March 06, 2008
Not so long ago, in the back of a tin-roofed restaurant, Ramu, a teenage dishwasher, spent his nights chained to a radiator. That's how his employer kept him from running away.
Ramu wanted to flee because his boss, who was from a higher, more privileged caste, constantly berated him for showing an interest in learning to read. The boss believed Ramu had to get used to a life of cleaning up after other people because as a Dalit, a member of India's lowest and most shunned caste, he could never amount to anything.
Then a foreigner who ran a private school and home for Dalit children noticed Ramu. He enrolled him in classes. Ramu is now a star pupil with a voracious and ever-changing appetite for activities including yoga, photography and film directing.
"In my childhood, I was so desperate for learning," said Ramu, a gregarious 19-year-old with thick brown hair. "There are so many jobs other than dishwashing that I hoped to experience."
It's a tragedy -- and India's shame -- that the caste system remains alive and well.