Please be sure to check out the “Did you Know…” column at the end for more information on bolded words!
Lalanbai Kadam was born in Pimpalgaon, India 75 years ago. Of her nine siblings, five died before entering adulthood; the remaining four shared her family’s one-room house. As “Untouchables,” Lalanbai’s family was extremely poor (1) and forced to live on the outskirts of Pimpalgaon, as high-caste villagers do not traditionally permit Untouchables to reside in the same area of town.
Lalanbai describes her childhood as miserable. Her parents earned a difficult and meager living providing manual labor to higher-caste villagers. As early as she can remember, Lalanbai worked on a farm, never attending school. Although excluding Untouchables from school is illegal, Lalanbai was physically prohibited from entering the schoolhouse. On days that she did attend class, Lalanbai, along with the other Untouchable students, were forced to sit outside the school building, straining to hear the activities indoors. Consequently, she never learned to read or write.
Throughout Lalanbai’s childhood, she and her family were constantly abused and denied their rights (2), on account of their caste. They dared not enter the local temple, for fear of being beaten. They were forbidden to retrieve water from the local well (3), as they believed the water would become polluted if touched by an Untouchable. To fill their water receptacles, the family was forced to wait for a government employee who came to the village twice a day to draw well water for Untouchables. Food was difficult to obtain as well. Lalanbai’s family subsisted on carcasses from stray animals and stale bread given by their employers. During one particularly bad drought, Lalanbai recalls her family survived by eating grass seeds. She explains, “As a Dalit woman from Pimpalgaon, I thought of myself as a nobody. I had always been made to feel less than an animal. If by mistake I touched a high-caste person carrying food, he would feel polluted and throw the food to the dogs- not even to me. I had no self-respect because people addressed me with contempt. Everything was darkness.”
Life in Pimpalgaon also provided no type of modern healthcare. When ill, Lalanbai and her fellow villagers would visit a spiritual healer. The healer prescribed such remedies as making an offering to the gods to cure leprosy. Those who had tuberculosis were thought to have been put under a spell by an enemy, as “evidenced” by their coughing up blood. Consequently, many villagers died from preventable and curable diseases. Lalanbai notes that most women gave birth to 10-12 children, out of which 3-4 would survive until adulthood.
By age six, Lalanbai was married to a man over 25 years old, but as custom decrees, would remain at her mother’s house until she menstruated. By age 15, Lalanbai describes herself as a stout, full-figured girl. Her parents and community members assumed she had begun menstruating, although she had not. Despite Lalanbai’s repeated pleas to remain in her parents’ home, she was sent to live with her husband in Mumbai. Her brother accompanied her.
Lalanbai did not understand her role as a wife, so her husband had a female neighbor inform her: to cook, feed, serve, and bear children. Lalanbai also did not understand the concept of sex. Her husband wanted to consummate the marriage immediately but was having difficulty separating Lalanbai from her brother. He asked his neighbor for help once more. Soon after, the neighbor came to the newlyweds’ house and locked Lalanbai in a bedroom. Alone and confused, Lalanbai began yelling for someone to let her out. She turned around and was startled to find her husband sitting silently behind her. She knew something was happening but did not understand what. She became nervous and terrified. Lalanbai began digging her teeth into her lips and cheeks so hard that she remembers blood running from her mouth. Her husband began pulling her toward him. She resisted. She started screaming for someone to come, for someone to save her. Her calls were left unanswered.
Lalanbai describes the proceeding event as extremely painful. The encounter left her bleeding so seriously that she spent the next three days unconscious. As these “forced visitations” became commonplace, Lalanbai’s sister-in-law took her to the hospital to ascertain why she was not becoming pregnant. There, the doctor confirmed Lalanbai would most likely not menstruate for another two years.
Lalanbai’s husband was not only physically abusive but verbally as well. He became suspicious of her every action, from whom she was speaking with to where she was going. When Lalanbai could no longer take his harassment and beatings, she devised a plan to travel to Pune to escape. On the night she was to leave, the same neighbor uncovered Lalanbai’s intentions and locked her in a room until her husband arrived.
Lalanbai’s first child was a son named Laxman, who at age three acquired a serious case of measles and diarrhea. Practicing traditional treatment for those with measles, Lalanbai kept Laxman in a dark room, where he was not bathed or fed. As days passed, his little body became swollen. Laxman’s hair began to fall out in black tufts, his beautiful eyes shrunk, and he became blind. By the eighth day, he was dead.
The loss of a first-born son was enough reason for Lalanbai’s husband to kick her out of the house. As Lalanbai was still young, her parents forced her to remarry, this time to a sick, old cotton mill worker who already had a wife and children. He died from starvation soon after Lalanbai gave birth to their daughter, Pushpa.
Now a widow (4), Lalanbai returned to her parents’ home in Pimpalgaon, as women are traditionally prohibited from living alone. She gained employment with the village mayor, working sunrise to sunset (without break) on his compound. Lalanbai made cow dung cakes to be burned for fuel, cleaned the mayor’s cow sheds, and fetched water from a well one-third of a mile away. She swept the streets in front of his house and cleaned the outside of his compound, never permitted to enter the residence, due to her Untouchable status. For 10 years, this was Lalanbai’s life: working 12-hour days cleaning manure and performing jobs higher-caste villagers would refuse. In return for her service and loyalty, Lalanbai was paid with stale, leftover food tossed to her by the mayor’s wife. As the wife would not risk touching Lalanbai, she would stand on a front stoop and throw the food, to be caught in the folds of Lalanbai’s sari. The mayor and his wife also bought Lalanbai a $0.12 US sari once each year.
After 10 years, Lalanbai became a government employee, cutting stones to construct roads. She employed three different hammers to pound the thick rocks into smaller pieces, performing this hard labor for a salary of $.25 per week. The next year, her life changed forever.
In 1970, CRHP visited Pimpalgaon and requested one woman be elected to become a Village Health Worker (VHW) (5). The VHW would travel to Jamkhed to learn about basic healthcare delivery before returning to Pimpalgaon to practice. Lalanbai was selected. At that time, Pimpalgaon had 22 lepers, 19 tuberculosis patients, and many blind elders. Children frequently died, and it was common for a man’s mother to unknowingly provide inadequate nutrition to his pregnant wife. Lalanbai was worried. How could she, a social outcast, help her village? How would she treat upper-caste villagers, people of whom she was not allowed to touch who lived in houses in which she was not allowed to enter?
Dr. Mabelle Arole, a Johns Hopkins University graduate and founder of CRHP, trained Lalanbai. Lalabai fondly remembers that Dr. Arole was extremely patient, never scolded her, and stressed the importance of being kind to those who had only shown her cruelty. Through her training, Lalanbai learned to read and write, studied health, and was told for the first time in her life that she was a human being worthy of respect. Her confidence grew as she began to realize her potential and the impact she could have on her community.
As a VHW, Lalanbai was equipped with basic medicines and the knowledge of homemade remedies for common health problems such as dehydration. Although she possessed the necessary skills and medicines to cure the sick, her community remained unconvinced. Villagers would not allow her to enter their homes, would not take her medicine, and continued to treat her with an air of contempt.
One day, the mayor’s wife (her former employer) called. The mayor’s daughter had been in labor for two days and was in unbearable pain. Desperate for help, the family finally asked Lalanbai for assistance; yet, when Lalanbai arrived, the family refused her entrance, demanding she treat the daughter from outside the house. Lalanbai replied, “I am not a magician! I need to see the girl!” Faced with allowing Lalanbai to enter or sending her away and risking the death of their daughter, the family agreed to let her in. Before allowing her in, however, they had to prepare the home, clearing a wide enough path through the house to be sure Lalanbai would not touch anything as she made her way to their daughter. Immediately, Lalanbai uncovered that the girl had not eaten since she started the birthing process and instructed the girl’s mother to cook noodles and give her tea. After eating, the young woman had enough strength to push the baby out and completed a safe delivery.
The new mother, relieved from pain and now holding a healthy baby, told Lalanbai, “from now on, you are my mother. You came when called, fed me, helped me, and gave me a healthy child, while my own mother neglected to feed me.”
News quickly spread throughout Pimpalgaon that Lalanbai had helped the mayor’s daughter. Impressed with her work, villagers began to regard Lalanbai as a trusted source of medical knowledge. For the next few years, Lalanbai served as a successful VHW, referring patients for cataract surgery, assisting with deliveries, and curing illnesses. Yet, it did not take long before village superstitions brought her work to a halt.
One day, a young man in the village died of what was later discovered to be a stroke. The villagers of Pimpalgaon feared they had been cursed for allowing Lalanbai—an Untouchable—in their homes. The villagers, furious and scared, spoke out against the VHW, some even clamoring for her life. Lalanbai was terrified. Fearing attack, she immediately suspended her services and returned her medical kit to CRHP. Over time, tempers died down and the villagers began to miss Lalanbai’s services. They had no one to call for deliveries and were once again cut off from modern medicine. After a public apology for their cruel treatment of her, Lalanbai resumed her role as a VHW.
Throughout the following years, Lalanbai became a respected member of Pimpalgaon and was even encouraged to run for mayor. Her former boss, the incumbent, realized Lalanbai would win, so pleaded with Dr. Mabelle Arole to convince Lalanbai not to enter the race. When Lalanbai was told of the mayor’s plea, she laughed and said, “I already rule the hearts of the people of Pimpalgaon. Let him continue to be [the mayor]!”
For the next 35 years, Lalanbai saved the lives of those who had degraded hers. She gave advice about family planning and prenatal care, provided remedies for various illnesses, and safely delivered 767 newborns. These newborns have now become adults and, to this day, insist on calling her Dr. Lalanbai—an enormous sign of respect, especially to an Untouchable.
Lalanbai has come a long way from the illiterate, abused servant she once was. Although she has since stopped the physically demanding work of a practicing VHW, she resides on CRHP’s campus and provides health advice to families in the local slums and teaches classes for CRHP. One would never know she was a woman with such a difficult past. Lalanbai smiles often, is quick to laugh, and has a warm and friendly disposition. “I used to be shy and never talked much, but now I have found my courage,” she says.
Lalanbai has provided a lifetime of service and saved countless lives, yet wants nothing in return. She says, “As I have changed, I have changed the world around me, even this backward village of Pimpalgaon, and that is the best reward for me.”
DID YOU KNOW…?
1. Extremely Poor – One of the ways Untouchables are kept in extreme poverty is via their inability to access better employment opportunities. In some locations, the only professions deemed fit for Untouchables are those involving cleaning or manual labor, especially those involving manure, sewage, and dead body and carcass removal. Although employment discrimination by caste is illegal, it is commonly practiced in many villages. Please watch this wonderful documentary, “India Untouched,” to learn more about the plight of Untouchables, also known as Dalits.
2. Abused and Denied their Rights – Untouchables in many villages face discrimination in all aspects of life. They are commonly denied entrance to temples, schools, rivers, houses, wells, and other communal places of gathering. If allowed in schools, Untouchable students may be required to sit in the back of the classroom, perform cleaning services for higher-caste students, and/or be refused access to communal eating areas. This discrimination keeps many Untouchable students from attending schools and likely contributes to school dropout rates. CRHP has taught several Untouchables (now Village Health Workers) to read and write—skills they had not learned as children, as they were denied schooling.
3. Forbidden to Retrieve Water from the Well – The denial of Untouchables’ access to wells remains a problem in many villages. Untouchables are commonly thought to pollute (with impurity) those with whom they come into contact. For this reason, Untouchables are not permitted touch any village water source, for doing so is thought to pollute all those who drink from it. Untouchables must bring their water receptacles to a water source and wait for a higher-caste villager to agree to draw water to fill the Untouchables’ pots for them.
4. Widow – Widowhood can be a traumatizing experience for Indian women, aside from the emotional loss of their husband. In traditional villages, widows are treated with contempt and as second-class citizens. Upon the death of a husband, a new widow’s bangles are forcibly broken off of her and she is dressed in white, expected to forgo her traditional colorful saris for the rest of her life. As carefully depicted in the controversial movie Water, ancient tradition calls for widows to choose from among three options: marry the deceased husband’s younger brother, throw themselves on the funeral pyre, or lead a life of self-denial.
5. Village Health Workers (VHWs) are the cornerstones of CRHP services. These elected villagers, usually Untouchables or lower-caste women, arrive at CRHP to receive health care training. The courses that they take not only provide the necessary knowledge to improve village health, but also strive to improve self-esteem and comradery among the women. After VHWs finish their training with CRHP, they are able to return to their villages and not only improve health, but also earn the respect of their communities.
1. Donate to CRHP! (Please be sure to write “Unheard Voices” in the notes section, so your donation will be counted accordingly.)
2. See more photos of Lalanbai!
3. Write to Lalanbai! If you have comments or questions for Lalanbai about her experience, please email her at email@example.com or write to:
Comprehensive Rural Health Project
C/o Lalanbai Kadam
Jamkhed, Dist. Ahmednagar