In Koilihai, a village in the drought-prone region of Bundelkhand, lives a woman named Chamela, a Koli Dalit. Over time, Chamela grew weary of walking every day to a distant well and one day decided to fix a nearby pump that lay rusting for over three years.
Now, everyone in the adjoining villages knows of her as the only woman hand-pump mechanic in Manikpur. This is a far cry from the early days when they would say, “Chhoti jaati ki aurat kaise hand-pump banana jaanegi, ye toh gobar uthaane vaali hai.” (How will a woman from a lower caste know how to fix hand-pumps, she’s the one who picks up dung.)
Initially, Chamela’s husband too doubted her ability to lift a heavy hand-pump, but she waved his concerns away. She said that she carries a dozen bundles of chopped wood (up to 75 kg) regularly, so why not this?
Once, Chamela was called to Bhawari village to fix the hand-pump near the village pradhan’s (head) house. As a Koli Dalit, Chamela has to step carefully so as not to transgress the invisible circle drawn around the hand-pump allotted for the ‘Baaman’ (Brahmin) part of the village.
The pradhan soon realised she was Dalit. “The Baaman beckoned me frantically. He said, ‘Listen, listen, listen—don’t touch our hand-pump. You are a Koli Chamar (Dalit)’,” Chamela recounted.
The pump had been lying out of order for the past five years and human excreta had collected around it. “After I fixed it, the Baaman came to see. I told him, ‘The courtyard of my house is much cleaner than yours, mister’,” she recalled with satisfaction.