The tale of a dalit journalist

BY Nagaraju Koppula| IN Opinion | 20/04/2015
Nagaraju Koppula overcame impossible hurdles to become an English language journalist.
Shocked to hear of his death at 35, PARANJOY GUHA THAKURTA recalls his determination.
He was truly exceptional in more ways than one. Born into an extremely poor and socially backward family in a village in Khammam district in Andhra Pradesh (now Telengana), he was able to overcome the circumstances of his upbringing to work in an English - yes English! - daily newspaper in Hyderabad before cancer consumed him a few weeks before his 35th birthday.
 
Nagaraju Koppula (25 May 1980-12 April 2015) belonged to the Madiga Dalit community. His family was one among many families of migrant labourers who had come to the village of Sarapaka, situated on the banks of the River Godavari, to seek a livelihood as construction workers in a paper mill that was coming up. 
 
The youngest of five siblings, he and his family lived in a mud and thatched-roof hut. His father died when he was just four. Together with his brothers and sisters, he sold ice to visitors at a local temple and painted signboards to earn a pittance. He had a burning desire to study. And he did.
 
When I met him as a student of journalism on a scholarship at a now-defunct teaching institution in Delhi, he had struggled through school and college, earned a master's degree in history from Hyderabad Central University and also a diploma in mass communications. 
 
He had set his mind on becoming a journalist, that too, an investigative journalist working in the English language. Many had tried to dissuade from pursuing his ambitions. As his teacher, I suggested that he seek a career in the Telugu language media. He had heard similar suggestions before from many others. But he was determined; he wanted to learn English and work in that language.
 
Unlike him, most students in his class came from a privileged background. Some of them were quite unsure what they wanted in terms of a future professional career. They would miss classes frequently and even when they attended classes, were inattentive. Nagaraju was different from the rest. He stood out. He had come to study. He was willing to slog. He was tenacious. I told him how to improve his English writing and speaking skills. I was not expecting him to take my suggestions seriously. But he did. 
 
I used his services as a Telugu-to-English translator for a documentary film I was working on in 2010. He was grateful for the meagre remuneration I gave him. And he remained in touch.
 
A few years later, he came to meet me when I was in Hyderabad. By then, he was going through the anguish that is typically experienced by quite a few junior reporters who have to deal with superiors in their organisation who take a perverse pride in their cynicism. Every story idea put to them is met with the question: "So what's new?"
 
Nagaraju reported about prisoners and their families, orphans and stray animals. Some of his articles on the poor "donating" their organs and the dilapidated public health-care system appeared as front-page anchors in the New Indian Express. 
 
But before each of his articles was printed, he had to relentlessly wage a battle. The sub-editors didn't exactly relish the idea of rewriting his copy. Some of his editors didn't find his story ideas "sexy" enough. 
 
He cribbed to me. I told him not to worry, but to continue along the path he had chosen, that he should not have any illusions about the difficulties he would encounter. Little did I realise then that that would be the last time I would be meeting him.
 
In Nagaraju's short life he demonstrated the importance of determination in a way that almost all of us are incapable of enduring. There can be very few like him. 
 
The Hoot has  published  a series of articles by Ajaz Ashraf starting with "The untold story of Dalit journalists" which highlight the lack of social inclusiveness in newsrooms in India's mainstream media organisations. Nagaraju was the outlier, the exception to the rule.
 
According to a blogpost on him by Gurram Seetaramulu, a Dalit writer and political analyst, which has been translated into English from the Telugu, he had a cough which refused to go away. He got himself admitted in the Government Chest Hospital in Hyderabad where he was wrongly "treated" for six months for tuberculosis. 
 
"When he finally went to the Basavatarakam Cancer Hospital... they told him that he was suffering from cancer, in an advanced stage...(that) he would not have... more than three-five months to live... Dear friend, death has liberated you. But you are invincible..."
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