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Photo credit - Newsweek

Photo credit - Newsweek

“OMG, isn’t it, like, so disturbing to see all those beggars in India, with their disfigured limbs and stuff?”

You won’t believe how many times I’ve been asked that question. The sad part is that after living here for so long, it’s actually not that disturbing. It’s part of life. Regardless of how one may choose to respond (pay up, ignore, recoil, stare-but-try-not-to-stare), beggars have broadly been accepted as part of India’s daily urban fabric. Which is saying a lot, considering how this group includes children with severe malnutrition, men with missing limbs, broad-shouldered hermaphrodites, women carrying under-bathed infants, mentally retarded adolescents, and blind elderly couples. In certain societies, some of these guys may have a shot at joining a sickly voyeuristic circus; here, many have almost been normalized.

Despite India’s ability to absorb most “unusual” individuals, there is one sub-group that will probably always be shunned: the manual sewer workers. This sub-class of Dalits, known as balmikis, is forever destined to live on society’s extreme fringes. Unlike their brethren in the developed world, who are often provided bunny suits and respiratory gear before entering serpentine manholes, these Dalit sanitation workers usually enter with little more than a loincloth and a split bamboo stick. Upon entering the antiquated sewer pipes, they literally swim through pounds of liquefied feces to clear any blockages, all the while taking care to not touch the cockroach-laden walls. They continually breathe the offensive smell of human excreta, along with her toxic first cousins, Methane and Hydrogen sulfide. When they come up for air, they sometimes bruise themselves on the manhole’s rim, dizzy from the gases.

Within India’s silently strict social hierarchy, these Dalits are the untouchabliest untouchables. Even other so-called “untouchables” won’t go near these guys. (more…)

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