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.”
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.