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Opinion
It took me 10 years after my B Tech to embrace my identity. It took me my MA to be able to say, I am Pallavi Banothu, Lambadi, an ST. It took me 3 years after that to articulate the trauma.
Photo courtesy: Pallavi Banothu

I see a lot of people declaring, “College was so much fun, college days are happy days, I wish I could go back to those days,” and so on. I wish I could say the same about my four years in an engineering college. Twelve years after graduating, I have finally mustered the courage to speak up now.

To begin with, I never wanted to do engineering. I really didn't know what I wanted to do in life –  not when I was 17 at least. My father didn't leave me with much of a choice there.

Engineering will be good, they said. It will have good career options, they said. Everybody, closely and distantly related to me, tried to convince me how my life would miraculously change after a B Tech. Nobody ever mentioned how it could mutilate one's personality, self-esteem, and suck the confidence out of the person to the last drop.

I come from a college – no, I come from a place – where people are openly (read shamelessly) proud of their casteism, where people can scan a person's body and tell what caste they belong to, two seconds after seeing them. I come from a place where people are kind to lower castes because they can be, not because they believe in equality.

In a small city like that, lies my engineering college KLCE. Koneru Lakshmaiah College of Engineering. Some students called it Koneru Lakshmaiah Convent of Engineering for its rules like girls cannot be seen talking to boys, cannot bunk classes, need a permission slip from the HOD for half day leave etc.

It is a dream college for many students who aspire to become engineers. They work hard to get in, and are heartbroken if they do not get a seat.

Like a lot of my old friends, they stop talking to people (read reservation candidates) for “taking away” their seats and for forcing them to settle for a mechanical branch or CSE instead of the great grand ECE. To cope with this injustice, my college and a few other colleges, came up with a solution: “Put them (reserved category students) where they belong. Show them our power.”

There were two groups in the engineering colleges in Vijayawada and Guntur. The “Chowdary Group” and the “Non Chowdary Group”. C-batch, NC-batch. Every caste that is not Chowdary including Brahmins fall in the NC-batch. I explode internally when I think of this concept.

The C-batch doesn't mingle with anyone else. They are not supposed to. They have their private freshers’ and farewell parties at 5-star hotels because, well, C-batch. They carefully fall in love with the other Cs. They eagerly wait for movies of Balayya, Junior NTR, and every hero who is a C, to release, and collectively bunk college to watch the movies and make them a big hit.

On the other hand, the NCs wait for Chiranjeevi, Pawan Kalyan, and Ram Charan’s movies to release. Cs like C heroes, and NCs like NC heroes. They sincerely believe it is their responsibility to help their gods shine.

NCs have their parties in the college under the supervision of the department faculty. When an NC is seen talking to a C, they beat them up. They first warn the person though. But if the person continues to talk to the C despite the warning, they either disown the C, or target the NC for the rest of his/her college life.

My cousin is a dancer and was getting popular in his college and he was beaten up after a warning. They told him he should never dance in the college. Can't blame them, he was a Dalit boy stealing their limelight. While the upper caste NCs don’t have much to lose, the Dalit NCs struggle to survive the eternal discrimination.

How do they know what caste you belong to, you ask? The first day of the college is when they find out the caste and the class of each individual. How? Ragging, introductions in class where you are supposed to say your FULL name and what your father does (nobody cares about the mother). That's when they decide whether you fall in the C-batch or the NC-batch, or if you have used any reservation.

Imagine being a girl, a half-Dalit, half-tribal girl who ended up in the college only because of her reservation. I was that girl. Though I had no idea what I was getting into, I dreaded joining there. Trust me, I paid a heavy price for it.

When I got the seat, my parents were the happiest. I wasn't. Because, the discrimination had already started.

A few of my close friends had stopped talking to me and a few expressed their opinions, like how it is easy for 'you people'. It didn't take me much time to understand I didn't belong there. A friend jokingly asked me if I am an ST - D (not the Sexually transmitted STD. The lowest sub category D).

I don't think I have ever had any C friends. There was one girl who used to come to my place for sleepovers. I asked her why she didn't attend the C freshers’ party. She said she is not interested. Not because it is wrong. That answer pricked me, and that friendship didn't really last long.

I come from a family that accepted all my friends including male friends since childhood. I never had to lie to my parents about my crushes or platonic male friends. I never had to pretend like I was talking to a girl when it was a boyfriend on the call. I never had to stand four feet away from the guy, looking at the ground while talking. This environment at home had given me a confidence the college couldn't handle. I instantly became a target for almost everyone in the college.

I was slut shamed for not turning a casual ‘Hi’ down from a guy, the way a ‘Sanskari girl’ would do. They shamed me when an adult joke I secretly shared with my best friend accidentally became public. I was informed of the rumours about me that did the rounds of the college on a daily basis. They ranged from, “She would sleep with just about anyone,” to “she had an abortion.” It still blows my mind.

I remember the day when a classmate spat on me when I was on my way to the canteen. Imagine an underserving slut of a girl walking around in the college with a couple of guys. I was that girl.

I spent the first three years trying to understand the subjects, the backlogs, the hatred, the cat calling, and the constant slutshaming. I shivered every time I had to say my last name. I found different ways to fill Orkut and Facebook details without mentioning my name. Because, that would give away my caste and would bring more hatred and humiliation into my life.

It took me 10 years after my B Tech to forgive myself for having used the caste reservation, and to embrace my identity. It took me my MA to be able to say, I am Pallavi Banothu, Lambadi, an ST. It took me three years after that to articulate the trauma.

Saying 'college was so much fun' is a privilege. Because, for most of us it is a nightmare that robbed us of our dignity and made us aware of how puny we are in the society.

Pallavi Banothu has a Master of Performance Arts degree in theatre from the University of Hyderabad. She is currently a freelance theatre trainer, director, and actor. Views expressed are the author’s own.