Toward the end of May, I was driving on the Taconic highway and listening to a report from India on NPR. A reporter was at a bus-station in Gujarat, asking the youth selling tea there if they could become the prime minister. This was because Narendra Modi had just led his party to a massive win in the parliamentary elections. As a teenager, Modi had sold tea at a bus-station in Vadnagar. Each one of the youth being interviewed said yes.
Then, a few days later, on May 26, there was the news that Jitan Ram Manjhi had taken oath as the chief minister of Bihar in eastern India. A report in a British paper said that Manjhi had been “born into the blighted Musahar community and grew up catching and eating rats.” The report also said that Manjhi’s career represented “the most extraordinary rise of any politician in the history of India.”
When I read that line I thought of the radio interview I had heard about Modi. India allows you the luxury of a million inequalities. You can be a schoolboy selling tea to passengers sitting in a state transport bus, but you are royalty when compared to a shirtless, barefoot village boy, from what was traditionally considered an untouchable caste, living on snails and small fish, and sometimes rats.
I grew up in Patna, the capital of Bihar, and knew about the Musahars from my visits to my ancestral village in Champaran. The Musahar children had distended bellies and were often naked. Mud caked their faces as they sat in small groups, beside a pond or a field, roasting their meager catch over a smoldering pile of dry grass and twigs.
Last month, I visited Patna and went to meet chief minister Manjhi. I wanted to ask him about the experience of caste. But my first question to him was about his earliest memory.
Manjhi said that he was born on 6 October, 1944. In 1946, when he was about a year and a half old, there was a massive flood in Gaya district where his village was located. His family escaped death by climbing a tree. He remembered the rushing waters, and the fear of a branch breaking.
His parents were landless laborers. Their homes were on the side of a canal outside the village. The huts were made of mud and were around four feet high. They weren’t large, only perhaps eight feet by five feet. It was in one of those huts that the future chief minister was born. His parents worked in the fields of an upper-caste landlord. These fields could be far away, as much as a mile. When he cried, a woman from one of those huts would carry the baby Manjhi to his mother.
His father, Manjhi said, was a netua, a village-dancer. He put on women’s clothes and danced during festivals. Manjhi smiled and pointed at his face. He said he had his mother’s features, but his father had been better-looking. Although illiterate he remembered hundreds of bhajans and songs. People would praise the father’s memory and sometimes tell him to try to educate his children.
As a boy, Manjhi didn’t go to school. Instead, he would take the landlord’s animals out to graze every morning and was given food in return at his employer’s house. Once, Manjhi’s father suggested to the landlord that he’d like his son to study. Everyone could see that the boy was smart. If he could go to school his lot would improve. The landlord didn’t agree; in fact, he got angry and beat Manjhi’s father. The upper-caste man asked, “What will your son do? Will he become the district magistrate?”
Three years passed. A teacher came in the evenings to teach the landlord’s children. Manjhi was a curious boy and he eavesdropped on the lessons. Once, the teacher was furious when the landlord’s son hadn’t completed the homework but Manjhi repeated the assigned task and the answer.
As I listened to Manjhi’s story I could guess where it was going—an inspiring tale of small origins and a surprising break in life. But Manjhi’s story was his own and it came with its own twist: this village teacher who came to instruct the landlord’s children was a drunk. So was Manjhi’s father. They drank toddy in the same shop and one evening the teacher said, “Bhagat, don’t you want to educate your son? He is a clever boy.”
The teacher’s question reignited the old desire in Manjhi’s father’s mind. When the boy was taking the buffalo out to graze the next morning, the father stopped him. The landlord came out with a stick but Manjhi’s father told him that he would rather try his luck elsewhere. The landlord softened and said that the boy could still work in the mornings but would be permitted to learn with his own kids. A broken slate that had belonged to the landlord’s son was now given to the boy. Manjhi told me that he was happy. Each evening he would bring the animals in and then sit on the floor near the teacher. He studied with the landlord’s children for several years, right till he had cleared his seventh grade.
Manjhi then moved to another village for his studies. As a student from the Musahar caste, he now received a small stipend from the government. But he was expected to pay a portion of it to the teacher. He refused and was given low marks as a result. Still, he persisted, and after his matriculation, Manjhi was admitted to a college in the nearby Gaya town. He provided tuition to children to pay his way through college. Manjhi wanted me to know that because he was a lowly Musahar he wasn’t given a regular room in the dormitory; instead, he was given space in the sick-room or asked to room with those students who were drunks and drug-addicts.
Manjhi’s narrative snagged on another memory. When he was thirteen, his school-teacher, an upper-caste man, asked Manjhi to take a basket of food to his sister’s house. He carried the basket on his head to the adjoining village. Once there, when the boy untied the cloth to show what he had brought, the woman became angry. “You are an untouchable,” she said, “you have now touched my food!”
Manjhi protested. “I carried your food all the way on my head,” he said. “Was that not touching your food? Now suddenly your food has become impure….” For imparting this bit of wisdom, our young rationalist was soundly thrashed by the teacher upon his return. He described this episode to me as a turning point in his life.
When he was only eleven, Manjhi got married. He told me that the tradition of child-marriage as another ill among the Musahars. His brother was only three when he was married off.
A little later, in the assembly elections of 1957, candidates from the Congress Party would take Manjhi on their campaign vehicle. Over the loudspeaker, they made announcements near the huts of the low-caste villagers. “This Musahar boy receives money from the government to study. Vote for us!” This was a strategy that would be repeated often over the next decade. In 1966, Manjhi helped an upper-caste candidate get most of the Musahar vote and this planted a question in his mind: if I can get votes for someone else, should I not try to get them for myself?
In college, Manjhi planned to join politics. But in 1968 there was famine. Manjhi’s father had no work in the fields. As Manjhi didn’t want his parents to starve, he decided to take a clerical job in the postal department. It seemed his political ambitions had come to a dead end.
Manjhi worked at the job for thirteen years. He also helped educate his younger brother who joined the police service. “My brother’s employment,” Manjhi said, “assured me that God was looking out for me.” Now the younger brother could support the family. Manjhi quit his job and contested his first election in 1985. He won.
If India breaks your heart with untold inequalities, it also surprises you with the unheralded achievements of its most humble citizens. One such man was Dashrath Manjhi, from a village close to the chief minister’s. He died in 2007. This other Manjhi, who was also a Musahar, was an ordinary villager who accomplished an extraordinary feat: over the course of twenty-two years, Dashrath Manjhi carved a road through a stone mountain, a distance about 360 feet long and 30 feet wide. Manjhi told me that when others assumed the office of the chief minister in Bihar, they went to temples and thanked God. But in his own case, he had gone to Dashrath Manjhi’s village and garlanded his statue.
I’m now waiting for the reporter from NPR to go to a village in Bihar and ask the youth there if they too have the belief that can break a mountain.