On the Gurazala-Macharla road, 100 km from the district headquarters of Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, stands ‘Sreedevi Rice Mill, 1977’, a decrepit single-storey building with the locks on. The mill, which wound up operations in 2002, is owned by the Vemulas, once among the more affluent families of Gurazala village. It was to this family that Radhika came as a child bride, after her marriage to Vemula Manikumar, one of the three sons of Vemula Venkateshwarlu.
Weeks after his grandson Rohith Vemula’s suicide rocked Hyderabad Central University and with questions about his ‘Dalit identity’ continuing to be the subject of political debates, Venkateshwarlu settles down to talk at his home in Vaddera Colony.
“Yes, he was my grandson but that was not the name we gave him when he was born. He was named Manik Chakravarthi, jewel of our eyes and king of the world,” says Venkateshwarlu, 65, beaming with pride.
In Gurazala, villagers talk fondly of the Vemulas. It was Rohith’s great grandfather, Vemula Mallaiah, who got a shelter and the public wells in the village built, they say. The family once owned 40 acres but Venkateshwarlu now has two acres as his share of the ancestral property. His main source of income now is the rent he gets from half a dozen houses he owns in the area.
Venkateshwarlu lives here with his wife Raghavamma and son Manikumar, 43. His other sons, Mallikarjuna Rao and Ravi Kumar, live in Hyderabad.
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“My son Manikumar did not look after his wife Radhika and their children (Neelima, Rohith and Raja). He turned alcoholic and squandered away his share of the wealth. He would not take care of the rice mill or the few assets that he got as share of the family property,’’ says Venkateshwarlu.
In 1985, Venkateshwarlu’s father Vemula Mallaiah arranged Manikumar’s marriage with Radhika, 17, the daughter of a state government employee and school teacher living in Guntur town. So that’s how “city girl” Radhika, about 14 years old and who had studied till her Class 10, ended up marrying a school dropout from Gurazala.
Less than five years later, it was clear the marriage was failing. Not only did Manikumar drink heavily, he suffered from violent bouts of schizophrenia. The daily arguments in the Vemula family over Manikumar’s drinking habits and his verbal and physical abuse soon became a public spectacle in the Vaddera colony.
Desperate to get out of the situation, in 1993, Radhika decided to take her three children and go back to her parents in Guntur. In 1995, Manikumar, who would travel to Guntur to see his family almost every other day, convinced Radhika to return to the village.
“They came back and the three children were enrolled in the village government school. Rohith must have been nine or 10 then. But in 1998, when the beatings and the arguments got worse, Radhika went back to her home in Guntur,’’ says Venkateshwarlu.
He says Manikumar kept going back to his wife and children and even tried finding a job in Guntur. “He got a few jobs but would be thrown out within a day or two because he used to borrow money and get drunk on duty. The last job he did was of a security guard, but that didn’t last either. When Rohith died, I went to Guntur and brought Manikumar back home,” says Venkateshwarlu.
“I was shocked when Rohith committed suicide and I was even more shocked when it was claimed that he was a Dalit. We still don’t believe Radhika belongs to a Scheduled Caste (SC). If we had known, we would not have allowed the marriage in the first place. My son says even he did not know about Radhika’s caste until Rohith’s suicide. I swear,’’ he says.
Manikumar’s younger brother Vemula Mallikarjuna, a software tester working in Hyderabad, says he was in Class VI when his brother got married to Radhika. “I think they had some problems — she was from the city and my brother a villager. My brother is also to be blamed because he was alcoholic and suffered from mental illness. He can be violent and abusive during such bouts. After my brother and his family moved out of Gurazala, I did not see the children much but I know that Rohith was a brilliant child. Through relatives and friends, I would hear about how well he had done in school and later in college in Guntur. As far as I know, he never needed a caste certificate. The last time I met Rohith was in September 2014 at Nizamabad during a family wedding. We exchanged pleasantries but I don’t think he told me he was doing his PhD at University of Hyderabad. We did not interact much because Radhika and the three children stayed away from us,’’ Mallikarjun says.
After Radhika left Gurazala, she first moved in with her parents, Basnala Muslaiah and Anjani Devi, to their home in Prakash Nagar and later shifted to another house in the same colony.
Prakash Nagar, which stands parallel to the railway line near Railpet in Guntur district, was once a red-light area but now the trade is confined to a few houses in the first row. Inside the colony is a residential area where hundreds of families from lower-income groups live in two-room tenements.
It was in one of these tenements that Radhika and her children lived, between 1998 and 2005. Though Radhika later moved to a house in Savitri Nagar and then to Hyderabad in 2013, almost everybody in Prakash Nagar knows her and her children.
“Ask anyone, they will tell you about Radhika. She is a hardworking woman, a good tailor and does embroidery too,” says Uppalapati Danamma, in her 60s, who was municipal councillor from Prakash Nagar ward from 2000 to 2010.
Danamma, who lives a few houses away from Radhika’s parents, says there is a “lot more” she knows about the family. “Radhika wasn’t their biological child. The couple have four children — two sons and two daughters — and they had adopted her when she was a year old,” says Danamma, adding that Radhika was ill-treated by her mother Anjani and was made to work like a servant.
“Of course, it was much later that we came to know that Radhika was their adopted child. Anjani often abused her, making frequent references to her Mala (SC) caste. I think Radhika was 14 or 15 when Anjani once wondered aloud why she had even brought ‘this useless Mala girl home’,” says Danamma.
So who are Radhika’s biological parents? “No one knows. Only Anjani Devi can tell,” says Danamma.
At her home in Prakash Nagar, Anjani Devi says, “Yes, I adopted Radhika. That was some 45 years ago. Her parents were labourers who had been brought in for some work on the railway line. Radhika was their second child. Her parents had named her Bodduamma. She was fair and cute and would crawl all over the place… she was probably just over one-year-old then. The family was very poor, they toiled all day in the sun, leaving Radhika under a tree. I had just lost my baby, a girl born after two sons. I was distraught. My heart went out to this baby. Even without asking them, I knew they were from the SC Mala community since most migrant labourers belonged to that caste. Anyway, I later confirmed with them. When Radhika’s parents were moving out of the site after their work, I asked them if I could adopt the baby. They readily agreed. I brought her home and named her Radhika.”
“After we adopted Radhika, I gave birth to two girls. Radhika was the fairest of my daughters and I raised her with a lot of affection. Who is saying that I mistreated her and made her do all the household work? She did household work but so did my two other daughters. I have taught all my daughters everything, from cleaning the house to tailoring. What is wrong in working in your own home? I gave sewing machines as gifts to my three daughters when they got married. That is what helped Radhika the most,’’ she says.
Anjani Devi says her relationship with Radhika changed five years after her marriage, and worsened when Radhika decided to take up her caste as SC-Mala. “I had raised Radhika as a Vaddera and got her married to a Vaddera boy who came from an affluent family. The boy’s grandfather is very well known in Gurazala as a philanthrophist. We didn’t hide the truth about Radhika’s adoption and told him that she was from an SC family but raised as a Vaddera. He had no objection. Unfortunately, Radhika’s husband Manikumar turned out to be a drunkard,’’ she says.
Anjani admits she knew the bridegroom was an alcoholic. “We were informed by some people, but by that time we had made all the arrangements for the wedding,’’ she says. “When she could not bear Manikumar’s harassment, we asked her to return home with her three children. Since her husband would frequently keep dropping in and we didn’t have space for all of them, Radhika moved to a one-room house nearby.”
Anjani Devi says the lane Radhika moved into was an “SC colony” and that it’s there that she took on her SC identity. “The children had just started going to school. I do not know when and from where she got this idea but she got SC certificates for herself and for the children, mentioning them as Mala. She should not have done that. For me, she is a Vaddera. Rohith and Raja did not need SC certificates at all. Rohith was brilliant and so is Raja. It is only after Rohith’s suicide that we came to know that the caste issue was being raked up,’’ she says.
Even after Radhika and her three children started living separately, she would be called to help at Anjani’s household. By then, Anjani’s two daughters had moved out after marriage. Radhika also cooked and cleaned at the daycare centre for the aged which Anjani Devi ran out of her home, where at least 20 people are given free lunch.
Anjani admits Radhika did a lot of household work, but adds, that was “like any of my daughters would”.
However, according to Rohith’s friend Riyaz Shaikh, the children resented the fact that their mother worked like a servant at their grandmother’s house. And that when their mother couldn’t go, Anjani would call one of the children to work.
Riyaz says Rohith, his “best friend” and classmate at Hindu College in Guntur where they did their BSc, hardly spoke about his family problems. But as a close friend, he knew. “I know Radhika aunty’s problems at Anjani Devi’s house bothered him. Radhika aunty used to fetch water, cook and do all the work, even take care of her siblings’ children. They were never allowed to forget that Radhika had been adopted and that they were of a lower caste.’’
In Hyderabad, Radhika says she doesn’t want to “hurt anyone’s feelings”. She says she is “very close” to her “amma” and that Anjani Devi was the first person from the family to reach Hyderabad on hearing of Rohith’s suicide. “There were certain reasons I was forced to move out of Prakash Nagar (Anjani Devi’s house). I don’t want to disclose them now. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says.