Nobel Peace prize winner Kailash Satyarthi recounted an experience to jourlist and author David Bornstein. The year was 1969 and India was commemorating the centery of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. In many rallies, politicians were passiotely denouncing untouchability against which Gandhi had campaigned tirelessly.
Then 15 year old, Satyarthi attended some of these rallies and found the speeches very inspiring. It gave him an idea. “I thought I would organize a feast. The sweeper women would be invited to cook and the big politicians would be invited to eat. I thought it would be a great symbol to break the caste hegemony. We would hold it in the newly built Gandhi Park near the new Gandhi statue.”
Friends said he was crazy. But he persuaded a few to help. He approached some sweeper women. “What are you talking about?” they said when they heard his plan. “How can you possibly think people will come and eat?”
Still, a few women agreed to cook a meal. Satyarthi’s friends rode their bicycles around town, dropping off invitations at 50-60 houses. The response was encouraging. Satyarthi recalled: “People said, ‘OK, good idea, very progressive.’ Some asked, ‘Can we bring friends?’”
They planned for 30 guests. “In the evening I saw these sweeper women come to cook,” Satyarthi said. “They must have washed themselves and their clothes 100 times. They looked so clean.” For the first time he worried — would there be enough food?
The feast was called for 7 pm. By 7, no one had come. Satyarthi thought: “It’s Indian time, don’t worry.” By 8, still no one had arrived. “We thought there must be some confusion about the location in Gandhi Park,” Satyarthi said.
He had invited a leader of the local Communist Party. “Surely, he would come!” he thought. “I went on my bicycle to see him, and his wife answered the door. She said, ‘Oh, my husband is in bed. He’s not feeling well.’”
He went to another house, and was told. “Oh, we’re coming.” At another house a girl told him, “My father has already left for it.”
Satyarthi returned to Gandhi Park to tell his friends that people were on their way. “We waited until 9, 10, 11 pm. We waited until our hearts were empty. No one turned up. Not even the Gandhians.”
At 11, they ate in silence. Then the friends walked their bikes home. At midnight, Satyarthi arrived at his house and was surprised to see the lights still on. The gate was open and people were sitting in the courtyard. He was shocked to see some of his relatives there.
“You fool!” they shouted when they saw him. “Enough with your nonsense!”
“I haven’t committed any crime!” Satyarthi yelled back. “It is you people here who have committed a crime by perpetuating this inhumanity.”
The argument grew heated, until threats were uttered of a social boycott. The elders said that to avoid the boycott, Satyarthi would have to make a pilgrimage to the holy Ganges, shave his head, undergo a cleansing ritual, and organize a feast for 100 high caste people.
Satyarthi refused. “I am not a sinner. You cannot outcast me. I will outcast you! I will not have any relations with any of you any longer!” Family members, fearful of the social boycott, begged him: “Please, Kailash, please take a holy bath.”
Eventually tempers cooled and a compromise was made: Kailash promised never to enter the kitchen again, or touch the water source, or eat with the family. Afterward, for years, he ate alone in his room. In time, people died, memories faded and Kailash Satyarthi was permitted to re-enter the kitchen. “I learnt that if you challenge something, you should be prepared for the reaction,” he concluded.