Songs of Lament and rise of Banjaras: Journey of Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar winner Ramesh Karthik Nayak

Young writers in recent times in Telugu are becoming more conscious of their existence and believe that if they don’t tell their own stories, the world will assume their communities never existed.

ByDeepika Pasham

Published Jul 01, 2024 | 11:00 AM Updated Jul 01, 2024 | 11:00 AM

Ramesh Karthik Nayak with his book

Ramesh Karthik Nayak seemed to be in a hurry to reach home. “There won’t be enough light to click pictures,” he told South First.

The light was fast fading after the arms of the clock had made a vertical straight line. He ushered this correspondent into the rented accommodation he shared with his younger brother in Hyderabad.

Enter the room, and bibliosmia hits the visitor, a sure sign of what to expect. To the right was a shelf, which held heaps of books that rose almost to the asbestos roof. An old curtain that sagged from a string left little to the imagination, as books jostled for space with a few dresses and a pair of helmets.

Three cartons that held more books occupied the space between a cot and the curtained shelf.

Nayak picked up a book, Dhaavalo, a collection of short stories in Telugu, and proudly posed for a photograph. Dhavlo (Song of Lament) brought him the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, making him the first tribesman and the youngest to receive the literary award.

Nunnavath Karthik Nayak, 26, who writes in the Lambada language using the Telugu script under the pen name Ramesh Karthik Nayak, has three more titles to his credit. Balder Bandi (Bullock Cart, 2018), and Kesula (Moduga Flower, 2022), and Chakmak (Flintstone), a collection of poems in English.

Chamak was launched at the Bengaluru Poetry Festival, 2023.

Nayak sat with South First on the terrace outside his room for a freewheeling discussion on his life, and writing.

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Q: How was your childhood?

A: I started school at the age of 5 at Shri Nikethan School in Armoor. I wasn’t interested in studies. My grandmother, who used to sell milk and curd, was so fond of me, She used to bring me a glass of either milk or curd along with my favourite Sunfeast biscuit. She did it every day until the school stopped her from doing so.

It is one of my fond memories.

From a young age, I developed an inquisitive mindset. My school had a large playground where people with donkeys and horses would come to carry luggage. I started drawing pictures of these people.

Later, I joined the KRR High School, where I focused more on drawing pictures. While others played, I drew pictures and often felt lonely. I interacted only with those from my Banjara community. I used to bunk classes to catch crabs from the fields or pluck fruits like guavas, or just paint.

I was admitted to Shri Chaitanya in Nizamabad when I was in Class 4. I stayed at the government-run ST hostel and studied in a private school. Life in the hostel was tough with insects in the food, and the meals often smelled foul by the afternoon.

Sometimes, I used to eat prasadam from nearby temples, and if the priest was not around, my friends and I used to steal money. We also stole boiled eggs from the hostel and stored them in our rooms. The principal would beat us whenever he found the food missing.

One we broke the switchboards of a newly constructed building in Nizamabad to find coins and buy food with that money. (Electricians sometimes place coins in switchboards to prevent switches from overheating and tripping).

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Q Did you participate in competition while in school?

A: I joined a private school while I was in Class 6. The intention was to get admission to an IIT. However, I struggled with the subjects and failed. This led me to participate in competitions such as elocution, drawing, theatre, singing, etc.

My teachers often chose me to deliver speeches whenever government officials visited the school. No guest had returned with my painting gifted to them. Painting was my passion. I laminated my paintings and gave them away as gifts. One of my paintings was published in a prominent English magazine, and I received prizes for my work from Hai Bujji of Eenadu. My education coincided with the Telangana agitation, giving me more holidays to focus on writing.

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Q: What was your parents’ response to your love for arts and literature?

A: My parents, father Mojiram and mother Sevantha, are farmers in Nizamabad. We are three brothers. I am the eldest, my younger brother is working, and the youngest is still studying.

My family expected me to secure a job to support them. When I moved into the arts and writing, I received less financial support from my parents. Sometimes they wouldn’t send money at all. To support myself, I began working part-time as a caterer, pamphlet distributor, and helper at a photocopy shop.

I often fought with my parents because they wanted me to focus on my studies, while I was passionate about writing. In 2017, I had a backlog since I had failed several papers while pursuing polytechnic diploma course. One of my seniors suggested a job in Maharashtra, claiming it was a central government job. I was conned into paying ₹15,000. It was a trap to attract more people who could pay for a job.

I got a job in a company. I told them that I had applied for a teaching job. When it was time for my certificate verification, I told them that if they did not allow me to leave, I would contact the police and commit suicide, accusing the company in a letter. Finally, I managed to leave and visited Hyderabad for my verification.

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Q: When did people start recognising your writings? Who motivated you?

A: I started posting my writings on Facebook during my tenth grade. I connected with other Telugu authors and frequently public libraries. My first influencer was a Telugu teacher, Vijay Kumar, known by his pen name Saubhagya.

After reading one of his books, we became friends, and he would bring me many books. Another significant motivator was Professor Surya Dhananjay, who is well-known for encouraging people to read about indigenous communities in Telangana. She supported me and collaborated with me on numerous projects.

I attended over nine literature festivals, including those in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Gujarat. Meeting Arundhati Roy was the highlight. I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep after learning that she was attending the festival the next day.

Q: Could you share the experience of winning the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for Telugu literature?

A: It was the happiest feeling, especially because I had no expectations. My short story collection, Dhavlo, which focuses on the Banjara community, was suggested by panel members who read it. I was then notified that I had been selected as the winner.

I had been searching for writings about the Banjara community and found none, so I decided to take it seriously and write on my own. Writers Aparna Thota and Chaitanya Pingali helped me with crowdfunding for publishing my books. Aparna Thota approached me after reading a poem about Banjara women, who often cover their faces with dupatta.

With the money raised through crowdfunding, we published Balgar Bandi. Later, Aparna Thota introduced me to Anvikshiki Publishers, who published Dhavlo in 2021. In 2022, Professor Surya Dhananjay and I edited a book, Kesula, which was published by the Telangana Sahitya Academy.

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Q: What are the struggles young writers face?

A: Young writers in recent times in Telugu are becoming more conscious of their existence and believe that if they don’t tell their own stories, the world will assume their communities never existed.

In my case, almost everyone believes that the Banjara community doesn’t exist because there is so little written about them, and people assume that the community no longer exists. So, the effort to tell our stories is genuine, but it takes time for publishers to notice a writer. I believe there is more clarity in writing our stories than in focusing on the struggles we face.

(Edited by Majnu Babu)

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