Lives of the Dalits: Crushing Poverty and Inspiring Beauty
By Sonja Stark
Nobody warns you that when you visit India, your mind stretches and never returns to its original size. It’s happening to me now. I saw and did so much in such a short time the impact is just starting to take root.
Crushing Poverty, Inner Beauty
The crushing poverty is mortifying and the polluted heat is exhausting but inevitably I am inspired by the beauty and the untouchables.
I’m not talking about the Taj Mahal or the Sacred Temples or even the Ganges River, though these places are incredible. The inner beauty of India comes from the lowest class, the Shudras and then even below that, the Dalits.
Chennai, once known as Madras, is a mercantile port city in the southern equatorial tropical region. Very few tourists visit, and of the six million people who live here, only 3% are Caucasian.
Like most cities in India, Chennai is unbearably humid, dirty, and crowded. It is, however, an expansive city on the Indian ocean with temples, parks, great shopping, and the longest beach in the world.
We pull into its dusty port welcomed by a group of ‘Ravi Shankar look-alike’ musicians playing beautifully on stringed instruments. I’m not sure if the instruments are sitars but before the five-day visit is up, they’ll show me how hard it is to play one. Behind the musicians are Sudra women sweeping away puddles of water. They are sweeping for us.
Five-Tiered Caste System
Our Global Studies Professor prepares us for the economic hierarchy we’re about to see. Beyond the port are several more women sorting through piles of rubble and trash. They scurry around sweeping up recyclables and stashing the bundles under their arms.
India’s soaring population still functions within a five-tiered caste system and garbage and recycling efforts are an integral part of it. ‘Waste pickers’ is a lucrative profession for a Shudra or manual laborers, one class above a Dalit.
They earn up to $3 a day and many ply their trade in major Indian cities. These women take pride in the small pittance they make, all the while keeping the streets clean and providing a more sustainable environment.
Each task in India is important and the pay scale is determined by where you are in the caste system. This is democracy for India and I’m impressed by the care and diligence they place in their roles.
No Safety Net
Rapid industrialization and population growth have reinvented ways of making money for the upper and middle class and from first glance, it appears that globalization is a positive influence. Then I see the thousands of poor and hungry huddled in masses alongside major roads and under bridges.
Most governments provide safety nets to catch the truly needy, but not in India. Hinduism, the national religion binds them to social stratification and for 160 million oppressed people, poverty is all they know.
Leaving the port and hailing an auto-rickshaw may be the quickest way to get around Chennai but it’s also the most frustrating. I quickly learn how to bargain for a fair price on transportation but my temperament is pushed to the limit.
No Place For Shy Introverts
For those that are the least bit unnerved by pushy peddlers, I would rethink visiting India. This is no place for indecision or shy introverts. Peddlers will reach for your arms, legs, and clothing with no regard for your personal space. Rarely do they care if they upset you.
The first few days I think it’s humorous and sweet – how they vie for my attention and flatter me in broken English, but by the last day it’s frustrating and unrelenting: “I said ‘No,’ damn it! What part of ‘No’ don’t you understand?”
This is a lesson valuable to consider before visiting second and third world countries in large groups. Persistent hassling is part of the experience.
Out of Control
When I finally agree on a price for a rickshaw, it’s the second scariest thing I’ve ever done — skydiving still holds the record. Roads are newly paved in Chennai and traveled by everyone with a set of wheels. Mine acts like there’s a life worth saving racing through traffic like an out-of-control ambulance driver.
Even when traffic backs up, he clocks in at 30 mph with the incessant use of a squeaky horn. I get a headache in no time. With one last crazy hairpin turn, the rickshaw sputters to a sudden stop. We’ve run out of gas. The driver jumps out and starts pushing from behind.
At the closest gas station, he acts penniless and asks if I can front half the money now and pay the other half later. I act defiantly to call his bluff. Ten minutes later we’re still idle and the gas attendant is yelling for us to pump or pull out. I relent and toss him the rupees and the ride continues.
Finally, he drops me off at the cafe where my friends and I arranged to meet. I hastily throw him the other half but now he insists on more. I’m late on his account and now he wants me to pay more? I toss him a few extra, he accepts graciously and then shadows me straight into the Cafe.
I order a mango lassi with fresh tandoori bread as he quietly pressures me for more money. Management turns a blind eye to the intrusion and now he recants and wishes to be my ‘personal rickshaw driver’ for the day. The man is incorrigible.
Honing my vocal cords in a country that doesn’t take no for an answer is pointless. It feels rude and it is rude but my only recourse is to ignore him. This whole scenarioDalit disturbs me but I’m about to enjoy authentic Indian cuisine and my driver’s pleas are growing faint.
All is Forgiven
“Mmmmmm..original nan straight from India” with one sweet mouthful all is forgiven.
Shopping for Ganesh garments and woven textiles doesn’t take long in Spencer Plaza on Anna Salai Street. It’s one of the few clean and sterile shopping meccas to escape the pressures of bazaars and street vendors.
Front Row Seats
My friends and I are treated to front-row seats as a rug retailer unfurls hundreds of hand-knotted silk runners. His offers are a bargain but bartering is catchy and I love being in control of how far I can stretch my money.
I walk to the counter with three purchases and four more employees come running – one to ring me up, another to use my credit card, another to bag my items, and a fourth to open the door; a caste system at play guaranteeing a job for everyone. My Kashan carpets are truly beautiful – canvases too pretty to deck my halls so instead will deck my walls.
‘Torture or Treatment’
Following our shopping excursion, the girls insist we pamper ourselves at Prakriti Ayurvedic Center. I labeled a blog ‘Torture or Treatment’ when I wrote about this back in October. Here’s the synopsis: four over-shopped girls enter the massage center with therapy on their minds. Ayurvedic is all the rage in India, especially among German tourists. It cleanses the body of stress and tension and rejuvenates energy levels.
I rarely afford myself the luxury of a massage so I’m not sure what to expect. Two Hindu ladies who speak Tamil and very little English escort me to a back room.
“Please take off your clothes, Ma’am.” I pause. Off comes the shirt, shoes, socks and pants.
“Please take off your clothes Ma’am.” I pause again. There’s not much left but here goes. Off comes the jewelry, glasses, a hairband, and the skimpy stuff.
“Please sit here, Ma’am.”
“I’m blind without my glasses so you’ll have to help me,” I insist. This better be legal, I think to myself, as hot oil is messaged through my scalp and soft Indian tunes warm the silence.
Buffing, Lubing and Polishing
“Please lay down now, Ma’am.” I stretch out on a rock-hard message table build with etched mahogany wood. It’s really beautiful but it reminds me of an execution chamber. Oil is poured from my feet to my face and the human car wash begins. Up and down and side to side, I’m rubbed down like a 16th-century rajah.
Feet have pressure points but mine tickle so badly I laugh myself off the table. The ladies aren’t amused. Indian versions of Broom Hilda and Helga have work to do. They toss me over on my backside and repeat buffing, lubing and polishing every crevice.
If you can hang on until this point, and that’s a big if, there’s no sense in turning back. Stress and tension aren’t going anywhere and now the smell of peanut oil has me feeling nausea.
“Please come to shower, Ma’am.” Finally, I can scrub this stuff off and be done with all this craziness.
Not so fast. The ladies offer proper cleansing and bathing techniques even in the shower. I went from feeling like a rajah to a hospital patient. I’m truly at their mercy until my clothes are belted back on. With dripping hair, I walk into a room full of friends sipping hot chai with relaxed looks on their faces.
“That was amazing!” smiles Krista, “I can’t wait to go back”.
“Yes, I feel reinvigorated too” repeats Melissa.
I pause. “Good God, who are you, people?!” I shout. Then I think to myself; “I’m the only one who didn’t like it — maybe I should be asking myself that question.”
I need more nan.
A Visit to Bollywood
After Mumbai’s Bollywood, Chennai is the second most prolific film-making center in the country. There are more than 100 theaters, most of them showing films in Tamil but some with English subtitles.
We’re asked to remove our shoes (Hinduism at play again) before entering the cutting floors and busy sets. Our tour guide shows us a music video clip with a national pop icon defying traditional values. She’s dressed in loose western clothing parading between scenes. Typically, women still dress conservatively in every part of Indian, wrapping themselves in Benares saris and silk brocades and hiding their beautiful hair.
The pop music icon on the screen represents a new generation of young Indian girls abandoning their roots. I need help with my tripod and the owner of the studio snaps his fingers in defiance. It’s not his job to help me so he beckons someone of lower stature to play grip.
He’s not a Dalit but a Shudra. He rushes over to me, lowers his head in respect, and graciously hauls my gear for the next three hours. He expects nothing in return, but I slip him a few rupees anyway.
Following the movie studio tour, it’s time for dinner and a welcome reception at a largely empty dining hall. An entertainment crew offers us henna tattoo body art and advice on how to tie a sari. It’s tempting not to don a sari or for men to do the same with a dhoti. Both are light ankle-length colorful cloth that deflects the heat better than denim.
This country is sweltering hot and though I don’t mind my food that way, the humidity has ruined too many shirts already. I’m so busy shooting my documentary at the welcome reception I’m last in line to enjoy chappati, paratha, poories, dosa, and kachori.
While shooting, I need to interview the wealthy owner about the food he bought. He’s willing to talk about the dishes but refuses to uncover the tin lids because, again, it’s not his job. He snaps his fingers and a lower class worker comes running to assist.
I’m so angry with his treatment of others and refusal to do it himself, I’m tempted to abandon the whole interview. But then I remember income is being provided to someone who might not otherwise have it if it weren’t for this rich individual.
The whole philosophy is complicated and needs further examination before I cast aspersions (no pun intended). After the interview, I eat on the floor ‘guru style’ next to the Shudra worker, barehanded, with banana leaves as plates.
A One-Woman Mime Troupe
Following dinner, one of Indian’s greatest Bharatanatyam dancers jumps up on stage. This exclusively southern dance demands undivided determination and control. It’s usually performed by one woman, alone on stage, gracefully dancing bent-kneed. Her dynamic facial expressions and hand gestures hypnotize the crowd. She reminds me of a one-woman mime troupe and I can’t take my eyes off her. It takes incredibly skilled footwork and leg muscles to move so fluidly for hours on end.
Eighty-five percent of Indians practice Hinduism. It’s so intertwined into everyday life it’s impossible to separate. Knowing this is crucial to coping with children and elderly sleeping, eating and dying in city streets.
- Alentejo, Portugal: From Coast to Countryside - June 20, 2022
- Lake George, NY: Castles, Igloos and Ice Diving - March 20, 2022
- Newport, Rhode Island: Biking in Winter - January 2, 2022