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Travel to Delhi


Lunch with Kailash Satyarthi at Delhi 'O' Delhi

24 January 2016

Words: Kaye Martindale / Images: Geoff Brokate

Back in 1980 Kailash Satyarthi was regularly faced with the choice between feeding his family or using their meagre income to continue with his efforts to end bonded and child labour in India. Going against the stream of popular consensus in his homeland – where an estimated 65 million bonded child labourers and 300 million adult labourers are trapped in modern day slavery – Satyarthi’s work went unnoticed until he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

With the UN only ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 and India’s child labour rights going largely unregulated, Satyarthi describes his early years as an uphill battle: “I have been invisible because those I work for have been invisible”.

I’d been moved by films of Satyarthi and his team raiding modern day slave camps to free labourers, some of whom have spent their whole lives in bondage. As the workers are given moments to choose between the life they’ve come to accept and freedom, they often become hysterical – torn between fear and relief. Only Satyarthi keeps his head amid the chaos as the bewildered mothers, fathers and children cling to him for reassurance. To date Bachpan Bachao Andolan, the organisation founded by Satyarthi, has freed 84,711 children.

I’m waiting for Satyarthi at Delhi ‘O’ Delhi, a member’s only restaurant in the city’s

. With more than a whiff of old school British formality, I am requested to wait in the foyer as it’s impossible for me to enter the restaurant without a club member.

After eagerly watching the lift doors for 20 minutes, they finally open to reveal Satyarthi and his two assistants. A tall man by Indian standards, he cuts a distinct figure. Wearing a crisply pressed salwar kameez (traditional Indian tunic and trouser suit), Satyarthi is almost incongruous within the suit and tie business environment of Delhi ‘O’ Delhi.

Satyarthi greets me with a warm, enveloping two-handed handshake and a smile that makes me feel I’m an old and dear friend as he apologises for his lateness. We’re shown through to our table as Delhi’s rich and powerful halt their meetings to exclaim at his arrival. Since becoming a Nobel laureate, Satyarthi is no longer invisible. A cluster of people soon form around him as he shares the same glowing smile and undivided attention with each of them.

As we take our seats, I’m struck by the 62-year-old’s clear appeal as he turns to me with his lighthouse smile and suggests we get started. I’m curious as to how someone who grew up in an environment where child labour is so normalised and accepted, could see his own culture with the eyes of an outsider.

Satyarthi charts his awakening back to his first day of school when he was five years old. He passed by a boy of his own age who was working as a cobbler alongside his father. “I might have seen children working before but this time there was a sharp contrast. I was going to school with my new books, new clothes and shoes. While he was looking at me with hungry eyes.”

Unwilling to accept the injustice, the young Satyarthi asked his teachers and family members why that boy had to work. Unsatisfied when told that it was normal, he plucked up the courage to ask the boy’s father directly. The father answered: “Sir, we people are born to work.” Satyarthi paused, before looking me directly in the eyes, “His answer chilled me.” Then, with a steeliness at odds with his gentle manner he adds, “Then and now I refuse to accept that some people are born only to work and some to realise their dreams.”

Satyarthi continues to honour the purity of his five-year-old self’s vision as he lets me in on the secret of his glowing countenance and undimmed faith in goodness.

“The most important thing inside everyone is a small child that should not die. This child is a value, a virtue, a feeling that makes you simpler. Children have always been my philosophy, my teachers, my heroes. Sometimes people say “You have become a Nobel laureate now you have to be serious.” He raises his hands to underline his bafflement and grins. “But why should I? I am a child. I have to live true to that and that will keep me young.”

Despite his child-inspired outlook on life, Satyarthi’s story betrays the early maturity of an old soul. At a time that most of us are busy with computer games and pop music, the 11-year-old Satyarthi organised his first social action. Concerned by the amount of fellow students who’d left school due to the cost of textbooks, he persuaded friends to pool together their pocket money to hire a vendor’s cart and call out for old school books. Within one day they collected more than 2,500 books that they used to create a book bank.

The food arrives and Satyarthi sends the waiter over to me to fill my plate first. It tastes delicious to me but I’m concerned my choice may be a little bland for my companions, as Satyarthi happily munches on raw chillies between mouthfuls. The courage to follow his moral compass, is what has given weight to the decisive moments in Satyarthi’s life; none more so than when in 1968, the year of Gandhi’s centenary. Inspired by his book bank success, he had the idea of inviting high caste local politicians to eat a feast cooked by untouchables.

Choosing the lowest people in India society, the “so-called untouchable” sweeper women whose job it was to clean faeces from public toilets. Satyarthi asked them to cook the meal. At first they refused, insisting that the leaders would not come. The idealistic teenager convinced them “No, I’ve heard their speeches they will come, I trust them.”

The politicians in their turn told Satyarthi that the feast was a great way to honour Gandhi’s centenary and to underline their public message that caste prejudice was no longer acceptable. On the appointed evening the time for the meal came and went with no sign of the nation’s leaders.

“I cannot express the agony, anger and frustration that I felt. My friends and I couldn’t look at each other. Eventually I thought, it’s late let us eat the food. I sat down and started eating but I broke down completely. As my tears fell, an old untouchable woman put her arm on my shoulder and she said “My son why are you crying? You did what nobody has ever done, you have eaten our food.”

Satyarthi goes on to describe the scene that awaited him when he returned home that fateful evening. “Caste leaders were gathered around my family, threatening to socially boycott them”, considered a terrible fate within Indian culture. He describes the long and painful night that followed as a “reincarnation” as he took the unheard of decision to “outcaste the entire caste system”. For the first time in our meeting I see a trace of anger as he recalls the double standards of the self appointed guardians of Indian society.

A gifted student, Satyarthi went on to study engineering. Despite being from a high caste, his family wasn’t overly wealthy and had poured all their funds into his education. For this reason alone it was a hard decision to leave behind his “glittering career” to follow his passion.

With the unwavering support of his wife, Sumedha Kailash, they left their home in Bhopal to move to New Delhi in 1980. With limited finances they could only afford an 8 x 10 foot storeroom where they lived and worked along with their one-year-old son. Despite financial hardship and a dearth of space, he and Sumeda welcomed everyone who came to the door in need of help. He single-handedly created a magazine Sangharsh Jaari Rahega (The Struggle Will Continue) of which he was writer, photographer, type setter and distributer.

Another momentous day in Satyarthi’s life came when a knock at the door thrust him from the role of journalist to social activist. A desperate father had gotten hold of a copy of Sangharsh Jaari Rahega and travelled from the Punjab to seek help. The man had been held as a slave working in a brick kiln for 17 years after taking the difficult but common decision to enter into indebted labour when newly married. His children had been born there and now the kiln works owner had decided to sell his young daughter into slavery and the father was in a desperate and powerless situation.

“As I sat hearing his story, I thought to myself, what would I do if that was my daughter? I suddenly put down my pen and decided to take direct action.”

Raids became one of Satyarthi and his teams’ favoured option for freeing labourers, and while he takes a clear delight from his work, there’s a dark and dangerous side to it. Two of his team members have been killed in the line of duty. One was killed during a raid and one was targeted afterwards in a revenge attack.

Satyarthi himself has been injured many times and even as he relates his litany of injuries; back, shoulder, legs and head, his voice maintains a lightness. Only as he tells the story of how he and his son had a very close call with a mafia gunman, does he betray the slightest hint of self-concern.

Suddenly his assistants rejoin the conversation. They confer, looking ominously at their watches: It’s time to go. Satyarthi is about to address a chair of judges with regard to much needed changes in legislation. I walk with him and his assistants to the door to say goodbye, receiving a big hug from Satyarthi as he leaves.

In a lineage that includes such luminaries as Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela, Kailash Satyarthi’s life and work embodies the spirit of the Nobel Peace Prize. I didn’t know it at the time but, as the lift doors close, I realise I’ve just met my hero.