The Exceptional Case of Business Success for an “Untouchable”
Kalpana Saroj knew just how to challenge India’s rigid social conditions to fulfill her own dreams of independence and personal development.
The socio-religious origins of the Hindu caste system seem to come from a remote hymn of Purusha-Sukta in the Rig Veda and within the Manusmrti legal code. This latter, admired by thinkers of the stature of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, attributes a sacred order to the castes, and prohibits any aspiration to change one’s caste for the duration of one’s life.
To this day in India, the caste system provokes troubling social confrontations. Pariahs, or “untouchables” are a significant portion of society. They’re considered impure and relegated to the most humiliating work based solely on the conditions of one’s origins. The system survives today even though the Indian constitution has declared discrimination against the lowest castes illegal. Untouchables are even less than the lowest caste, a group excluded from this system. They’re considered by Hindus as little more than inferior animals.
Such was the fate to which Kalpana Saroj was born. The native of a miserable village in Maharashtra state, she was born a Dalit, an untouchable. Her future was determined by an unwavering condition which destined her for the most ignoble of jobs, or to a premature, involuntary marriage. And that’s what happened. At the age of 12 she was wed and forced to live with her husband’s family in a Mumbai suburb. After suffering physical abuse, the young Saroj attempted suicide by taking poison. She was unsuccessful. Nothing seemed to indicate that a young Dalit could, one day, become a successful businesswoman traveling the world on speaking tours.
Saroj’s case is extraordinary for two reasons: her statuses as a woman and as an untouchable have turned her climb into something of a miracle of social mobility. At 16, she returned to Mumbai where she was employed in a clothing factory to support her family. After beginning a tailoring business which met with modest success. She then bought a small parcel of land, the subsequent sale of which allowed her to begin in the real estate business. Today she is considered one of the wealthiest people in India and an example of how the most disadvantaged class situation could be overcome.
Were it merely about wealth, Kalpana Saroj might be but one more of India’s nouveau riche who squander their money on expensive parties and flaunt their achievements at every opportunity. An emerging social class lives outside the very reality of the country where some tremendous part of the population survives in extreme poverty.
This same young woman, born in the humble village of Roperkheda, married at 12, and who at one time thought of taking her own life, returns every so often to her native village, causing a great stir among the present inhabitants. She’s founded itinerant hospitals and distributes food to the neediest. There’s not one bit of condescension or false solidarity in her actions. Saroj hasn’t forgotten where she came from and is happy to share with her former neighbors. She serves lunches, speaks with the villagers, and enjoys remembering how things were before her departure to Mumbai.
The miracle of Saroj is not only in having broken rigid social prescriptions and becoming a wealthy businesswoman. The miracle is, above all, in not forgetting her past and using her present wealth to alleviate the hardships of those who continue to be caught in a reality she knew how to escape.
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