AGRA, India - As far back as he can remember, people told Hari Kishan Pippal that he was unclean, with a filthiness that had tainted his family for centuries.
Teachers forced him to sit apart from other students. Employers sometimes didn't bother to pay him.
Pippal is a dalit, a member of the outcast community once known as untouchables [who often leave Hinduism to become Buddhists, which recognizes no castes]. Born at the bottom of Hinduism's complex social ladder, that meant he could not eat with people from higher castes or drink from their wells.
He was not supposed to aspire to a life beyond that of his father [according to the Vedas, a collection of sacred Indian Old Testament-style texts], an illiterate cobbler. Years later, he still won't repeat the slurs that people called him.
Now, though, people call him something else.
They call him rich.
Pippal owns a hospital, a shoe factory, a car dealership and a publishing company. He owns six cars. He lives in a maze of linked apartments in a quiet if dusty neighborhood of high walls and wrought-iron gates.
"In my heart I am dalit. But with good clothes, good food, good business, it is like I am high-caste," he said, a 60-year-old with a shock of white hair, a well-tailored vest and the girth of a Victorian gentleman. Now, he points out, he is richer than most brahmins, who sit at the top of the caste hierarchy: "I am more than brahmin!" More
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