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Untouchables On AssignmentArrows

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From Author

Tom O'Neill

Untouchables On Assignment

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From Photographer

William Albert Allard

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Brian Strauss (top) and Saadia Iqbal



Field Notes From Author
Tom O'Neill
Best Worst Quirkiest
    India's not good for walking. There are just too many careening cars, too much chaos on the street. But I experienced a great moment walking beside a demonstration of about 50 Untouchable women who shut down the city of Danapur in the state of Bihar.
    They belong to a caste called the Musahar. They're known as rat-eaters, and they're one of the lowest Untouchable castes in India. Many are illiterate field hands, but there they were. They had mustered their strength and were walking down this dirt road on this sweaty day, raising their voices and calling out to be heard. And they succeeded that day in getting their message across. It was phenomenal.

    In the Uttar Pradesh city of Ayodhya, Hindu extremists had tried to build a temple on a site that was sacred to both Hindus and Muslims. Within a few days Muslims in the state of Gujarat attacked Hindu pilgrims returning from the site.
    I was in nearby Ahmadabad, a large city in Gujarat, to interview some doctors about the health crisis among rural Untouchables. During the interview a doctor suddenly pointed to clouds of black smoke rising from various places in the city. "You'd better get out now," he said.
    My assistant and I ran to our hired car, but everywhere we drove crowds of young Hindu men blocked the way.  
    Meanwhile, the doctors had gone to one of the top floors of a high-rise and called our cell phone. They had a good view of the neighborhood and began directing us, "Don't go that way, there's a building burning! Don't go that way, they've blocked it off!" With their help we sighted a clear lane and rushed out of the city, grabbed our gear from the hotel, and got the last plane out that day. If it had been a few minutes later we would have been trapped in mob violence that killed dozens of people.

    While in India, I developed this fetish for Ambassador cabs—they have these bubble tops. They were everywhere, and I really looked into trying to ship one home. I almost did until we started having bad luck with breakdowns. Unfortunately, they aren't the most reliable cars.

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