In the bylanes of Kalkaji, nobody knows the Nobel winner in their midst

His life changed this afternoon.
His life changed this afternoon.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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Barely 200 meters from Kailash Satyarthi’s office in Kalkaji, a crowded middle-class enclave in southern Delhi overrun with vegetable vendors pushing handcarts and shops selling car accessories, a dozen women sat on tiny wicker stools getting mehendi (henna tattoo) on their hands. They were preparing for Karva Chauth, a Hindu festival that falls tomorrow where wives fast for a day to pray for their spouse’s good health and success. Suddenly, they were surrounded by a scrum of activity.

The Nobel announcement this afternoon brought the world’s attention to Kalkaji, which looked exceptionally unprepared for the event. After Mother Teresa, whom every child in India is familiar with, another Indian had won the Nobel Peace Prize. And nobody had heard of him.

“Who is Satyarthi,” asked a young woman who has lived in Kalkaji all her life. “And where are all these vans going?” she added, referring to the parade of outdoor broadcasting vans snaking their way through notorious Kalkaji traffic to Satyarthi’s modest office, where he has now worked for nearly two decades.

The contrast between the two joint Nobel Peace Prize winners 2014 couldn’t be starker. Malala Yousafzai, a 17-year-old Muslim girl from Pakistan, became one of the most famous teenagers in the world after she was shot by two Taliban gunmen in 2012 for her campaign for the education of girls. Since then, she has been celebrated globally for her bravery and has emerged as a well-known ambassador of education for the girl child.

Working under the radar

On the other hand, most Indians would be hearing Satyarthi’s name today for the first time, even though he has been leading a relentless crusade against the exploitation of children through his organization Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement) since the early 1980s.

His daughter said that is partly because he likes to remain under the radar.

“I have never seen this kind of media attention here. My father tried to keep a low profile because at times he personally goes and rescues children and does not want to be recognized,” said his 29-year-old daughter Asmita. She said her parents did not give her a last name as a form of rebellion against the caste system.

In the reception of his office, an elderly man pleaded with newspaper reporters to keep calm and wait for their turn.

“I am begging, really begging. Please try and understand that you have to wait while he finishes his interviews with TV channels,” said Vijendra Mittal to the rampaging horde of reporters. When Mittal’s son got engaged to Asmita, he couldn’t have imagined that his new relatives were about to have a Nobel prize citation hanging on the living room wall. His son was seen appeasing another batch of demanding photographers.

Gordon Brown on the line

The family and staff passed around boxes of sweets to the journalists. “He will be with you soon. He is talking to Gordon Brown (the former British PM) right now,” one of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan employees told Quartz. Kalkaji was under global spotlight.

Manan Ansari, one of the children Satyarthi’s organization rescued 10 years ago, could barely hide his excitement. “We are going to party all night,” the 18-year-old said. He was rescued from a mica factory in Jharkhand when he was eight. He is now an undergraduate student at Delhi University.

After an hour-long wait, we finally got a chance to speak to 60-year-old Satyarthi, who greeted the cameras graciously with folded hands.

“This honour today is not mine alone. This is for those crores of children who are languishing in slavery,” he said. “While you are clicking my pictures, I think of the child who is still working as a slave in some house.”

Satyarthi was catapulted to stardom on social media as well. On Twitter, he had fewer than 700 followers when the Nobel was announced. At the time of writing this post, he had nearly 12,000. He still hadn’t tweeted about his prize, though.