “Saraswathi teaches the children of Bapanollu and Komatollu, but she becomes a devil when it comes to our children. She will not allow our children to read and write. She will kill them. That is how my elder son died.”

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd's mother, Kattamma, never wavered from her decision to send her sons to school, even after constant criticism from her own family. Courtesy Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

He requested her to think about sending us to school, beginning from that academic year, and left. She gathered some information as to who else was sending their children to school. She found out that Kore Veeraiah, who was an arch rival of hers, had put his elder daughter, Komuramma, in school that very year. She was of my age. My mother took the opinion of one of our nearest relatives, Anna Komuraiah, who knew reading and writing. He, too, advised her to send us to school.

Rajalingam was a taskmaster, and was interested in teaching as much as possible. He taught us the alphabet almost within a month. Within another half a month or so, the numbers up to 100 were taught. The counting of numbers was familiar to us by then. We used to count the sheep as ours got separated from the general village pool every morning because they got mixed up in the nights. Shepherds and dhobis are known for their counting, as one counts animals and the other counts clothes.

Aa for arati, or banana tree
Aaa for aavu, or cow
Ee for illu, or house
Eee for eega, or house fly
Uu for udutha, or squirrel
Uuu for uuyala, or cradle

But there was no B for barre, or buffalo, with which we were more familiar than with the cow. The exclusion of the buffalo starts so early in Indian—actually Hindu—school education.

Learning was easy. Even though the Aa, Aaa, Ee, Eee, Uu, Uuu letters were new to us, the symbols—like the banana tree, cow, house, house fly, squirrel, and cradle—were as familiar to us as our palms. I learnt them just like that. The problem started with the letter Rruu for rrushi, or saint.

I had never seen a saint in my life. In the picture, he was sitting with full-grown, knotted hair on his head, with a beard, and with his legs folded under him. I asked innocently, “Who is this rrushi, saaru?” (I did not know how the word “sir” should be pronounced. But the English word, even by the early 1960s, had become “saaru” in our village Telugu.) Rajalingam answered with folded hands and a reverential face: a great, divine human being, who sits in the forest and does tapasya, or meditation. No further question was possible at that stage. I pretended to have understood and closed my eyes.

Much more serious problems started with the first lesson in the Balashiksha textbook.

Cheitha Venna Muddha,
Chengalava Puudanda,
Bangaru Molathradu,
Pattu Datti,

Chinni Krishna,
Ninnu Cheri Koluthu.

This translates roughly as,

A butter ball in your hand,
A chengalva-flower garland around your neck,
A golden belt around your waist,
A silk handkerchief in your hand,

O Baby Krishna,
I will come and worship you.

This lesson had an image of a blue baby Krishna, showing him stealing butter from a pot. Though the lesson sounded rhythmic, the story did not relate to our experience. The name Krishna did not originate from our cultural context. Starting with this lesson, many lessons needed to be mugged up at home in the night, with our books around a lamp made by pouring some mustard oil into a small, open earthen bowl, and protected from the wind by putting it in niche in the wall called a deepam guudu. Every mud-walled house had three or four such deepam guudus, as our village did not even have glass-protected lamps then. My brother and I mugged up these unfamiliar lessons in a loud voice.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd (left) and his brother were the first in their family to gain literacy and a formal education, and to move away from their traditional occupation of shepherding. Courtesy Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

In our early school days, my paternal grandmother’s elder sister, called Alli Earamma, lived with us. We used to call her Eravva. She had become a widow at a young age. Unlike other widows, she refused to re-marry, and preferred to stay with her younger sister and look after her family. After my grandmother’s death, my mother took over the role of her mother-in-law, and Alli Earamma continued her role of looking after us. She was dead against our going to school, as she believed that Saraswathi might take us away early to heaven or hell. She would say,

Bapani Saraswathi Bathukanistha,
Enduku Bidda BadikiSavana.

This translates,

Does Brahmin Saraswathi allow you to live?
Why, my sons, do you go to school—to die, or what?

She was so worried that she would remind us every day that our elder brother, Mallaiah, had died because the Brahmin devil Saraswathi did not like a Shudra boy going to school. Several times, she fought with my mother on the issue of sending us to school. My father, of course, grumbled every time the discussion came up, and used to say, “Only mother and sons know.” Obviously he did not like that we were going to school. He would spit around his sitting place, make faces and look the other way.

My mother’s mother, Bala Komuramma, also pleaded with our mother that, in our family’s history, there is no one who is lettered—why risk, why risk? I would suddenly get up in the middle of the night with Saraswathi haunting me. I did not know what she looked like. Does she look like Pochamma, who sits in the form of a rock in that small temple under the massive mango tree in the chilli garden of Mogili Papi Reddy (who was earlier known as Papaiah, but just then his sons were demanding that he should be called Papi Reddy). Or does she look like Katta Maisamma, who sits in white stone in the open air on our village tank bund? Our families and our caste used to worship Pochamma. Every year, after the rains came, after the seedlings came up, the whole village, except the Brahmin, Baniya, Reddy and Velama families, cooked rice with jaggery, to prepare what they called bonam, fully decorated with turmeric paste, kumkum tilaks, and neem leaves tied around the new pot in which the sweet food was cooked. The women would walk in procession with yellow bonam pots on their heads. We children would wear neatly washed clothes, if not new ones, and put whatever little gold or silver ornaments we had on our hands and ankles. The men would also bathe and wear their best clothes. They would take along a ram or he-goat that was dedicated to Pochamma during that year. Those who could not afford a ram or he-goat would bring along a chicken. They also brought some toddy, the home-made liquor. They offered everything to the goddess and sacrificed the animal. They used to talk to Pochamma in their own language, Telugu. Apart from this, we Kurumas had our own caste god, called Beerappa. A similar bonalu would be done to also satisfy him, in the same season. But we never knew Saraswathi as a goddess at all.

After my grandmother put the fear in my psyche of Saraswathi killing us if we went to school, Saraswathi would appear in my dreams in a white sari and a white blouse, with untied hair. Actually this was the costume of a female ghost graphically described to us in village stories. I do not remember when I heard about Saraswathi being Chaduvula Talli­­—the Mother of Education. I do not think our teacher Rajalingam shared my grandmother’s opinion about Saraswathi. I never asked him about the danger of Saraswathi killing us if we were educated. But the fear of getting killed if we read and wrote haunted me for long time. My mother and grandmother later told me that I used to get up in the middle of the night and shout “Ghost… Ghost… School… School…”

I was a thin and frail and short boy, who narrowly escaped death when I was six months old after a massive attack of smallpox. Then I escaped death when I was six years or so old, when I got burnt by a winter fire that disfigured my face. The marks of smallpox on my face and body and the patch of burnt skin on my left cheek have remained with me all my life. In a way, I was a demon-stricken boy.

My mother used to call a Banjara mantric, who cut limes on my head, turned a living, howling cock around my body and cut its neck in my presence. I looked at the dying cock with a fear that the ghost might kill me like that. He used to tell that the ghost of education is around me, and he had driven it out with the force of his mantra and limes, with broken coconuts and the blood of the cock. My grandmother used to say Ghost Saraswathi needs more blood than any other ghost.

This text has been excerpted and adapted from Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s recently published From a Shepherd Boy to an Intellectual—My Memoirs (Samya/SAGE Select, Rs 595).