Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Land Guns Caste Woman - Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary - Gita Ramaswamy

I found the title interesting, and the subject, so I picked it up. Much of author Gita Ramaswamy's book is also my world - Hyderabad, Osmania University, some of her contemporaries are known to me as parents of my contemporaries and some of the issues she faced on campus were faced by us as well, though from a distance. I have always been interested in how deeply some students get involved in party ideologies (having lost one of my classmates from Osmania University Engineering College, Vijay to the movement). And how some others give up pretty soon and head west. Gita Ramaswamy somehow found it in her to continue her idealism even after she quit the party and remained true to her chosen path stubbornly, much much longer than most. She also adapted along the way to add more meaning to her work it appears.

Born into an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family - fourth of five daughters - she studied in Madras and lived in a strict and orthodox manner at home (and had a very Catholic experience at school). In 1968 she moved to Hyderabad and it is here that she seems to have found herself in the city's more liberating atmosphere - debating, quizzing, being Head Girl of KV Picket. Somewhere along the way it becomes evident to the reader that she had an independent mind and one that would ask uncomfortable questions. She got admission into the IIT and stayed back because her father had other ideas. But what she told herself were two things post her schooling - to fulfill her potential and not to depend on any man.

A year in Women's College, Koti, where she experienced more freedom and met new friends - Sumeet Sidhu, Geeta Patel and Kiran Mirchandani. Sumeet Sidhu was from IICT (another familiar place) and she would go to their house and eat stuff she was not allowed to eat at home. In 1972 she moved to Osmania University and her life took a turn from which there was no going back. Starting sometime around the murder of George Reddy she met up with a group of young men - Burgula Pradeep (younger brother of Rama Melkote, and friend Sagarika's mother), Sasi, Gopal and others, and pretty soon was neck deep in left student politics. There was romance in the air and the mood of the leftists was quite romantic as well - fight the system, secure justice, fight for a cause. Four of them were girls - Lalitha (Nandu) who later joined the RSU and died prematurely, Lalita (who started Anveshi) and Rukmini Menon. Their idols - Vanaja Iyengar who taught at the Arts College and smoked in the staff room and Veena Shatrugna, who rode a scooter and wore sleeveless tops. Another friend she mentions and one who has done work that got a lot of recognition is Shantha Sinha (who married Ajay Sinha, a Professor at Arts College, an adventurous elopement - Ajay Sinha died early as well).

In 1973 Gita joined the Chandra Pulla Reddy group of Marxist Leninists (Naxalites as they were called) along with the others in the group. Some time then she met her husband to be Cyril Reddy who incidentally is George Reddy's brother and an activist. Other ML groups included the popular Kondapalli Seetaramaiah group and one other TN group. Much violence was unleashed those years and the Naxals were much feared. Gita dived headlong into her party's work, changed her attire from trousers to saris, wearing hand me downs, walking miles because she had no money for the bus, mobilising girls from various colleges in the twin cities - Vanita Mahavidyalaya, St Francis, AMS. The party membership grew from 15 to 1500. Smoking beedis, watching cricket matches at the OU 'A'ground (maybe the times of Rajan and Vasan), talking books and rebellion - stuff that all collegians dream of. Obviously, with such a radical change in her life, it was difficult to keep peace at home. Her father would berate her in public and even took a transfer to Madras hoping she would join them and get back on track but she stayed on. One interesting job she did then was to take a huge trunk to Varanasi and deliver it to someone there - only to find the trunk had guns and pistols and cash! She also was rather taken in by her need to do the right thing for the party (the perfect team player) and even suggested bumping off a colleague Chalapathi, who was thinking of surrendering. Luckily no one listened to her advise (she did that on a couple more occasions later too). 

Come 1975 and the Emergency came and they had to go underground.  Many of their friends left the party because they had to give exams. There was a lot of going underground and hiding in different safe houses, coming out only at night, and even carrying on their romance at night. If I remember right they would go for a meal at the Melkotes' house, probably even stayed the night. When she and Cyril thought of marrying her family did something drastic - they got her to go to Madras citing some serious illness to her mother, locked her up, got her treated with shock therapy to set her brainwashed mind right. The psychiatrist did manage to cure her - his shock therapy managed to make her lose some parts of her brain. Obviously not the ones he wanted to because she continued her activism for decades after - minus her photographic memory. 

Sometime around this period her disillusionment with the party also began and she and Cyril started writing against the party's ways and inconsistencies. She had an issue with the way Chandra Pulla Reddy, her handler, lived with his wife, which was also inconsistent with the way these people lived. Cyril and she quit after the party stopped their stipend - and the party later expelled them. Now, without the shelter of the party, and having to hide from the police, they went to Delhi, Chandigarh, lived for a while with Cyril's brother Karl who was an IAS officer. After that they went to Ghaziabad, lived with the balmiki community in their slums, eating roti and pork of pigs that ate the shit in the community, fearing tapeworm infections, teaching their children English, managing to survive suicidal thoughts before finally returning to Hyderabad. The kids in the community they taught did well later she found out.

In Hyderabad she set up the Hyderabad Book Trust with other like-minded people and produced low cost but high quality books in Telugu which benefited many readers who had no access to such literature. HBT did and probably does exceedingly well to date and why not - Gita went into it with all the commitment and conviction she had - 100%. Carrying books, collecting dues, threatening non-paying customers. She would have been a brilliant capitalist with her drive and commitment and conviction. HBT has since published over 400 titles since 1980 (and has translated works of Alex Haley and Mahasweta Devi). When she turned thirty her attention turned to the dalits of Ibrahimpatnam near Hyderabad and she went there. Cyril lived in Hyderabad, now a lawyer, and was working with Salaha, a legal resource cell for the downtrodden.

In Ibrahmipatnam Gita found a whole new story of bonded labour of dalits where the reddy landlords exploited them for generations, paying them nothing, beating them, raping their women, torturing them. Gita worked with the Madigas of the district and formed the Ibrahimpathnam Taluka Vyavasaya Coolie Sangam (ITVCS) which fought for the rights of these labourers who had no voice. Over a period of almost ten years she fought the tyranny of the reddy landlords and had about 14000 acres of land released from them to the Madigas, got them minimum wages, got old loans repudiated. There was always the threat from the landlords, once even a supari of one lakh was placed on her head. Some authorities were helpful, many hostile, but she continued. Again, riding a bicycle, taking lifts, buses, walking, organising, rebelling - almost like someone possessed. Now when we hear about these places she talks about in the surrounding districts around Hyderabad, they are all worth crores (and apparently the beneficiaries are selling them off). After a long, fruitful and hard battle of almost ten years she returned, perhaps sometime in the 1990s decided to start a family. 

The book has testimonials from those who benefited from her work, her Sangam associates, and their words ring more powerfully than those of the celebrities who endorsed her book. Gita Ramaswamy has since written several books including a biography of George Reddy (Jeena Hai to Marna Seekho), India Stinking: Manual Scavengers in Andhra Pradesh and Their Work and other such.

I enjoyed reading the book for so many reasons. The Hyderabad I know, the people I am familiar with, the campus politics of the times, the mad idealism that I could never have, the conviction in causes with seemingly no reward, the reflection over a life full of hard choices. It is almost as if she drove herself to find harder and harder choices but it worked for her and all those who benefited from her work. As a book it worked very well for me because she kept her honesty alive, accepting her mistakes, not apologising for anything, saying things as she saw them. It sustained its energy over 400 odd pages and I read most of it in one afternoon. Many insights into the times, into those who believed and carried on their work. I am definitely richer for the experience. And if the testimonials are anything to go by, it is sure to sell, may be win an award too. One can only applaud Gita for her convictions, her work, her honesty, and for writing this book.                  

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