Neel Kranti Media
(First published in the 'Dalit and Adivasi Students' Portal' in 2010)
Born in a village in Tamilnadu, VP Gomathi holds a Masters in Social Work (2009) from one of the most reputed institutes of the country and is striving towards fulfulling her dream of playing an important role in the empowerment of our community. Her journey from a small village, to Madurai and then to Mumbai is a saga of her hard work, determination and tremendous self belief.
Tell us something about your family background?
I belong to Tamil Nadu, from a village in Madurai district. We are three sisters. My father worked as a daily wage labourer before he joined one government office as a peon. My mother is a housewife. Both my parents are illiterate and we sisters are the first ones to get an education.
Being the eldest one in the family I got the opportunity to study Masters in Social Work (MSW) from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. My second sister has done a diploma in Computers and is now working as a lab assistant. The youngest one has just completed her B.Sc.
I was able to go for higher education only due to the financial support extended by my younger sisters. They pooled money from their scholarships and used to send it to me and to the rest of the family as my father being an alcoholic was unable to take care of the family.
With no male child in the family did you face any kind of discrimination in and around your family?
My parents didn't discriminate but relatives used to do so. My father has five brothers and therefore when I was born as the first female child in the family, all were very happy. Birth of the second daughter was also acceptable but I feel that many of our family members wanted a male child the third time!
Gradually everything became normal but when we sisters started going to schools our relatives used to question my parents' decision and told them about the futility of educating girl children as according to them education turns girls into awful characters!
For them girls should remain uneducated and grow up to become housewives and involve only in household activities. Still, none of us sisters have got much recognition from the relatives on our academic accomplishments.
For any child, coming from such a background, the first step of getting admission in primary school itself is a big challenge. Who motivated you and your siblings? What were the challenges you faced?
I started going to the informal school as our village did not even have government primary school then. The total strength of the school was around 25 students and all of us used to sit together and study even if we belonged to different classes (from I to V). Initially my mother was very supportive of our studies; however, paying the school fee on time was one of the biggest hurdles which we had to cross every month.
During my 5th std my parents separated and my father took me along with him to my grandparents' village whereas my sisters continued to live with my mother.
My grandfather got me admitted in a secondary school but here also most of the time I was sent back home due to non-payment of fees. But my grandpa was a determined person and he somehow managed to pay for my school. Due to his help and continuous motivation only I could clear my board exams and thereafter I started getting scholarship.
However, my school never released scholarship amount to me but always kept it for school fees. I finished many courses there but due to my inability to pay fees I never got the certificates as the principal used to say, "First deposit fees then take certificates".
How did you fare in your board exams?
I scored 79% in 10th class from science stream and was first division in 12th also but the most satisfying moment was when I scored 85% marks in mathematics in class 12th exam. I wanted to become an engineer.
But then you did your graduation in Sociology. Why?
I was interested in doing engineering and cleared the entrance exam too without any coaching etc but was not able to afford even the amount I needed to get admission there. Then I thought of joining BSc (Maths) but by then the admissions were over and I had to join BA (Sociology) in Fatima College, Madurai as the seats were vacant there.
What was your experience during your college days?
My graduation taught me a lot about the world I am living in. In school, most of us belonged to similar caste and class backgrounds but in the college, students come from diverse backgrounds. For the first time I developed some inferiority complex due to my financial status and also because of my lack of English skills. Caste also became a major issue to deal with during my college days.
But most of the time these issues combine together and pose a challenge. And you have no clue about the exact causes when you know that you are a Dalit girl, poor, from a village, don't know English well and above all, you are alone.
One day a professor asked the class about our future plans. I replied that I want to pursue my higher studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi as I used to hear about this University a lot from my classmates. I told him that my dream is to be in JNU but I did not know whether I would be able to do so.
The teacher replied directly, "You are not able to afford your BA in Madurai but are thinking of going to JNU? You can't even think of going there." I was shattered and my zeal to study was completely crushed by this one statement and for a long time I thought that I am not fit for higher education.
But the most blatant caste discrimination happened when I went with one of my college friends, to her village, to attend a community function. Five of us went together from the college. After reaching there we were being introduced to all the family members. Her father asked about our families, father's occupation, villages etc and then he could very easily deduce about my caste background.
Immediately his gestures changed and he became very furious. He started scolding his daughter, in front of everyone, for inviting me. We had to leave the function immediately then. That day I really cursed myself for being born as a lower caste.
This incident happened when I was in my second year graduation and after this I never interacted with anyone, except one classmate who was also from a similar background. I used to go and come back from my college alone. Till now, I am not comfortable having friendship with 'upper' caste girls.
With such a background, how did you manage your graduation? How much did you score in BA?
I scored 89% marks and was the second topper of my college.
What really motivated you to excel in studies despite so many hardships?
My family and the hardship we were facing gave me the motivation to study. All these made me to study well, to find a job and liberate myself from this atmosphere.
What did you do immediately after your graduation?
I started working as a volunteer in All India Catholic University Federation (AICUF), a student movement. This was actually the turning point in my life. It exposed me to lot of things and gave me an opportunity to discuss openly on these issues, especially caste issues. This was really another world for me.
I got involved with a lot of social work activities through AICUF and was elected its state president also. I was even sent to Germany to present a paper on the issue of Dalit women as a part of a student exchange programme.
Thereafter I worked for AICUF full time for one year with Rs. 2000 salary as I did not know what to do after my graduation since my economic status never allowed me to even think of going for higher education.
But during this period, I travelled a lot, organized workshops for students, made people aware of social issues. All this helped me to improve my language skills and I was able to gain some self-confidence to be able to dream once again.
Also during discussions in meetings and workshops, a lot of people used to ask about my future plans. It was only then that I became aware of something called Masters in Social Work (MSW) and about Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. This struck in my mind and then I decided to try for admission there. I finally joined TISS for my MSW in 2007.
How was TISS to you when you joined there?
It was a great cultural shock to me. Mumbai is very different from Madurai perhaps much more different than what I felt in Madurai coming from a village. The first semester was really bad as I was completely lost in terms of language, culture, the way people react, everything. I was never comfortable with my classmates or even my roommates who were from Delhi and were from privileged backgrounds. The way they eat, the way they dress up, all this was new for me. I had never even in my dream thought of girls smoking and drinking but all this was happening in the hostel, in front of me.
I don't blame my classmates or my roommates as this is the culture they grew up in and I don't see any problems with that but then I grew up in a family where my father was an alcoholic and I had a phobia against drinking. For me, whoever drinks was bad.
It might surprise you that, in my first semester, for four straight nights I slept outside my room, in the hostel lounge as I became very uncomfortable with the way parties happened in the room. I slept there and went to the room only to take bath and change my clothes and that too when the room mates had left for their classes, then only I used to go to classes.
Initially, all this was mind-boggling but gradually I understood the cultural difference. It is one's own choice to do whatsoever she wants. I don't have any problem if they smoke, drink but I won't do it because I don't like it and this is my choice. However, if someone forces me to do so then I will take this as an issue.
How did you reconcile with these cultural differences?
There was a Dalit students' group in the campus and also the SC/ST cell in TISS is quite active. I was already exposed to AICUF culture and therefore could easily gel with the Dalit students group. I know I was a Dalit and extremely proud about it. I was quite vocal to discuss about any issues related to our community.
So I started participating actively and then TISS has a very strong Dalit consciousness among our students and there is lot of interaction among our seniors, teachers and other students and we used to keep a united front. I think this helped me a lot to get adjusted inside TISS.
What are your suggestions for other SC and ST students?
Having come from a certain background, for a long time I used to feel inferior. Most of our students come from such a background and feel the same. We start getting this feeling that we can't do much, we can't achieve, and we can't excel in our lives. But we need to fight such feelings, we have to become strong and not become victims of the system.
I will tell you that even up to college days, I used to hear that, 'my father is a doctor or so and so but your's is a labourer, you will never go up'. Once I did reply that, "Yes, your father is a doctor and mine is a labourer, still we are sitting on the same bench, in the same class. Now tell me who is more meritorious?"
You have just graduated from TISS. What do you want to do now? What is your ambition for life?
Since last year, after my MSW, I have been working with an organization that is supporting Dalit children. At present my only priority is to support my family back home, especially my younger sisters till they are well settled. Then I have to go for higher education and career wise I want to be in a place where policies are being made. I want to be in that position and for that I have to study more. I am planning to go aboard for my higher studies and have already applied to some of the world's best universities.
Thanks so much Gomathi!
[Courtesy: Dalit and Adivasi Students' Portal]