Why you should care

Because it’s one of the most unlikely success stories we’ve read.

The author is the founder of Movement for Scavenger Community, which aims to end manual scavenging, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. He is also an Acumen India Fellow. This is the first of two parts.

I was born into the lowest caste of India, the Chuhras, a name so low and vile that to call someone a Chuhra is to deliver a grave insult. My family included 15 people, and we made our living removing and carrying excrement from toilet pits. Our own one-room house, at the edge of a dump site in a small town called Ladwa, had no toilet or running water of its own. In a country where cleanliness was hard to come by, we were the unclean cleaners with no way to clean ourselves. We were the untouchables.

As a young child, I knew without my parents explaining that my life was predetermined to be exactly like theirs. Although discrimination against the untouchable caste has been illegal for 60 years, almost from the founding of the republic, the law had not changed the behavior of those more powerful than Chuhras. And in India everyone is more powerful than Chuhras.

We planned our caper carefully, waiting until a wedding took place. The chaos provided the cover we needed.

The fact that my mother was the toilet-cleaner at a good school allowed me admission — a boon. But it also put me in a terrible position, because it presented the higher-caste students with even more insults for me than they had for other Chuhras they met on the street. I avoid thinking back to that time, but when I do, I remember very little learning and very much pain. One day I had to wear pants that were ripped across the backside, exposing me to even more ridicule, which continued long after the pants were mended. Perhaps it is not surprising that I never exhibited much evidence of being a good student.

But in my ninth standard year, something ignited in me.

My family had been saving for a year to buy a satellite cable connection for our home. This was a big event in my hamlet, starved as we were for communications from the wider world. Once we saved enough for the deposit and several months of service in advance, I, as the eldest young man in the family, was dispatched to the satellite TV shop, a few hamlets away. Many of my cricket friends accompanied me there, and we made a happy band as we navigated the streets.

When we walked into the shop, the proprietor instantly spotted us as Chuhras. When I held out the money, he snarled at it.

“Chuhras’ hamlet? No, I will not give my connection to you dirty people, and I do not want to enter in your dirty area.”

I offered several months’ fee in advance, but the sight of the money in my hand disgusted him.

“I do not want your money,” he said. “Now get lost, and do not come again.”

The procession back to our hamlet was not happy. We walked quickly and vowed revenge, and by the time we reached Ladwa, we’d become a gang, out for justice. In our anger we found solidarity and purpose. All of us had faced caste-based taunts. No one wanted to be our friend. What did we owe this so-called civil society? And so we concocted a scheme to put the proprietor out of business.

We planned our caper carefully, waiting until a wedding took place in the hamlet. On the eve of a traditional wedding, the groom’s family celebrates in the streets, dancing, parading and shooting firecrackers while a band plays at top volume. The chaos provided the cover we needed to cut the wires of the satellite TV shop. We ran back to our hamlet in the night, proud of our accomplishment, proud and reckless in the way of young men claiming their power in the world. The thrill of revenge was powerful, and our gang wanted more. So we cut more wires.

But I quickly came to see this as pointless vandalism. For the rich, disconnected wires were a mere inconvenience; the wires would be replaced the next day. The way to show them, to really arrive as equals, was to face them on the cricket field. It might sound bizarre: When my friends and I played cricket, we fashioned a bat from two sticks and a ball from some rags, the pitch was the street, and we spent as much time fishing the ball out of the sewage-filled gutter as we did trying to avoid the pigs, chickens and donkeys that interfered. But we could play.

When I approached an upper-caste schoolmate, he nearly snorted in contempt. But he agreed to play. It was clear that he expected he and his teammates would humiliate the Chuhras in front of a large crowd of their supporters. I did not flinch at this arrogance, which I had come to expect. He asked me for the name of our team, and I said proudly, “The Team of Chuhras.” Then I decided I would never allow people from other communities to join our team. Our victory should be ours only.

The Team of Chuhras had the collective drive of a group of young men who had many scores to settle, obstacles and insults that had been heaped upon their shoulders for generations. Our opponents assumed that their superiority extended to all aspects of life, but they could not know how tough we were. We had played in the streets, without proper equipment, without shoes and in 42-degree heat (107 degrees Fahrenheit). We had played without padding. I warned my team that we would not answer taunts with violence — but with our bats.

I wish I could report that we strolled onto the sylvan fields of the rich and showed them what true strength means, but that is not true. The truth is that they beat us decisively in that first match. They readily agreed to another one because the first had been so much fun. The next match they beat us by a smaller margin, and shortly thereafter we won the tournament. Soon enough, the Team of Chuhras became so good that we beat them in three tournaments and vanquished all their stars.

Vimal Kumar’s journey continues with Part II next week.

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