While I can be a very opinionated and passionate person, it has never occurred to me to take a chisel and hammer, both figuratively and literally to the problems I see in the world. And yet, the story that I am telling you today is about someone doing just this.
This story has been told in many different ways which I am assuming is because of translations changing the meaning of things, many different sources, and a delay in time between when this actually happened and when the story became widely known, so please forgive me if you have ever heard this story told in a different way. Also, I do always google the correct pronunciation of words and names I may be unfamiliar with, but please feel free to let me know if I haven’t quite hit the nail on the head on anything. Go easy on my awful Aussie accent…
In the north-east of India you will find the city of Gaya, home to about 470000 people. It was named after a demon, according to religious texts, who was transformed in to the harsh, rocky terrain that makes up this land upon their death, which even in modern times can be difficult to navigate.
This is a hot and humid place, which can reach up to 47 degrees, only making today’s story more amazing.
This area is made up of farmers and industrial workers, with agriculture and household industries being the main contributors to the economy. It is important to know that while India has fast become an economic superpower, it is also a country with a lingering traditional caste system which can see huge socio economic divides, which leaves many families and communities behind financially. While the caste system was outlawed in 1948, as you can imagine, it is a system so ingrained into culture, that in many areas and remote places it remains largely unchallenged.
So, looking back at Gaya now. Gaya is split up into a number of different areas, or zones, many of which tend to house specific Casts, religious, and socioeconomic groups. I am sure you don’t know where I’m going with this or how this could possibly be good news, however it is important to understand the context of the man I’m telling you about today, Dashrath Manji. Manji was born in January 1929 into a Musahar family, which is at the bottom of the caste system in India. As a young teenager he ran away from home and secured work in Dhanbad in the coal mines. He reportedly did this to win the respect of his wife-to-be’s father. According to many, he was outspoken in the field of social justice and was a practicing vegetarian for ethical reasons. After working as a labourer for many years he returned to his village of Gehlaur, to marry the object of his affection, Falguni Devi.
The village of Gehlaur is a small under-resourced village bordered by the harsh terrain I mentioned earlier, which prevents access by road to one of the zones of Gaya, Wazirganj. This is where you can find schools, healthcare, and other pretty necessary services. This makes for a peaceful life however as you can imagine it also poses its own challenges to the nearby people. Manji worked as a labourer on the other side of the ridge which bordered Gehlaur.
It is reported that in 1959 Manji’s wife fell from these ridges while she was on her way to deliver lunch to him at work. She was badly injured and due to the harsh terrain, she was unable to get medical attention quickly enough and she passed away. If this wasn’t bad enough it is also reported that at the time, Falguni I was pregnant with their child.
Already being someone who was aware of social issues, Manji was desperate to do something to allow the people in his community the ability to access medical care far more easily and quickly. Having been a labourer his entire working life he decided there should be a path to allow people through the ridge of rocks into Wazirgan. Apparently he said “ When I started hammering the hill people called me a lunatic but that only steeled my resolve. Most villagers taunted me at first; there were quite a few who then leant me support later by giving me food and helping me to buy new tools.”
He had decided that to be effective he needed a path 9 metres wide. Where he decided to put it meant it had to be almost 8 metres deep, and 110metres long as well. Working with his bare hands, a hammer, and a chisel in the humid heat of North East India, it took Manji 22 years to complete. Even though for many years at the start of his project people who knew what he was doing laughed and taunted Manji, the difference that this path has made to the people in the village is huge, and now very seriously recognised.
The path he cut out of the ridge decreased the distance to travel to Wazirganj from a 55 km trek, to just 15 km. And this is not the only time he has stood up for his people, after completing the path he also decided he needed to speak to then prime minister Indira Gandhi about the widespread corruption and lack of adequate living standards for people such as those within his community. Not having access to any form of transport due to his financial situation he had to walk all the way to Delhi, which by the way is not a short walk at all and probably would have taken him at least 8 days. Despite the fact that he was one of many people who literally held the stage Indira Gandhi was standing on during her Campaign Trail which had collapsed mid-speech, he was denied the chance to talk to her and mocked by her staff.
Following his death in 2007, he was given a state funeral, and the government constructed a proper road over where he had carved his path named in his honour.
Not only is he somewhat of a legend in his old village, but he has been Nationally recognised many times since his death, including being featured on an Indian post stamp in 2016.
He has also been honoured in many different ways in popular culture. Not only is there a documentary about him called “The Man Who Moved the mountain”, but he is also featured in many TV shows, and a popular Hindi movie, “Manji – The Mountain Man”. Having his story told in popular culture has also had a profound effect on the way many people view the caste system, and social inequalities in the country.
This man who had barely any education, finances, or support managed to use what skills he did have to change lives forever. Well of course his story is sad, but this is definitely an inspiring good news story. Despite the injustice Dashrath Manji faced, and his life’s tragedies, this is a story about how much love can inspire, and what you can achieve if you are stubborn enough in your beliefs. So, what’s your mountain and when are you going to start chiseling?
Thanks so much for being here with me for this episode of good news, good night.