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Dalit Teachers and India

Posted on Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

I met my first Dalits when we arrived in Delhi and inherited a staff from my predecessor that included a Hindu bearer, Sadari-lal; two nannies, Kahn Debbie and Mary—both from the Kasai tribe of Assam, a chowkidar, or night watchman, and two outside sweepers. The latter were Dalits, Outcastes, or Untouchables, whatever term you prefer. They were responsible for sweeping clutter from our driveway and the path to our single-level home – six rooms or so – and the two storey servants quarters nestled in the rear, alongside the single car garage.

The Dalit outside sweepers were present daily, but we didn’t have much interaction. However, I remember once asking them through Sadari-lal to purchase wood for our fireplace in preparation for a dinner party that evening. They returned with a huge pile of dried water buffalo chips. Not confident what the smell of the chips burning in-doors would do, I decided not to risk the consequences and gave them the chips for their own fire. They were most appreciative and I always suspected that the selection of buffalo chips was deliberate, as was the expected result.

The next Dalit in my life was a priest at the small Indian church we attended, who informed me that his family was from the untouchable caste. At a time when the holy mass in the home was popular, that is, after Vatican II, he asked if we would be willing to host a mass at our home. I wondered aloud whether that was sensible since the poor folks attending would see a rather elegant home. Without a pause, he stated that it was important for poor to see that even the rich can be saved. We hosted the mass.

The next Dalits we encountered were those on the brink of death in Mother Teresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying. My wife and I participated in a church project to white wash the walls of this modest house that could accommodate six or so Dalits in the last six or so days of their lives. No conversions were administered, simply care and love ministered in their final hours.

It was during regular visits to Mother Teresa’s orphanage located in north Delhi that my wife especially and I observed Dalit children—orphans. It was here that we were to find our daughter, then two years old, among rows of children watching alertly at the visitors to their crowded rooms. The little girl was desperately ill when we took her into our home, first as a legal guardian—adoptions were not allowed in India—and then legally adopted her when we returned to the U.S.

Recently, I invited two Dalits to my home in Virginia Beach—they were attending a conference in Boston that promoted peace—First Do No Harm. See this link for more information:

One of the Dalits was an assistant pastor in a Christian church, the other a PhD. in social justice, both residing in Chennai (formerly Madras) which incidentally is where Doubting Thomas was martyred in the first century. Both are committed to peace, finding compatible goals to bring together peoples and cultures that are isolated in their enmity and hatred. Not an easy mission, but one undertaken by these fellows with love, compassion, joy, listening, and service.

Able to delve in the depths of human experience and longing, we shared our journeys as if we had known each other since youth. (See for more information on their mission.) In these Dalit teachers, it was confirmed to me that only those who have grieved can experience joy unbounded, only from openness—shedding sometimes unnoticed prejudices—can we encounter truth, only in listening can we quiet our internal babble, and only in laughter do we reflect the divine in the glint of holiness and even innocence.

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